India has a unique mobility driven social opportunity, which is not replicated anywhere in the world. With 1.25B people, an increasing number of English speakers, the number of mobile phones in the country now exceed the total population. However there are only about 200M Internet users and there’s a billion people out there waiting to be connected with the rest of the world.
Of the 200M people on the Internet, around 65% experience the power of the web for the first time on a mobile device. In US and UK, this figure tends to be only 20-25%. The reason is India’s poor broadband infrastructure and the gradually improving (or least expanding if not improving significantly in quality) telecom infrastructure. The number of smartphones and tablets in India will go up to 800M in the next 5 years as per various studies.
And this Internet adoption proliferation on mobile is almost entirely driven by Social. Every new Internet user in India is on Internet to join one of the myriad social networks. Facebook and WhatsApp rule the roost in India by a distance, with WhatsApp also being used by businesses for ordering, servicing, sharing pictures of samples and following up on the sales pipeline.
So where does that leave Indian brands? Obviously - with a huge opportunity. To engage their consumers, to understand them better, to talk to them, to crowdsource ideas and to assure them in real life that they are being heard. But is that happening?
Digital Marketing is a Channel. Or Not.
Brand managers in India have traditionally reached out to the consumers via an array of media agencies. The marketing organizational structures almost make it unavoidable to not have intermediaries from the media buying agencies. As the Internet adoption grew at a CAGR of 30%+ over the last 15 years, it was largely seen as another channel – brands had hoardings, TV, radio, newspapers and now they also had Internet.
Consequently, the discipline of digital marketing became a discipline of the channel (digital), rather than that of consumer behavior (marketing). The skills required to better use Digital grew in the agencies, not in the brand management departments.
The buying behavior is thus largely controlled by these media agencies. Placement of ads via Google or other exchanges, selection of properties, selection of the ad placements on a page vis-à-vis the approved budgets – almost all of it has a very heavy agency control and influence. This is counterproductive in this Indian world of exploding Social.
The Bane of Earned Media
Brand managers have long seen Internet, which extends to Social, as a channel. Channels were traditionally controlled – they were paid media. Even if they were not paid, they were at least owned – own website, a brand web page or an advertisement placed on a popular newspaper site. The approach was that of paid media – where things were tightly in control of the brand manager signing the cheque.
Now that Social is truly coming in its own, the focus is towards earned media. Brand managers now have to look at earning the consumer trust or credit via messaging they don’t control and yet preserve the brand positioning and attributes.
Since they are no longer in control of this earned media, a good starting point will be to understand Social better. This right now tends to be a gap in the marketing organizations.
Marketing Geeks as Social Users
On a Social platform, influence is not a function of pedigree or of organizational hierarchies or of business achievements or of academic success – basically social influence is not a function of everything that Indian business executives are used to ride on. Social influence is a new journey, a ground to be built afresh, a greenfield exercise. And several individuals who have completed that journey or are racing ahead, do not conform to the traditional bricks and mortars norms of influence. This can be disconcerting to the marketing geeks with budgets and the authority to sign cheques, but no personal understanding of the space, where they do not rule the roost by default.
How many brand managers are influencers in their own right? And this has to go beyond influencers for their brands or category or the firm – Social influence is not a restricted field of personal expertise. This is the pitfall one observes in the Indian market – people deciding on how to run a Facebook or a Twitter campaign really do not understand the platforms.
In several organizations, the management executives – not just the middle management but also the senior ones – get readymade social scripts to use on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Someone sitting in a back office is curating content so that the marketing executives can proudly push it on their social channels. These accounts then look like a collection of web links advertising a brand affiliation, but there’s no real soul behind the effort.
The marketing managers are no better off disseminating curated content than they would have been without a social account.
Skin In The Game
What are the possibilities and limits of aggregated social data without invading local privacy laws or considerations? What level of personal targeting is acceptable? Can you anticipate a problem with a brand before that happens? These questions are still mostly beyond the realm of Indian digital marketing efforts. The space today is about a few tweets by named influencers or an occasional Facebook campaign, peppered with a few Instagram pictures of the brand.
The marketing and brand teams need to have a skin in the game. They need to spend more time and effort on Social as individuals, rather than corporate executives. Yes, the agencies will exist, but the decision makers have to assume control of the Social platforms by being a part of it, not by sitting on the sidelines controlling purse strings.
It is quite conceivable that in the next 10 years, Social marketing spends in India will outweigh all other spending channels. Marketing decision makers need to understand the power of the concept rather than tinkering with the point in time platform specific efforts.