In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that ideas, products, behaviour and messages spread like viruses. They start from a few (called the innovators) and a point suddenly comes when they catch on and become mainstream. Most new product and idea introductions are waiting for that mysterious moment. In marketing, those who succeed are the ones who could stay the course and catch that moment — or the lucky ones, who happen to be there at that moment (the odd ones actually drive that change).
That’s where digital media is today. One has been hearing about its emergence for the last decade – the noise has grown louder in the last couple of years – but commitments in terms of budgets remain small. It’s often considered worthwhile to catch those younger audiences seemingly not reachable by traditional media, or as an add-on to the mainline campaign. Are marketers and advertising agencies missing a trick?
Consider the following facts floating around. There are an estimated 100 million internet users in the country, over 20 million of whom are online every day. There are an estimated 38 million users of social networks in the country, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. And an estimated 70 per cent of users watch online videos that include reality shows, movie trailers, advertising spots and viral videos. There are over 8,000 internet cafes in the country. There are 860 million mobile connections, and about 10 per cent of them are smartphones which can access the Net. These numbers, in themselves, seem large — but when superimposed on a population of over 1.2 billion and a mindset trained over two decades to think in terms of reach and large numbers, they seem rather niche. Not surprisingly, digital media is often seen as an add-on medium.
There are two things to consider. One, is the metric of evaluation right? And two, even in terms of reach, is digital media going to tip over and become larger sooner rather than later?
Let’s address the second point first. It’s amazing how quickly the complexion of the media market changes. Back in the eighties, India was a print-dominated market with just two TV channels, owned and dominated by Doordarshan. The opening up of the economy in the nineties saw TV boom — and the media mix suddenly became television-dominated. Interestingly, the print media’s creative practitioners were reduced to doing “sales off” and “promotion” ads until the emergence of luxury and premium brands in the new millennium. Move to the late nineties: mobiles were a luxury owned by a niche group of people. Today, they’re a staple product, and SMSing as a reaction to programmes the norm. Digital, if defined in the broader sense, encompassing the internet and mobiles, could suddenly transform the landscape of communication just the way television did in the nineties. The threshold could be just round the corner. The mobile screen and the computer screen could become the dominant points of interaction faster than you think.
Now, to the first point: do we have the right metric of evaluation? This is deeper, and it needs a different understanding to arrive at an appropriate answer. Mass media has operated on the “reach” concept, as that has been its strength — whether on a national basis, as general entertainment television has done; or on a city basis, as newspapers have done. This relegated the specialised media to niche positions. Getting the message across to as many consumers as possible has been the “cognitive” task of most marketers, and branding has thus comfortably leveraged the strength of mass media for two decades. When the internet emerged, mass media promoters successfully relegated it to being a one-to-one trackable communication medium and thus a sales-generation medium. However, the medium has greater power.
Consider the case of Roadies, one of the most successful youth programmes on MTV. It started as a reality show, about nine years ago. But in 2008, MTV decided to get onto social media in line with being where the consumer was. Today, it has 3.5 million fans on Facebook (against being watched by two million every week for an hour on TV). The number of fans is lower than other fanbases (which vary from seven million to 25 million), but the intensity of engagement is much higher. On Facebook, it has remained in the top 30 pages for the past 32 weeks (as of mid-February), reaching a high of number six in September 2011. The “Roadies Battleground’ (its fan page on Facebook) was started to retain consumer connect when the programme was off-air, but has become a property in its own right. Today, content is created for the online version separately from what is created to go on-air — MTV recognises the power and difference of the online medium. Interestingly, Roadies comes out with a TV episode every week, and a “webisode” every day!
This is instructive. Even with its low numbers, digital media and its contribution to branding need to be viewed differently. It’s about the power of brand engagement with consumers. It’s about the power of reaching the innovators and experimenters within a brand’s target group, and getting them to become brand ambassadors. It’s about the power of creating buzz and driving influence — using engagement and by reaching the innovators. And if we believe that digital-savvy people are more consumerist (with that mindset, whether affluent or not), it is about touching the right people for higher consumption. This actually means that brands and metrics of evaluation of branding activities need to be recalibrated. This should not be very difficult for Indian marketers to appreciate, if they were to step back and think about how the best television campaigns have worked in the past. While awareness, likeability, memorability and enjoyablity were important, the best campaigns created buzz and engagement that could be palpably felt. Digital media easily provides the numbers to do the same.
Television is becoming fragmented, and consumer attention increasingly difficult to retain. Engagement is going to be the next challenge for branding and brand messaging. In that context, as digital media builds scale, how prepared are marketers and advertising agencies? That’s something worth thinking about.
These views are personal