Whose Canvas is it anyway?

(as appeared in Brand Equity on March 1st, 2016)

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self” – Igor Stravinsky.

And as one of the most impactful creators ever, Stravinsky will know.

An area of relevance for this quote is the world of mobile advertising. The constraints of the platform have often challenged us to come up with creative solutions. There is a reason why many of us don’t remember great mobile ads, the way we do TV commercials or digital videos. How many water cooler conversations have we had about that brilliant banner? But unlike Stravinsky, we have not been able to free ourselves. Our efforts so far have been lacking in imagination.

Facebook has now attempted to solve this problem with ‘Canvas’ – a mobile ad format that is meant to empower marketers and unchain innovation. Is this the right solution though? A few things come to mind:
The story telling chasm:

In display advertising in general and mobile advertising in particular, this has rarely been crossed successfully. However with Canvas, marketers will probably have the best opportunity up until now to create a mobile experience that the user will remember. A great example of that is what brands like Wendy’s and ASUS have already been able to achieve on this.

However we need to remember that since Canvas is post-click, it is really a solution in the advertiser’s time and not the platform’s time. Shouldn’t brands be able to tell better stories to users before they engage with the ad (and in the process increase the probability of the same)?

The user side of the story:

All great mobile experiences have one starting point – putting the user at ease. With slow loading sites and the need to leave an app environment for a browser, the mobile ad experience on Facebook has remained choppy. By having the endpoints of these ads preloaded so they appear almost instantly when a user clicks on the ad link in the news feed, FB seems to have solved this problem. And by leveraging design elements that users are familiar with – like browsing photos, Canvas will probably be the most intuitive ad format on this platform yet.

However this comes at a cost to the brand – It will not be able to create a unified ad experience across platforms. The post click world will be so different on Facebook when compared to YouTube, for the same campaign. Why should a brand relinquish consistency? Also, is this Facebook’s problem to solve? Is it taking up a task that should ideally be done by an industry standard?

The status quo:

Canvas might not necessarily cost more for planners and more importantly, it can be created without much fuss on the self-serve tool. Brands can drag around images, videos and GIFs to ‘storify’ their message. In that sense, it seems like a win for all at the moment – Facebook wins because users are spending more time; marketers win because there is more engagement with the ad and most importantly, users win because advertising got a bit more interesting. But a closer scrutiny will reveal that Facebook probably wins much more than the others.

At the end of the day, Canvas mandates brands to relinquish more campaign control to Facebook. This is OK from a Facebook POV because it wants brands to think of their platform as a universe in itself. However, I am not sure brands are on the same page yet. What is in it for them? If you think about it, for years now brands have been spending monies endlessly in driving traffic to Facebook brand pages – a traffic that has largely remained within the confines of that platform.

How can Facebook change this perception? Data could be a starting point. Historically, Facebook has not been the most forthcoming when it comes to sharing data or insights (related to consumer behavior) with brand custodians. Could that change with Canvas? Could that be leverage for Facebook to get brands to travel with them further? Possibly. If not, we might probably fall short of a few brushes on this canvas.

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Ah well…

A few weeks back, I wrote this post about Indigo airlines. When I wrote it, I was not really expecting them to get back to me. May be it is because of what I have been seeing in this category on social media for many years – Indian airline brands are generally averse to sensitive conversations on this medium, perhaps for fear of making things bigger than what they already are. I was also not expecting them to get back to me because the damage was already done, in both instances.

So it was a pleasant surprise when a few days back, someone called me from their ‘in-house’ social media team and asked me for the name of the personnel, etc. I shared the details thanked them profusely for caring about my post. I promptly got a tweet from them asking for my contact details, which I shared. Even at this time, all I was expecting was just a mandatory closure of the loop or at best an apology of sorts. I had already moved on in any case.

But what happened next, did blow my mind! They sent me an email (below) on why they cannot refund my ticket. Wait. What??? I re-read the email again and it was true. They had indeed sent me an email on why they cannot refund my ticket!! Now I went and re-read my post. No, I have never asked for a refund anywhere. I have largely only talked about how impersonal and ‘PLASTIC’ their customer facing organization is becoming. And this email is…ah, well.

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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.

Facebook measurement.jpg

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!

The social Social

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here. Images used are not mine. Original copyrights apply)

When I typed this title out, MS Word promptly asked me if I felt like deleting the repeated word. I asked it to ignore instead, as I was referring to the world of social activism with the former and media with the latter. But may be, even the computer realizes that these two really are strange bedfellows. And if the events of the last couple of years have told us anything, it is indeed that these namesake phenomena do have a strange relationship.

There is a popular view point that internet in general and the advent of social networking in particular have definitely altered the way people come together in situations of social unrest, in a manner that makes it easier to build momentum for a cause. Clearly, the mainstream media loves this speel and is even a strong advocate of this. Every day we see TV news stories and magazine cover stories about how Facebook and Twitter have galvanized a protest here and an uprising there.

On the other side, there is also the cynical view that social media activism is at best arm chair activism, where all that is expected of the user is a click to like or Retweet or at their strenuous best, a blog post. As far as ‘social revolutions’ go, even for the much talked about Iranian uprising of ’09 or the more recent political turnarounds in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a lot of doubt and the speculation on the scale at which social media really helped these events.

Personally, I would hate to call any society’s revolution a ‘Twitter’ or a ‘Facebook’ effect, as I feel that completely belittles the movement, which at the end of the day can only belong to the people, whose hunger or suffering or injustice it really is about. So what is the difference that social networking makes? When NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel was asked how people in Tahrir Square communicated with each other as well as the rest of the World, he said “People were communicating mostly by cell phone.  That was the overwhelming source of communications and information distribution….When they thought that the cell phones weren’t safe, or that the cell phone messages weren’t safe, they would switch to Twitter.  Then, when they thought Twitter messages were compromised, they would switch to Facebook….And then, of course, when the government shut it down, people just started talking to each other.”

A social network in any developing or 3rd World nation will never be representative of the entire nation, as it is a function of internet penetration and access to computing / mobile devices, both of which are likely to be scarce in these regions. Even if it is an event happening in a developed country (like the more recent & more notorious London riots), the ratio of the number of people discussing it on social media to the number that is on the ground is going to be fairly miniscule. So it does not bring scale. It is unfair to expect it to.

So then, is it useful to mobilize finances? The US Red Cross has about 365,000 followers on Facebook. A recent study revealed that about 3% of its donations come from online. Social media is probably going to be a fraction of that. On the other hand, their $10 SMS campaign in the US for Haiti relief work, which was backed by the US State Department, brought in almost a Million Dollars in donation, in just a few days.

I have personally not come across a case where significant financial contribution has been mobilized for a cause, purely on social media. The problem is also infrastructure related to a certain extent. Most social networks do not have credit or payment capabilities at this point. FB credits is probably the most significant move in this direction, but it will be some time before this virtual currency can be leveraged in the real world. So for now, all we can do is amplify the message by sharing links to payment portals on FB and Twitter, something that has not found too many takers as it involves leaving the platform.

How about advocacy for the cause? Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent article on The New Yorker, had compared social media activism to the ‘Greensboro4’ and how the dynamics are completely different. Of course. For four colored students to walk into and sit-in inside a racist restaurant in the 1960s, or for a young man to step out into Tahrir square risking physical injury is an act of bravery. It requires your blood to boil, you mind to have absolute clarity and your heart to believe in something so much, that you would even expose yourself to harm, to achieve it. This cannot be achieved just on a computing device. But then, we knew that already, dint we?

The actual role that social networking plays in a mass social movement in my opinion is not any of these, but that of a mobile PR officer. That of a distress Flare. Imagine a February 1, 1960 with mobile devices and social networks:

  • I am one of the Greensboro 4, walking into the Woolworth restaurant to stage a civil rights sit-in. I walked in because I cared about the real world I live in.
  • I am likely to have a substantial number of colored people from Greensboro as my Facebook & Twitter contacts. I tweet about my sit-in and create an event. A few people RSVP and turn up for it. It is not large enough. But many do RT and share my update.
  • The local newspaper and TV channel (I know, but just continue to imagine, will ya?) reporter who is desperately looking for civil rights news, picks up the Twitter trend and does a small story on it.
  • Suddenly, hundreds in the neighbourhood know about the sit-in and they are all excited. Their blood boils and their heart believes. They step out and talk to each other. Many decide to join.
  • The TV reporter at the venue sees the growing mass and the coverage reaches prime time, nationally. The American civil rights movement gets dubbed as a Twitter revolution!

Nothing wrong with this, except that social media was just an enabler. And that by itself is no mean achievement. It is an enabler that revolutionaries of the past would have loved to have. One that revolutionaries of the future cannot live without. It is our flare! Just as these guys found out in Delhi!

The Science of Listening!

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here)

A colleague from the media industry mentioned the other day over lunch – ‘the difference between search and social is that search is now a science. Social isn’t yet’. I couldn’t possibly agree more. But this triggered a completely different question in my mind – How scientific can social really get? The answer to this is short. Very.

Fortunately or unfortunately, social media has become a bedrock for entrepreneurial activity in the past decade and the result is an amazing variety of tools and methods to measure and monitor ‘consumer generated media’. ‘Fortunate’, because this has brought about great innovation, more visibility and wonderful talent into the market. ‘Unfortunate’, because it has brought out half-baked products that are trying to set standards in an industry that thrives from destroying all standards. But the common thread to all of them is that they are scientific, quantitative methods to measure fluid, qualitative data.

Take listening tools for instance. There are tried & tested tools like Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which has literally been around almost as long as social media has been, in many parts of the World. Then there are other very robust tools like Radian6, Meltwater, SM2, etc. And then there are the ambitious ones. Almost all of them can tell you the exact number of times your brand has been mentioned or how the volumes trended on each day of a month. However, they will struggle when it comes to analyzing sentiment. Industry experts will probably put the accuracy levels of tools to measure sentiment automatically, at around 70-80%. However, I feel it could be even lower. And it does not surprise me, because things like ‘passion’ and ‘sarcasm’ are extremely difficult to interpret through an algorithm. Which is why most of them play it safe and use categories like ‘neutral’ and ‘mixed’, quite liberally.

Let us do this through an example. I searched for ‘Harry Potter review’ on Google, under ‘forums’ and landed at an interesting review of the film. One of the comments on the post was that “The reviewer himself is bitter about HP7”. Now, if a listening tool were to pick this up automatically, analyze it using Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques and slot it into a pigeon hole, that hole would likely be ‘Negative’. This is because the word ‘bitter’ has been used in close proximity with the brand and there are no other words in the sentence to justify any other sentiment. However in reality, the person who posted this message could have actually loved this film and may have been just showing displeasure at the reviewer himself. Quite possible.

Take the ‘social influence’ tracking tools like Klout or PeerIndex. Their methodologies seem to be reasonable and they do give you some clarity in this space, which is otherwise largely grey at this point. But the question is, as you go forward, will you be able to manipulate your Klout and PeerIndex scores? If you were to follow every other person you come across on Twitter (with the hope that some of them will automatically follow you back) or if you were to take a week off from work, cherry pick the most interesting links on the web and tweet them (with the hope that you will get a lot of retweets), will you be able to move your score up? Quite possible. A Quora post by the PeerIndex CEO recently said that “our ranks are ranks which follow a log distribution…. So it would be wrong to say that some with a score of 50 has double the impact of someone with a score of 25. The right way to use the data is to apply a threshold and some commonsense.”.

The point is that social media – related tools, by the nature of the beast, have to be in Beta permanently – just like your social media strategy itself. It is definitely not an option to ‘not use’ them, because your competition has moved on from relying purely on traditional, ‘asking’ techniques. At the same time, it will also not make sense to rely entirely on them. The sweet spot lies somewhere in between, where you are relying on them for larger trends, by setting thresholds and not taking them to be absolute measures. After all, Apple cannot be deciding KPI’s for its marketing team, based on how a tool interprets this video below!

The Mortality of social networks (or) Why I would never use my Dad’s aftershave brand!

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here)

See, I am not an Old Spice guy. Its not that I don’t like that brand or their commercials. As a matter of fact, I believe that the Carmina Burana jingle is the most iconic TV commercial ever and I have always been a big fan of their marketing history – right up to the latest ‘Old Spice Man’ campaign, that took social media by storm. It is just that I am unlikely to use that brand. And that is mostly because I grew up watching my dad use it and because of that, it never fit into the ‘ten cool brands I would use when I am old enough’ list, even though I love my dad to death. Blame it on the ‘non-conformist’ college kid that was me.

Some things just do not fit into a person’s imagery for ‘coolness’ or ‘things they would like to be seen using’ – be it aftershave, gadgets, cars or Social Networks. Which brings me to the question of Facebook. Even as back as 2006, when FB had just become available to users outside universities, social networking was still a big thing. Brands were investing heavily on the ‘MySpace’s of the World, users were posting every scrap of information about them on networks like Orkut and just like now, social media gurus opined about how they were in the middle of a big, fat media revolution. Check out this story from five years back, where the author talks about the top five success stories for Brands on Myspace. Nike Soccer is being appreciated for garnering all of 43000 ‘friends’. Everybody had it figured out – especially Mr. Rupert Murdoch, who thought it was worth the $550 Million bet.

What happened in the 3 years post that is not something that media moghuls or social gurus could forecast. The user just found another network that caught his / her fancy and moved on. And how! 500 Million people moved in about 4 years. Why? We don’t see that kind of exodus in any other category. A soap or a beer brand doesn’t lose half a billion customers in 4 years. But that is because they are real products. In comparison, a social network is merely a stage. One that needs to be cool enough for a person to stand on and express oneself to their Worlds.  But that ‘coolness’ comes with an expiry date. As any designer will tell you, ‘fashionable’ and ‘forever’ don’t belong in the same sentence. Orkut and MySpace did not do anything glaringly wrong. They just went out of fashion.

In a few years from now, it is quite likely that there will be children whose parents met on Facebook. When they grow up, those children are most likely to react to FB like I react to Old Spice. Where does that leave the brands that are investing millions into their FB strategy today? How soon will they have to change course? My guess is ‘not anytime soon’. Because while it is easier to displace 30 Million from a stage,500 Million will take some doing. But it is a possibility nevertheless and if one were to go by the reaction of users to Google plus, it might be sooner than we think.

And when the exodus does happen, the brands that will be hurt the most are the ones that just concentrated too much on the numbers. The 1 Million fans that you acquired at Rupees 15 a piece will not give a rat’s behind when they move to the new network. But the fans you Earned will want to find you in their new platform as well, because they had a swell time with you on Facebook. And for all you know, that new platform might turn out to have 2 Billion users eventually! This is why it is important for marketers to ensure that their campaigns are inherently ‘social’ and not just ‘facebook’ or ‘Twitter’; And that they have a distinct social media identity and a value proposition for their community; And that the fans feel that their passion for the brand has been kept flaming and that they dint just get fed FB updates and contests.

That way, their brands will remain untouched by the ‘fashion’ cycles. After all, like they say, the ROI of social media is that your brand will exist in 5 years!

Why do we call it social?

I often wonder what the etymology of the term ‘social media’ is. Ironically enough, I could not find the answer online (there is an unanswered thread in Quora and a Google search throws up some useless links). For a while, I thought it was called so because of the things it did not stand for (like capitalist or dictatorial media) rather than what it stood for. But then again, it is quite capitalist – you can broadcast paid content; and also dictatorial – content can be moderated. In the end, I realized that it is called so because it empowers everybody in the value chain, in a fair, democratic manner:

  • Facebook benefits because I am a member, but I log into Facebook unprompted, in my own time. I post only the content that I precisely want to.
  • The advertiser can promote a trend on Twitter, but cannot force it to become a viral
  • A brand can moderate discussions on its page, but not without running the risk of losing followers. Or worse, infuriating them! (as Nestle will tell you)

So how does a brand win? ‘Twitterverse’ and the ‘Blogosphere’ seem to be filled with ‘social media experts’ who prescribe a lot of Do’s and Dont’s on a daily basis. But how much of it is ‘expertise’ and how much mere ‘excitement’? I wanted to make some empirical findings based on what has worked and what has not. Below are some learnings from what seems to have worked:

1. Create campaigns for your social community and not the other way round

A typical meeting with a brand owner begins with them telling the ‘listening’ agency that ‘they are planning a large TVC and they want to create a Facebook fan page as an extension of it. I guess the motivation for this is to maximize the reach of the campaign for which, big $ have already been spent. While it is the logical thing to do, is it really utilizing the potential of the medium? What happens after the campaign ends? What is the net gain for the brand from this exercise?

On the other hand, the brands who have successfully embraced social media seem to be doing this the other way. Porsche recently celebrated its one millionth fan, not by putting out a press release, or through a status message, but by adding the name of every fan onto their brand new 911 GT3 R Hybrid, which will be displayed at the Porsche museum. And this was just a culmination of a series of initiatives focused around their social fan base that included creating a family tree app (where people post pictures of their Porsches) and a ‘spot a Porsche’ app on Foursquare during a Dallas football game. These FB fans are not going to leave the Porsche fan page for a long time!

Ben & Jerry went a step further. They wanted to promote their ‘Fair Trade’ initiatives for farmers and also leverage the creativity of their online fans. They killed both the birds with one stone – The ‘Do a World a Flavor’ campaign. Where fans come up with creative new flavors and the winner gets to make a trip to the Dominican Republic to see the sustainable fair trade farms and what is more, the flavor gets added as an official Ben & Jerry product. Needless to say, the campaign as well as the community is an ongoing success.

2. Connect their social and the real worlds:

Adobe I thought did this brilliantly. Clearly, the youth on FB need something to carry with them beyond the virtual world in to their real life, to get their mind space. Adobe used a combination of cutting edge and old school – (read an FB app and a discount coupon) to achieve this. The FB app which was also high on fun quotient, challenged users to identify real pictures from fake ‘photoshopped’ ones. The ones who got it right, stood to win upto 80% student discounts on their products. The campaign was a great success, with the game being played more than 14000 times in a month and more than 6% of users clicking on the ‘buy now’ button for their real world use.

This campaign has got so many things right – right from identifying the perfect engagement point (FB) for the target demographic (students) and creating something exclusive for the FB fan community, to generating actual sales leads.

Closer to home, TATA Tea did probably the most successful Indian social campaigns till date with ‘Jaago Re’. Another initiative that ticks all the check boxes – relevance in the physical world, an opportunity for continuous engagement with the community (not just a one time TVC) and strong brand association with socially relevant themes.

‘Jaago Re’ continues to innovate with new apps and initiatives (like posting pictures of people who are ‘too busy to care’). With elections and corruption unlikely to go out of ‘front page’ news in the near future, this campaign is definitely in the run for the long haul.

3. Followers and fans are first subscribers

Mostly, the following exchange of messages should say it all.

While social media is largely akin to any other ‘word of mouth’, there is one obvious difference. Every single thing you say is cast in stone. There is no such thing as ‘off the record’. Like I mentioned in the first paragraph, your fan / follower base is not by any means a fan or follower in the real sense of these words. They are merely subscribers to whatever you have to say and them also liking your brand is only a best case scenario.

Also, there is a reason why ‘earned media’ is called that way. It is analogous to a party that your brand is invited to and there is no way you can gate crash it. While you may be the administrator of your FB fan page, you are hierarchically above your fans. You are merely facilitating their conversations. So, it goes without saying that ‘you gotta be nice all the time or don’t be there at all’.

What Nestle did in the above example was to pour gasoline on an already raging fire about deforestation in Indonesia related to palm oil. Probably the worst example till date of handling activism on a FB homepage. A close second would be Intel, which deleted comments of activists from Oregon (May 2010 – petitioning Intel to support the conflict mineral trade act), before realizing their folly. The following comment by Intel’s Kelly Feller sums it all up:

“Today we at Intel were reminded about the power of Facebook—and the effect of seemingly small acts, by both passionate advocates and by well-meaning social media employees. We at Intel would first like to apologize for deleting some comments and temporarily shutting down our Facebook page for comments for a brief period of time this morning. I can tell you that our intent wasn’t to silence the valuable opinions of our Fans. In trying to remain sensitive to all our Fans, we often delete messages that are political in nature or could be perceived as spam (messages with the exact same language repeated, instead of ongoing conversation or dialogue). However we should have been more sensitive to the very important topic at hand. For that we are deeply sorry.”