Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Does Corporate India understand social media? – Part 2

(Image Courtesy: http://www.themarketingpill.com/how-to-spot-a-social-media-fake)

My last blog post talked about this headline by contrasting the fundamental nature of business with that of social media. It attempted to explain why corporate India seemed to have several “misunderstandings” while dealing with people on social media. At the time, it seemed fair to assume that corporates did not completely understand these differences (given the maturity of social media networks in India) and plunged into this medium simply because it was touted at the next big thing or the competition was on it. However, a recent report by Gartner, could suggest otherwise.

Titled “The Consequences of Fake Fans, ‘Likes’, and Reviews on Social Networks”, the report predicts that by 2014, upto 15 percent of all reviews on social media will be fake and paid for by corporates. This could mean one of two things. That corporates fully understand the challenges in harnessing social media to their advantage and want to take shortcuts to meet their goals by seeking paid/ fake reviews. Or, that corporates continue to be ignorant of how this platform works and are trying to foist business models that have worked while dealing with mainstream media. (Paid placement of articles (infomercials) in mainstream media publications is common practice and is used by companies to launch high-involvement products as well to communicate crisis management and brand revitalization activities. Paid news recently created a controversy when it was discovered that journalists/ managements adopted unethical practices to pass of infomercials as news).

Either way, this could be harmful for brands.

At the core of this issue is the need to “get more” - of followers, space, mind share, downloads, conversations and everything else that is possibly quantifiable. But what does 10 million ‘likes’ on a corporate Facebook page indicate? Do people like the way the page looks? Do they like one or all the services/ products the company provides? Do they like other fans of the company page? One can never say because we are impulsive in our like or dislike of many things. To make matters worse social networking platforms are engineered to thrive on breadth and not depth of content. This means, the more ‘likes’ you have the more active you are perceived to be.

I am a vegetarian but like watching Masterchef Australia, (where most dishes are non-vegetarian) because of the show’s presentation. I may therefore ‘like’ the social media pages created by Masterchef Australia. Can Masterchef Australia sell me anything from their show? Except for aprons, maybe not. Can they engage with me by sharing some recipes? Unlikely, because their vegetarian recipes are bland to my taste buds. What kind of a fan does that make me? A pretty useless one.

Companies that genuinely want to engage on social media don’t like to be saddled with fans paying them lip service. They would rather have fewer fans engaging deeply and willing to collaborate with them on various aspects of their product/ service. Indian corporates must understand this. India has the world’s largest population and getting numbers (of people) to like/ dislike something has never been an issue. Whether it is world peace, municipality woes or Rajnikanth, Indians always have an opinion on everything under the sun. The tougher job for corporates is to figure out whose opinion is transient and whose isn’t. If companies stop chasing numbers and embrace engagement, customer advocacy will oust paid / fake reviews.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Does corporate India understand social media?

Here comes another corporate gaffe on social media. Volkswagen India posted an offensive tweet in reply to one if its followers’ comments and then promptly took it off without any apology. The company recently put an Ad in a newspaper with a motorized vibrator in the back page that went off automatically if one opened the newspaper. The vibrations were meant to inspire people to head to the Volkswagen showroom to check out the new range of Polo and Vento cars. Instead it elicited ridicule and embarrassment on twitter.

Some women followers of the brand on social media gently admonished it for a failed attempt to create a catchy campaign, not to mention the underlying sexual innuendo. The brand retorted by tweeting “Women would be dumb to call it a vibrator. Or maybe they do not understand real driving experience,” and set off heavy criticism including being labeled sexist.

It was only last week that social media in India ignited over Samsung leaving two Indian bloggers stranded in Germany, after they refused to succumb to threats by Samsung forcing them to promote their products at an event. Subsequently the company issued a hasty response blaming “miscommunication” for the incident.

These incidents prompt one to ask if corporates understand social media. It is most likely that they do not. This is because the fundamental principles of business and social media differ.

1. Control – Business and all business communication thrives on control by the management. When negotiating with business partners or clients, businesses often ensure that the terms are favorable to them first and then to the third parties. A similar degree of control is exercised in dealing with traditional media (eg: presenting an official version of a situation) and this is now extended to social media. Corporates see social media as yet another channel to increase their publicity. They expect corporate announcements and positive reactions to these announcements to float around on social media, not noises of protest or admonishment. Unfortunately social media thrives on self regulation or mere guidelines of regulation. Criticism is doubly quicker than praise. Those who take to social media, view it as a channel free of biases, unlike traditional media where there is still some influence of one’s media house or political leanings. It is na├»ve for companies to seek only public endorsement for their products/ services on social media.

2. Profit – The objective of most businesses is to make profits and rightly so. Without profit, there is no future. Employees can be laid off, research divisions can be dissolved, collaboration can be sacrificed, customer feedback can be ignored, and budgets can be cut to achieve the end objective - profit. In contrast, social media has one objective – engagement. There are no boundaries to define engagement and no limit on the number of metrics to measure it. There is no “point taken, now shut up” kind of control to exercise, whether 10 tweets criticize a company or 10,000 tweets do. The greater the public participation, greater the engagement. In that sense social media can be equated to a virtual mob. To influence the mob, companies have to be a part of the mob and gain trust. Making the mob do your bidding is a long way off.

3. Code of conduct – Businesses define and follow (at least on paper) a code of conduct to govern their relationships with employees, business partners and third parties. Any communication as part of this code is largely impersonal, even though the motivations for such communication are likely personal. Apologies and values often take a back seat in most corporate communications that tend to get defensive. Social media, on the other hand, is all about the individual – as personal as that can be. People faking their personalities are not taken to kindly on social media. People connect only with those they feel are genuine (with likes and dislikes) and not corporate mouthpieces. If one makes a mistake, one is expected to apologise and only then allowed to move on – just like in kindergarten. Not being sincere in one’s apology or being tolerant of others’ views, will earn corporates social media detention.

As more corporates take to social media marketing, they must realize the trade-offs that come with the medium. Else social media will soon turn into an anti-corporate channel for people to voice their criticism.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Do bloggers need a representative body?

(Image Courtesy: http://seo.futurebloggersystems.com/wpcontent/uploads/2012/07/iStock_000012580925Small2.jpg)

A couple of independent Indian bloggers were recently left stranded at an event in Berlin, after they refused to succumb to threats by Samsung forcing them to promote their products. The two bloggers were picked through a contest and were offered a chance to preview the latest Samsung gadgets at an international event and write an unbiased review. In return, Samsung offered to fly them to the event and pay for their hotel charges – much like a junket for journalists.

However, things went horribly wrong and upon landing the bloggers were asked to promote the product (they had to originally review) by wearing Samsung uniforms and standing in the company’s booth. Upon their refusal Samsung threatened to leave them stranded in Berlin and cancelled their return tickets as well as hotel stay. Luckily for the bloggers, another mobile phone company offered to help. This episode has shocked the blogging fraternity and they have reacted strongly to it. (More details pertaining to the issue can be read at this link.)

While the media has pitted this as a personal issue between the two bloggers and the corporation, the real problem lies deeper. This situation, to a large extent, can be attributed to the lack of formal structure of operations as well as the absence of blogger associations who can set some ground rules for independent bloggers. Blogs are largely seen as one’s personal space and views on a blog are usually biased to reflect that individual’s perspective. This makes the content less than credible to provide a holistic perspective of any issue for public consumption.

This perhaps explains the media’s general reluctance to reach out to bloggers to get perspectives for any story or syndicate any columns. Few media organizations, such as NDTV Profit, routinely feature bloggers for select programmes and seek their views on developing stories. CNN-IBN’s Citizen Journalist initiative, although asks people to share their stories, does not feature them regularly in its news segments. HT Mint too publishes blogger opinions, albeit selectively.

However, with the rise of social media as a channel to influence customers and prospects, many corporations are looking to build their online image - with a little help from influential bloggers. Thanks to the absence of any blogger guidelines (self imposed or otherwise), corporations and PR agencies are willing to pay bloggers in return for positive coverage. This makes bloggers easy baits for plugs and poses a threat to their independence.

A formal blogger community or association can significantly alter the public perception of independent bloggers enhancing their role in society. Bloggers can have three distinct benefits from such an entity.

1. Professionalism: Independent bloggers believe they write credible content on the issues they are passionate about. Mainstream media does not seem to think so. The gap lies in the fact that there are no guidelines governing how and what bloggers are encouraged to write about. Newspapers on the other hand have a detailed policy pertaining to what constitutes news, how it should be covered and what kind of opportunities a journalist must not seek. Additionally, sponsored stories are clearly mentioned so. A story in the Mint, highlighted this aspect while covering the Samsung incident. It stated the special conditions under which a junket is permissible and what dos and don’ts reporters of the paper must follow.

Similar to those lines, blogger associations can evolve a policy that sets certain benchmarks amongst its members. For example, the US-based Independent Theatre Bloggers Association clearly outlines that bloggers write about theatre productions of their choice without taking money or being prodded by agents with vested interests. Only the association deals with PR agencies and the press. Member bloggers are requested to inform the association in case any PR agent or journalist contacts them directly. That way the association is able to ensure that bloggers comply with the general ethos of the association.

2. Awareness and Effectiveness: Most bloggers are prolific writers but few seek inputs from other bloggers who do not share their perspectives on a subject. By and large most blog posts focus on “consensus of complementary ideas” and not “disagreement”. Further, bloggers do little research on similar topics in the public domain to quote the relevant material in their posts. The Samsung case exposed the naivete of the two bloggers who travelled to Berlin, without the knowledge that they would be asked to promote the product, especially, when there was sufficient public information on the Samsung programme in countries like the UK. An article in the Guardian details this paid promotional initiative to get bloggers to creatively talk about the latest Samsung products/ services. Had the Indian bloggers read this prior to their participation and reached out to some of the bloggers in other geographies, they could have had realistic expectations from their trip.

A formal association can expose bloggers to varied opinions and encourage them to seek effective dialogue with fellow members. The Indian website Indiblogger does a commendable job of this by asking members to review each others’ blog posts and share recommendations for improvement. It also regularly promotes contests on the site by informing bloggers in detail about what they should and should not do. These contests are judged by both members and the corporate sponsoring the contest to ensure impartiality. Further, any complaints such as non-receipt of gifts upon winning a contest or other promises not kept by corporate are promptly addressed by the administrators.

3. Legitimacy: For blogging to be seen as a powerful alternative voice of the people, it needs recognition from mainstream media. This recognition would come only if the fraternity is committed to operating procedures. An association can go beyond helping create operating procedures to supporting members against any attacks from third parties. In the Samsung case, one is not clear about the stand taken by Unleash the Phone, the website which one of the bloggers represented. Although the company issued a public apology, one is unsure of the other consequences that the bloggers might face (for dishonoring their commitment) including asking for payment of the one-way trip or withdrawal of any other perks which they may have enjoyed. In this situation, the bloggers would have to fight their own case, with little legal support from the organizations they represented.

An association that can back its members would come in useful in this situation as it would not only provide support but also any resources the members can use such as lawyers and other experts.

With the government banning social media sites, it is only a matter of time before powerful corporations can wield the same kind of power on independent bloggers who do not tow their line. Until such time that blogger associations come up, bloggers will have to do with a poorly crafted apologies claiming “miscommunication”.