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The Twists And Turns of Social Media

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Think social media, and what comes to mind? Facebook? Twitter? LinkedIn? Google+? YouTube?

That’s old hat. Much of the buzz now is around the new breed of messaging apps — WhatsApp, Line, BBM, Hike, WeChat and Snapchat. Why do you think Facebook forked out $19 billion for WhatsApp? Or Twitter moved in fast to snap up Vine and Grip? Or Yahoo bought Blink, a rival to Snapchat’s self-deleting message service?

Social media used to be all about broadcasting views and posting photos and videos for friends. That is still important. But equally, social is becoming about one-on-one conversations. Nilay Arora, vice-president, Marketing & Business Development, 10c India, which markets China-based WeChat in India, says social media is a confusing term. “Any medium that connects people to people online is social media,” he says. Extend it a bit, and any platform where people can hang out, meet and share anything can be called a part of social media.

Today, even as marketers are slowly figuring out their strategies for the Big Four social media platforms, they need to contend with the dramatic rise in engagements taking place on messaging apps, or in a Q&A forum like Quora, or photo-and video-sharing networks such as Instagram and Vine.

The numbers tell the story. Twitter, launched in 2006, has 232 million active users, while WeChat, launched in 2011, has 396 million active monthly users. For the 259 million users that 10-year-old LinkedIn has, a newbie like Pinterest is said to be 21 per cent more popular, according to a Pew Research report quoted in OurSocialTimes. WhatsApp founder Jan Koum recently posted on the company’s blog that the multi-platform messenger had hit half-a-billion users, the biggest chunks coming from Brazil, India, Russia and other developing countries.
Social media takes up a fair share of online time

Facebook remains the big daddy of user engagements, but the others boast numbers that you cannot ignore either. Facebook commands 114 billion minutes of user time a month in the US alone. By comparison, Instagram gets  8 billion minutes, and Twitter about 5.3 billion minutes. It is the amount of time that people are spending on social platforms that makes them an irresistible lure for marketers. Advertisers are splurging billions of dollars on these platforms to reach out to their target clientele. In fact, marketing bucks are increasingly shifting away from old media like newspapers and television to social media. Digital is touching 21 per cent of global media spends, according to GroupM, with social accounting for a large chunk of the digital pie. “The biggest growth outside of TV in media consumption is in social through mobile,” says Melanie Varley, chief strategy officer of leading media agency, MEC.

To get an idea of how quickly ad spend is moving from old media to new, consider Facebook’s revenues for the first quarter of 2014. It reported a 72 per cent rise in revenues year on year to hit $2.5 billion for the quarter. While figures for the same quarter from News Corp, the behemoth of old-school media owned by Rupert Murdoch, were not available, the figures for the previous quarter reported by the company show that its revenues were falling — its quarterly revenues were down to $2.07 billion. News Corp is trying to get the social media bit right — it paid over $25 million to pick up Storyful, a social media news agency. But whether that will help it get back the ad dollars it is losing is a question that remains to be answered.

It is not just Facebook that is pulling in massive advertising revenues. Twitter recently signed a $230-million deal with advertising network Omnicom while French ad network Publicis Groupe signed a $100-million deal with Instagram, in addition to its multi-year $500-million pact with Facebook. Those are the kind of deals that the world’s biggest newspapers and television channels would give an arm and a leg for.

Brand placement and brand building on social media platforms is one part of the equation. Now marketers are waking up to the fact that consumers are also transacting directly from social media platforms. People can already buy stuff while logged on to Facebook. Amazon is now allowing consumers to place orders through tweets. Line, a popular messaging app, features deals from online coupon giant Groupon in India, and says most deals it offers on the app are snapped up in minutes. “It’s the era of next-gen commerce,” says  Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president, Nasscom, describing how social commerce has burst into the picture, disrupting e-tailing.

Social media has also disrupted the workplace. Businesses are now using social media actively, whether it is for brand-building, hiring, customer care, training or sales lead generation. They are also socialising internal communication through the use of chat apps. Email is dying as communication takes place through WhatsApp groups or through BBM. This has driven BlackBerry to expand its group size to 2,000, and offer integration with services such as Dropbox for easy exchange of documents and PowerPoints. Not only is it tapping the enterprise segment through its BBM channels, but, says Krisnadeep Baruah, senior director, Marketing, Asia-Pacific, BlackBerry is allowing brands to talk directly to consumers.

While marketers are clear that social media is where the bulk of dollars should go, the more important question is: which social media platform and in what proportion? Usage patterns are changing so rapidly that yesterday’s champion could be passé in a year or two. This is also why the Big Four are spending billions to buy promising new apps that attract traffic.

Hanging Out, Dating, Travelling, Hiring...

When they started out, today’s top players of social media were rudimentary and differentiated. Facebook was where you connected with friends. LinkedIn was where you made business contacts. You watched videos on YouTube — and, if you felt particularly brave, you posted them for the world to see. Twitter allowed you to broadcast your views in staccato bursts with its 140-character limit.

There is a lot more to social now. There is mobile chat to start with. Quora also allows you to crowdsource answers to your questions. Vine is the perfect video-sharing platform for creative six-second videos. Airbnb is all about travellers finding places to stay outside of a hotel. 

Many of these started out as niche curiosities, but gained popularity. Instagram boasts of more stickiness than Twitter, according to one research. And Pinterest is more likely than any other social platform to lead to a follow-through purchase in the US, according to ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce solutions provider.

Many chat apps like Viber are disrupting the game by offering video calls (like Skype). Nimbuzz has also come out with ‘Meet A Stranger’, a dating application. According to Vikas Saxena, CEO, Nimbuzz, India, two billion messages have been exchanged on this newly introduced feature in the last month alone.

Here’s what it boils down to: The Web was always a good meeting and mating ground. But the tools it provided in the early years were relatively crude. Bulletin boards, chat messengers, et al, can be considered the forerunners of many of today’s social media platforms. They were popular, but had limited functionality, the reason why they fell by the wayside. Moreover, they were not optimised for smartphones. A platform that you could always have on your mobile phone dramatically changed the amount of time you spent on it.
This year’s fastest climbing brand was Chinese firm Tencent, up 97 per cent to $54 billion, taking the 14th position overall, followed by Facebook (68 per cent, $36 billion, 21st spot). New brands in the Top 100 include Twitter at number 71, with a brand value of $14 billion.

Source: BrandZ™ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report, commissioned by WPP and conducted by Millward Brown Optimor
Mobile First
The primary social networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube — may have all been born on the desktop, but they had to make the transition to a world of users who spend time on their mobiles, using apps. The idea that the Web may actually be in its death throes is expressed quite frequently today.

As part of its mobile strategy, one of the things that Facebook has done is take the shopping route, buying Instagram (2012), a rather dramatic takeover of WhatsApp and then, inexplicably, a virtual reality headset maker, Oculus Rift. The plan is to make it a “platform for many other experiences” that will include immersive gaming, medical applications, and more.

At the same time, Facebook has also bought the fitness-tracking app, Moves. Facebook, in future, may transform into an overall ecosystem, or it may be an ‘unbundled’ collection of experiences. It posted healthy revenues from mobile ads; 59 per cent its total ad revenues for Q1 of 2014. Obviously, Facebook can no longer be criticised for not having a mobile strategy. But not everyone is happy with it constantly changing things around.

Facebook’s mobile strategy is working well for it, but things are getting challenging for advertisers. “Facebook understands that people want to talk to people — not brands. So it has made changes to its NewsFeed algorithm. You will now see yourself talking more to your friends than to Coke or Procter & Gamble,”says Rohan Chandrashekar, CEO, BuzzValve, a digital content marketing boutique. “Since companies suddenly have to push and pay to promote their messages to NewsFeed, they’re heading to Google+, which is growing rapidly,” he says.

According to Harshil Karia, co-founder of FoxyMoron, a digital marketing agency, the key challenge today for brands on Facebook is being relevant and cracking the content code. “While Facebook has publicly released statements that organic reach is going down (and it is), brands need to find ways to make their content more relatable, engaging and, ironically, less ‘branded’,” he says. There are a lot of brands from media and entertainment which have extremely high reach and engagement figures even without advertising. But going forward, says Karia, the challenge will be to figure out the use of the plethora of tools Facebook provides to ensure advertisers are reaching the right consumer at the right time. “Facebook is one medium where it is truly possible to have a different ad for every user, making it more meaningful. The challenge for brands will be to get that right,” adds Karia.

But it is the new apps, many with messaging DNA and specifically created for mobile usage, that pose a threat to the original social networks conceptualised for the desktop. The messaging apps started as a threat to the SMS facility offered by telecom service providers. But they rapidly gained in features to offer group chats, self-deleting features, multimedia-sharing options, enhanced privacy and other options. As users started spending more time on these apps, they caught the attention of the bigger players. Which is why Facebook picked up WhatsApp at that humungous price.

Accessing social media on mobiles is going to accelerate as new services like U2opia take off. U2opia allows mobile phone owners without access to the Internet to use social media platforms. In just a few months of operation, U2opia has reported 11 million users globally.

Unlike other big social networks, Twitter has always been mobile-ready. “We are a mobile-first service, right from the start, being SMS-based,” says Rishi Jaitly, director, India Market, Twitter. Just eight years old, the network has impacted news and communications around the world in a big way. Earthquakes, terrorist attacks, making and unmaking of governments, protests — they all break on Twitter first. In India, it has played a key role in the recent elections and in the BJP’s ride to power. The storm over the Twitter handle @PMOIndia underscored the kind of power the network wields.

And yet, Twitter is in trouble. In April, Twitter reported only 225 million active monthly users, disappointing Wall Street and causing its scrip to tumble even though quarterly revenues were better than expected, at $250 million, and ad revenues were up too. At the same time, user growth slowed to 25 per cent and engagement was reported to be down. A report by Twopcharts stated that 44 per cent of Twitter users never tweeted, and this caused concern about Twitter’s long-term prospects.

Dealing With Fragmentation
Hari Krishnan, COO, Cheil India, talks about the 1:9:90 rule of the Internet which states that only 1 per cent of Web users create content, 9 per cent share and 90 per cent lurk. Interestingly, when social media started, it was all about user-generated content. According to Krishnan, Facebook, YouTube and others have all become more of social broadcast channels. No longer are they dominated by user-generated content, but have been taken over by brands and companies and sponsored content.

This could partly explain the drift to newer platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram.  And here lies the irony. While inviting brands is imperative for the survival of social networks, doing so could end up alienating its users who joined them to keep in touch with friends.

Marketers, brands and social networks understand this well, which is why social media platforms are constantly experimenting with ways in which brands can be visible, without being intrusive.

So, WhatsApp is trying to take the subscription route and stay off ads altogether. The question is whether Facebook, which depends on ads, will allow it. By and large, one reason for the immense popularity of the chat app is that it offers functions that allow one to do things that could earlier only be done via email, or through one-on-one SMS, or sharing of multimedia. Today, chat apps are true user-generated content spaces. But this could change soon as brands have begun infiltrating this space as well.  For instance, BBM channels have over 50 brands. In the recent IPL, Mumbai Indians chose a BBM channel for engagement with fans. Line has already signed up 25 brands in India. Nimbuzz too has quite a few aboard.

Bonin Bough, VP, Global Media, Mondelez, says his company sees growth in text messaging platforms. “ WeChat, WhatsApp, Vine... all are growing. We understand the power of text-based platforms, especially in India, which responds better to text interactions,” he says.

Mindshare’s chief client officer, M.A. Parthasarathy, says most brands still bet heavily on Facebook and Twitter, but set aside a small budget for experimenting with emerging platforms. Social has become really fragmented, he adds. An added complication is that different age groups use social media differently. The youth and the older generation are on different networks. Brands have to target both.

The big media agencies are aware of these shifts, and are dealing with them. “The challenge for us is to be on top of these new platforms as they emerge. The way we do it is, we look at the value each of these networks provide. Sometimes they provide scale, sometimes they provide relevant audiences, sometimes they just provide a platform for us to innovate,” says Norm Johnston, chief digital officer, Mindshare.

Cheil’s Krishnan says that brands will go with both older networks as well as new ones. “Chat apps are for smaller groups. Facebook is good for large broadcasts. Both will co-exist,” he says.

Coping With A Multiscreen World
For social networks, the other disruption to contend with is multiscreen behaviour. In India, there is a symbiotic relationship between TV and smartphones. And that’s what Twitter has used to gain popularity. “The intersection of social or mobile media and traditional media has led to a healthy co-existence of the two, and Twitter has been leading the charge in the context of television,” says Jaitly, adding, “I think it’s safe to say now that Twitter is the second screen for TV in India.” He describes how entertainment, sports and news channels are now investing in reaching an audience over the network to participate in the broadcast or on live shows in real time. Whether it’s IPL, Arnab Goswami’s Newshour or a movie, you will find a section of people watching with their Twitter accounts ready.

While Twitter tries to capture audience time through its multi-screen strategy, Google+ is betting on an integrated identity. There are two things that are said of Google+, both with equal conviction. The first is that it’s an absolute ghost town. The second is it’s where like-minded people are in communities that share interests with a passion. So one lot of people swear off it and the other on it, but Google has been giving users little choice but to be part of Google+ because of its integration with what we use on an everyday basis. Well, almost no choice, because while you may have a Google+ sign-in and may be doing the occasional +1ing of something you want to give a thumbs-up to, nothing forces you to get into deeper engagement and sharing unless you want to.

It’s only three years old — young compared to others —and hasn’t had as much time to transform itself. But users are not quite sure what’s happening with it. And now with its founder Vic Gundotra having exited Google, many are seeing the future of Google+ to be a bit of a minus. Some feel that while components like Photos will remain, the brand will disappear along with the social networking layer. Others think the aggressive push towards integration will simmer down, but everything else will continue to grow as it is.

Google emphatically denies that there’s any uncertainty about Google+’s future. “Vic Gundotra’s departure has no impact on Google+’s strategy,” says Sandeep Menon, director, Marketing, Google India. “We have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great experiences across Google+, Photos and Hangouts,” he adds. At Google, they also see Google+ as more than a social network. “Google+ is much more than the experience or individual features. It also allows users to easily connect to and get value from the services they already love,” says Menon, adding, “Users shouldn’t have to waste time with account administration. We should be able to give users what they want, when they need it.”  Google+ is very important to Google as the binding force that keeps each service connected for users.

Google is still criticised for not being social at its core. But TWIT (This Week In Tech) podcaster Mike Elgin is a prolific Google+ user and describes it as a “torrent of content and communication”. His own circle count, he claims, grows by more than 2,500 people a day.

“It’s a technological playground,” says Karia. With Hangouts, Circles, and features like Ripples where you can track key influencers of a message, it’s heaven for a technically inclined company. It’s where social meets search as content mentioned in social finds its way to search. So if I’m following a page on Google+, I’m more likely to see content related to what I’ve said on its page in search, if relevant. No other social media platform does it as well,” he says. “Where the challenge lies is in the lack of sophisticated analytics and user data,” explains Karia. “Pages don’t have analytics dashboards and advertisers don’t have in-depth user data. While there are 33 million users on Google+, it’s not the preferred community choice for a large majority of those consumers.”

Changes are coming to LinkedIn, too. Watch out for anyone prettying up their profile on LinkedIn. It’s possibly because the user is ready for a change. Anyone in the market looking for a job heads to LinkedIn. Although this is the network’s strength, it is also its weakness as it is perceived to have members who don’t stay active when not seeking a job.

A transition is in store for LinkedIn as it takes measures around content, and close to half of its 300 million users start accessing it from smartphones and tablets. This is why LinkedIn has started urging users to create content with personalised insights, professional expertise and industry relevance.

LinkedIn, however, needs greater growth in revenue after its IPO. The strategy, going forward, is mobile and content that makes sense to professionals.

LinkedIn earlier acquired Pulse, a news aggregation app, and SlideShare, the home of presentations. It has recently partnered with Evernote to capture and save business cards on the cloud.

Nishant Rao, country manager, LinkedIn India, says expectations today are different. Relevance, context and quality over quantity is what holds the customer. “In the transition from the traditional model to social, you can see the acceleration of relevance. This reflects in the shifts for LinkedIn as well, where we have gone from a static profile to a rich profile that reflects personal identity. This is going to make the adoption for the next generation of users that much faster,” he says.

Chandrashekhar of BuzzValve is delighted with the turn LinkedIn has taken as a content publishing platform. “LinkedIn is very popular with B2B marketers,” he says. “If you were to look at the hierarchy of networks in terms of popularity with B2Bs, it would typically be LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and SlideShare,” he adds.

Gazing Into The future
Social networks are aware that users will not remain in one static activity for long. That’s why Facebook and Google are trying to ensure that new users in developing countries join them even if they have to provide the Internet access. All social networks are also getting wearable devices ready. So are brands. Be it hotel major Starwood or food brand Kraft or sports company Nike, everyone has a wearable app.

Gaze into the future, and you could see yourself walking into a party, wearing your latest tweet. You get into a conversation with someone and end up showing off the fantastic shots you took on your trip to the Serengeti. Not on your phone, but on your T-shirt, running TshirtOS, taking commands from your phone. This shareable wearable is a Ballantine prototype that could well become social media fashion soon. Wearables are just one of the many trends that will shape social media as people begin to expect to get their dose of social networks on devices that have a quicker access than smartphones.

But it’s all in the future. As Nimbuzz’ Saxena says, “We are still in a land-grab phase. Let space on earth get exhausted, then we will invade Mars. As far as we are concerned, mobiles are the biggest wearables, so let’s stay with that now.”

[email protected]; [email protected]
@ndcnn; @malabhargava

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-06-2014)