The rapidly shrinking ball park

(as appeared first in The India Digital Playbook)

The history of measurement by the human race dates back to the 4th and 3rd millennia during the Indus Valley civilization, where the first tools of measurements like the ‘yard stick’ were used. Interestingly, most of these tools were calibrated in line with some body part – forearm, hand, fingers, etc. Time was measured by the movements of the sun, stars and other heavenly bodies. In other words, the most visible or accessible things became units of measurement. It was just easier that way. In due course of course, measurements became more complex and its applications more critical.

Similarly during 2010-11, when Indian brands went through a watershed moment in social media adoption, the metrics that marketers chased were the most visible and accessible – the number of likes, mentions, followers, etc. A million suddenly moved from being a number to actually a unit of measurement – a Million this and million that. If you did not have an ‘M’ on the “number of likes” field on your brand’s Facebook page, you were doing something wrong. Something Terribly wrong.

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The following years were more fruitful. As marketers, we understood that this was a medium that worked both ways – people were talking back and within these conversations lay the key to rewrite a brand’s future. You only needed to listen carefully, for the right marketing decisions to reveal themselves. And listen we did – ‘buzz volume’ and ‘sentiment analysis’ became terms that we used in everyday conversations in cubicles and board rooms.

This held us in good stead for a while. However, we are at the crossroads again and we have been forced to re-look at our scales. We might need to discard a few of them soon and acquire newer ones, if we want to move to the next level – a sentence that can also be worded as ‘if we want to survive the next few years’, in this industry. But before we go into that, what has changed? How did we get here so soon? Two reasons.

  1. Zuckerberg was right. The World has indeed become a more networked place. The average online user today is connected to more people and more brands than he was a few years back, last month, even yesterday!
  2. Online behavior and social media consumption behavior in particular has evolved:
    1. Web destinations have become strongly networked and accessible from social destinations.
    2. Content distribution channels have consolidated and the most efficient ones are today the most popular social platforms like Facebook and Twitter
    3. The user’s readiness to share something has increased and this in turn has dramatically increased the speed of content transmission. It is now a multi point injection.

In other words, content and information flow has moved from a complex map of rivers to a few, very steady streams with multiple feeders. and these streams are moving rapidly. So, your brand’s content, flowing across this stream, now has to fight more number of other pieces of content, so it can reach the intended user. The fact that networks like Facebook have altered algorithms to keep the stream more useful for the user, has further added to the challenge. But at the same time, in the positive side, the increased speed of the stream and the multi-point injection has also made good content more potent.

Whichever way we look at it, the stream has become key and the need to understand it, critical. The good news is that the stream can be monitored and is measurable – at least most of it. So we are ushering in an era where brands need to operate like a newsroom – conversations monitored, trends analyzed, content created on the fly and decisions made at the moment – Welcome to the ‘Now’ network. And in this network, measurement will evolve:

  • Buzz volume & sentiment will give way to consumer insight & brand health
  • Crisis management will morph into crisis avoidance
  • Search & social metrics will no more be silos but talk to each other
  • Brands will move from catching up with trends to trend-spotting and owning it.
  • Influencers will no longer be scouted to amplify campaigns. They will become campaigns.

And all this will lead to a rapid shrinking of the margin for error. Being “in the ball park” wont be enough. You will have to land it on the damn pitch!

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