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Companies heed the online message

Companies heed the online message
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First Published: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 51 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 51 PM IST
Indian companies are increasingly using online social platforms to connect a dispersed workforce as well as to reach out to elusive customers in multiple markets. While information technology (IT) firms are in the lead, mainly to foster internal communications, consumer product makers are discovering the potential of social networking sites as brand promotion tools.
Fastrack—Titan Industries Ltd’s line of watches and eyewear targeted at youth—supports a host of fan communities on social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut. Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) promotes its Sunsilk range of haircare products through its interactive website www.sunsilkgangofgirls.com, hosted by Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra. “It is fast moving consumer goods companies such as HUL that have done substantial work with social media in India,” says Rajnish, India head of digital advertising solutions at Microsoft India Pvt. Ltd, who uses only one name.
The learnings from these websites —whether a company’s site or a social networking site—are many. “One of the biggest learnings that I have derived from these websites is that knowledge is no longer confined to information about things that happen in one’s immediate surroundings,” says Vikram Malhotra, general manager, marketing, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd. “So, presenting an idea, product or brand as new may not be relevant if consumers are already aware of the same or of better developments in markets across the world.” The other significant learning for his company has been regarding the speed at which information flows. “Brands need to be able to match that to be relevant in their consumers’ lives,” he adds.
See: Getting networked (Imaging by Malay Karmakar / Mint)
Human resource (HR) departments were the first to recognize the benefits of social media, whether for recruitment or for ensuring a more cohesive workforce. At the local social networking site Indyarocks.com, a search for computer programmers was conducted online. “I had posted a classified seeking a PHP (a computer scripting language) programmer on my profile on Indyarocks,” says Kalyan Manyam, founder, Indyarocks. “Within 10 days, I got almost 100 profiles of candidates.”
Online social platforms such as blogs, podcasts, social networking sites, widgets (a chunk of code which brings in “live” content—advertisements, links, images—from a third-party site without the website owner having to update) and RSS feeds (a format of sending out frequently updated content such as blog entries and news headlines to subscribers) are all now influencing the way firms work and communicate. Apart from standard tools such as blogs and wikis (which allow users to create, share and edit content on an Internet page), video-based tools are increasingly being seen as the most popular of all social media, says a global study on Internet usage by media buying agency LodeStar Universal.
“As we go out to explore new client opportunities, we are finding that at least 60% or more than half of the engagements will require inputs on the best way to use social media tools,” says Rowan Benecke, senior vice-president, sales and marketing, Text 100 Apac, a public relations consultancy that has a specialized division, Peer Media Network, which focuses on social media strategy.
Often, this online revolution is led by a company insider—a marketing or HR head who is a keen user of these tools himself and realizes the business potential of social media (see interviews on Pages C3 and C4).
“There is at least one evangelist in every company, in the age group of 25-35, who is perhaps a blogger himself, pushing this concept of social media and online marketing internally to his employers,” says Rajiv Dingra, founder, WATMedia Pvt. Ltd. Dingra is building a social media outreach programme for automobile firm Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd.
“Typically in India, travel companies, financial services firms and consumer product companies are driving the use of social media tools,” says Rajnish.
For instance, Titan seeks feedback through exclusive communities on social networking sites that are dedicated to Fastrack. Online interaction is used to tweak brand positioning and sometimes even pricing. A sneak peek—preview of products—is offered to select Fastrack fans on online communities ahead of the market launch. “And if a Fastrack fan asks us why a watch is priced at Rs1,400 when something similar can be picked up for Rs200 on the streets, we listen carefully,” says Simeran Bhasin, marketing head, Fastrack and new brands, Titan. Bhasin feels the reach of social media cannot be measured through cost per contact as it is qualitative feedback that cannot be quantified.
Sportswear and lifestyle brand Nike also leverages social media by hosting popular communities on Facebook and on localized websites such as QQ in China. “We recognize that we need to develop our message in ways that work in places, formats, and tools that our consumers use in each market,” says Sanjay Gangopadhyay, marketing director, Nike India Pvt. Ltd.
However, the company is yet to initiate anything similar on an Indian social networking site. The Nike Ballers Network on websites such as Facebook and QQ links peers in the world of basketball, with the brand remaining in the background.
“At Club Force, we realized that just a fan club is not enough. People want to share their perspective, not just listen to what a manufacturer has to say,” says Malhotra, who himself logs on to Club Force, the official online fan club of the Force India Formula One (F1) team, every day. Realizing that there is a growing trend among travellers to choose holiday spots and air travel based on travel blog postings, he says Kingfisher Airlines’ marketing people also “constantly try to keep our finger on the pulse of this market so our product offering suits what our guests want and are talking about”.
User base
Across the world, 394 million people in the age group of 16-54 watch video clips posted on the Internet and 346 million active Internet users read blogs, according to the LodeStar Universal report. The same report puts the number of active Internet users worldwide in the same age bracket at 425 million.
In India, there are 17.8 million such consumers, many of whom would have also used tools such as instant messaging and discussion forums and are now pushing for the use of digital collaboration technologies at the workplace. Around 15.1 million or 85% of such Indians read blogs online, while 15 million users watch video clips.
It is traffic of this sort that Australia-based ZaaBiz, a newly launched business networking site, hopes to capture when it goes live in India later this year. “While existing business networking sites focus on technology sector networks, we will provide a network that professionals across industry segments and small business owners can leverage,” says Michael Brecht, founder, ZaaBiz Pvt. Ltd. Brecht says a beta run of the website has shown that roughly half its 100,000 users are Indian professionals.
In April, the growing buzz around social media tools in India was leveraged by the UN to galvanize public opinion around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of ending global poverty by 2015. “We used communities on Facebook, Orkut, Hi5 and Fropper to gather voices among the youth,” says Vineet Joshi, communications coordinator, South Asia, United Nations Millennium Campaign, who expects the campaign will generate at least 40 million voices in support of MDGs.
“What were once thought to be Internet fads are now commanding the attention of people and businesses around the world,” says Aquil Busrai, executive director, HR, IBM India and South Asia.
Agrees Malhotra of Kingfisher Airlines: “There is a wealth of learnings and ideas floating around at these websites. And each website follows its own language and culture.” He says that marketing teams of companies need to listen to the ideas being thrown up on these sites as there is a virtual consumer space revolution going on at these sites. “The future of our brands is being discussed by our existing and future consumers on these websites. We will miss this at our own risk.”
It is technology firms, however, that are ahead of the curve in adopting social media tools. According to technology and market research firm Forrester Research, demand for Web 2.0 tools such as wikis is expected to grow strongly in 2008, with the IT sector among the first to embrace them. Web 2.0 tools are Internet tools that allow multiple users to share data using the Internet as a platform. “Wikis are proving to be one of the most popular, business-relevant Web 2.0 tools within Cisco,” says Varghese Thomas, head of corporate communications at Cisco Systems India Pvt. Ltd.
It is a trend mirrored at IBM, where wikis have emerged as a virtual replacement for conference calls, with more than 125,000 registered users now using IBM’s WikiCentral. “Wikis are now a virtual replacement for the conference call,” says Busrai. In addition, IBM BlogCentral hosts more than 1,400 active blogs, and many of these blogs initiate internal dialogues on emerging technologies and other topics that are relevant to IBM’s business.
Even mid-size technology firms are emerging as early adopters of social media. Every Friday, at Serena Software Inc., a global business software services provider, work takes a back seat for an hour or more as employees log on to Facebook. “We have offices in 24 countries, and using Facebook as a virtual intranet helps all 800 employees stay connected,” says Munindra Kumar Bharatee, managing director, India, Serena Software.
Virtual worlds such as Second Life, a 3D online world created by US-based Linden Lab, are also popular digital tools. “We have just won a contract from an auto components manufacturer in India to build a virtual plant on Second Life that is up to scale,” says Sundararaj Subbarayalu, partner, convergence and technologies, Anantara Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Chennai-based start-up that offers business consulting and IT services. “This will help the company make sales pitches and offer plant visits to customers across geographies.”
IBM India’s presence in the business centre in Second Life is aimed at bringing customers in India closer to the transnational company. “IBM’s live sales avatars based in India will now interact with customers in both Hindi and English on Second Life,” says Busrai.
Test marketing of new product launches is a popular tool in Second Life. Cisco, for instance, maintains a campus in Second Life and launched its new integrated services router there.
However, social media tools need to be positioned right to be useful. Industry watchers rate Google as an example of how a company has connected effectively with its users through social media tools, while pointing out that such examples are as yet hard to come by in the Indian context.
“Right now, social media is more of a fad in India,” says Dina Mehta, managing director of Mosoci India, an online initiatives consulting firm. “Marketers need to use social media to listen by building in tracking devices like RSS, Google Reader and keywords to understand what customers are saying,” says Mehta, who writes a popular blog, Conversations with Dina. Google Reader is an Internet-based tool that facilitates reading RSS feeds online or offline.
Agrees Rajesh Lalwani, founder, Blogworks, a strategic consultancy for social media outreach: “It is important for companies to identify a need first and then set up a social media programme. In India, the focus is too much on the tool and not the need.”
“Sunsilk Gang of Girls got a lot of buzz, but it was heavily advertised on television,” says Mehta, who believes the main advantage that social media offers is the creation of a dialogue between a firm and its stakeholders.
In contrast to the sometimes unfocused approach of large companies, start-ups use social media more effectively, as in the case of IxiGo.com, an online travel search engine launched in June 2007. “We use social widgets such as iGoogle gadgets and Mozilla tool bars that aid the user in travel searching,” says Aloke Bajpai, chief executive officer, IxiGo.com. Another travel related start-up, Ticketvala.com, promotes intercity bus travel through dedicated communities on social networking sites.
In the virtual as in the real world, customization is the way to reach out to colleagues and customers alike.
Priyanka Mehra contributed to this story.
EXPERT VIEWS:
Some of the insights are truly ‘next practices’
RAVI V KODUKULA
Assistant vice-president and head of learning and education, Aricent Technologies (Holdings) Ltd
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a week/day?
Photograph: Ramesh Pathania /Mint
I spend 8-10 hours a week on the Internet. I write a blog—ravivkodukula. blogspot.com. This is a recent effort. But I have been writing an internal (Aricent) blog, called Fursat Friday. I started by scribbling a few thoughts that had nothing to do with human resources (HR). It has caught the fancy of a few budding writers within the company. Now, everybody wants to write.
What social networking/media websites do you visit?
I am on LinkedIn and Trainers Forum (an email-based platform for trainers, educators and HR professionals). I spend around 5-6 hours a week on these.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
I have most definitely benefited from some of the practices shared by fellow professionals in the learning, education and organization development space. Some of the insights are truly “next practices” and the way they could unfold in certain organizations or contexts. It is quite energizing to discover that my context is very similar, and I am motivated to adopt and work with these thoughts.
For instance, a colleague of mine, who is working in one of the largest BPOs, had championed novel ways of marketing learning initiatives in her company. I obviously did not need to reinvent the wheel, as here was an effective medicine that I could prescribe in my company, too.
Have you ever identified a trend from visiting social media websites and included it in your company’s HR strategy?
I wouldn’t call this a trend but, almost always, there are innovative and different ways of doing the same thing.
Is it important for an HR head, and HR departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
Yes, it is. Today, I see most HR heads networked in a non-digital way through established HR bodies such as the National HRD (HR Development) Network and Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies) HR, but digitizing the networks is a new trend that is picking up. While it currently borders on ‘Hey, are you a part of this platform or that?’, very soon, it may come to ‘Hey, you are sinning if you aren’t’.
(Rajeshwari Sharma)
A tool to hire the right people
ANJANI KUMAR
Executive vice-president, human resources, Sony Entertainment Network (now known as Multi Screen Media Pvt Ltd)
Photograph: Ashesh Shah / Mint
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a week/day?
The talent acquisition team spends around 40% of its time each week online, exploring LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.
What social networking/social media websites do you visit?
We have a dedicated resource exploring social networking sites for acquiring talent. In a business scenario, where war for talent is a reality, this is one of our ways to combat the challenge of hiring right. Facebook, MySpace and specialized professional website LinkedIn are the most popular websites. Some well-known blogs are scanned to help identify subject-matter experts, and websites are explored to map the industry. The Common Friends feature on these websites comes in handy while carrying out employment verification and reference checks in a close-knit industry such as media.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
One of the most important career management skills you can develop is the ability to network—whether you do it in person or through the Internet. Unfortunately, for some, the thought of “working a room” or placing business cards into other people’s hands can be downright intimidating. These websites promote enough visibility for one and generally create an operating space for corporate netizens. In today’s world of rapid technological advancements, we want to equip ourselves with the best online data and process critical information from that; these websites help us do that.
Have you ever identified a trend from?visiting?social?media?sites?and included it in your HR strategy?
There is clear evidence that networking is gaining popularity. I recently read that sourcing professionals are more into social networking now than three years ago, perhaps because people know the vast majority of jobs aren’t advertised anywhere; instead, they are filled through word of mouth. These websites are particularly helpful in locating people who could be brilliant in their domain knowledge but keep away from the spotlight and would feel more comfortable operating through the Internet.
Is it important for an HR head, and HR departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
You cannot afford to ignore digital platforms if you want to be on top of information, which can come from different sources. These platforms enable us to improve the level of engagement with all employees, regardless of their location, and are fast emerging as tools for learning and sharing opinions.
(Rajeshwari Sharma)
A great way to connect informally
RAHUL SURADKAR
Senior manager, human resources, KPMG India
Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a week/day?
I spend around 3-4 hours a week on the Internet.
What social networking/social media websites do you visit?
I use Facebook and LinkedIn actively and visit other networking sites, including Orkut and MySpace, once in a while. On average, I spend around 2-3 hours a week on these websites.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
Networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn are a great way to connect. For instance, on Facebook we have a huge KPMG community where we can interact at an informal level outside work. Through searches on names, you can invite friends, friends of people, and invite them to join the network.
We have not used these websites for recruitment purposes, unlike many of our competitors, because we are soon going live with an i-recruitment model—an Oracle-based recruitment tool. It is going to be a KPMG job portal where candidates and job aspirants can look for jobs, post their résumés, etc. This will not only help us in recruiting but also further employment branding.
Have you ever identified a trend by visiting social media sites and included it in your HR strategy?
Not really. But, I think these websites, especially LinkedIn, are a great forum to bounce off ideas, elicit opinions and share views with a huge group of people. There are a lot of senior executives on LinkedIn whose expertise can be tapped. In addition, these websites are a good platform for passive job seekers to remain on the radar of prospective employers without worrying about privacy. Being on LinkedIn is safer than floating résumés on job portals. Also, HR managers could tap these websites for professionals looking to get back to India. KPMG, however, doesn’t need to use this, since we already have a global referral programme in place.
Is it important for an HR head, and HR departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
Absolutely. As I said before, one has to have an opinion on the happenings around. And, based on trial and error, you could find out what works for you and what does not. For instance, even though some of our competitors are using these websites to recruit, we have taken a different route to hire. But, to be able to take that call, one needs to see what these websites can and can’t do for us.
(Rajeshwari Sharma)
There’s so much activity, it is all real data for any marketer
SAJID SHAMIM
Executive director, marketing, Reebok India Co
Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a day/week?
I spend 13-14 hours a week on the Internet.
What social networking/social media sites do you visit?
I am a member of the Orkut, Facebook and LinkedIn communities, and spend a total of around 30 minutes on these sites a week.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
The reason I signed up with these websites is for the marketing insights they provide. People are really into social networking—my friends are constantly updating their profiles, sending photos and sharing information. I see so much of activity and engagement happening, and this is all real data for any marketer.
Have you ever identified a trend by visiting social media sites and then included it in your company’s digital marketing strategy?
It was after I became active on these websites that we strengthened the presence of Reebok on social media sites. We have allocated much of our online budget to social media. We are currently planning an engagement tool in this space—it is currently a work-in-progress, so I can’t share too much on it yet.
Is it important for marketing heads, and marketing departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
Absolutely. Social networking is growing at double the rate of digital advertising, and the number of hours consumers spend on these websites is exceptionally high. These websites give brands a captive consumer base, so it is necessary for marketing departments to know what is happening here to target their communication better. If marketing personnel are not active on digital platforms, they will be left out in the long run.
(Priyanka Mehra)
Social media sites are a great recommendation medium
ANUP JAIN
Marketing director, Indian subcontinent, Pizza Hut (a brand of Yum! Brands Inc)
Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a week/day?
I spend around 2 hours a day on the Internet.
What social networking/social media sites do you visit?
I have signed up with social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and spend about 20% of my Internet time on these sites—so, about 25 minutes a day.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
What I’ve learnt from being on these sites is the power of networking. I get invitations from people I don’t know but who are interested in my line of work. So, whether it is for a business development reason or pure networking, social media sites help in building a professional network.
Also, one of the major insights we have derived from these websites is that people like to share photos and videos, and we find that many of these photos/videos are taken in restaurants where people come to celebrate occasions such as birthdays or get-togethers. So, taking that insight forward, we tied up with Sony Ericsson and had an in-house activity where we took photographs of our customers, uploaded them on a website and ran a contest around it.
Have you ever identified a trend from visiting social media sites and included it in your company’s digital marketing strategy?
Apart from the above initiative, I have come to realize that social networking sites are a great recommendation medium where people share their positive and negative experiences of a product or service. Though we cannot influence people on what they have to say about Pizza Hut, we are getting very conscious about consumer feedback and have set up a feedback facility on our website to respond to consumers within 24 hours. We are also working on setting up such feedback facilities on social networking sites.
Is it important for marketing heads, and marketing departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
The digital space cannot be ignored. It is no longer possible to advertise on print and TV and hope the message gets across. We are an 86% SEC A (the highest socioeconomic class among urban Indian households) brand, and our consumers are on the Internet—so we have to be there, too. It is important for brands to be as conscious of the Internet as they are of other media.
(Priyanka Mehra)
We’ve created our own brand communities
RAMESH VISWANATHAN
Executive director, CavinKare Pvt Ltd
Photograph: Arjoon Manohar/Mint
How many hours do you spend on the Internet in a week/day?
I spend 3-4 hours on the Internet every week—links to articles, business reports, profit and loss statements, news, sports, websites of reference material, searches on specific issues, etc.
What social networking/social media websites do you visit?
The only one I personally use regularly is LinkedIn, though a lot of the people in the marketing team use Orkut, Facebook, Wayn (a social networking site focused on travellers), etc. The marketing team members also access the blog world frequently, especially for information regarding related categories.
Have you derived any insights from these websites?
No, I don’t recall any particular insight picked up from general websites on social networking. But we do pick up insights from our own brand communities which we have created in the virtual world. For two of our brands—Spinz and Meera—we have communities wherein consumers can voice their views, participate in contests and get information on relevant topics.
While www.spinz.in is a website for forming a community of young urban girls, giving them information on a variety of topics relevant to youth, www.mymeera.com is a community of Meera users (typically housewives in the age group of 30-40). Contestants can log on to the website to participate in any brand-related activity around these brands. The consumers also give and seek information on the products they are using. This information is very precious to us.
Have you ever identified a trend from visiting social media sites and included it in your company’s digital marketing strategy?
We were very surprised to see the level of Internet usage among older audiences (women in the 30-40 age group) for Meera, and that too from smaller towns. Online responses to our contests were highest among this audience, which gave us an insight on the usage of the Internet, even among women of a higher age profile.
There has also been feedback on the usage information on packs being insufficient, which we have addressed.
Is it important for marketing heads, and marketing departments in general, to be active on digital platforms to keep track of current trends in this space?
Yes, it is important to be active on the digital platform as a lot of people are using such platforms and spending a lot of time on it. This is particularly true in the case of urban youth as they cannot be reached so easily with mass marketing (television), and the digital world presents an opportunity to connect physically and emotionally with this group. However, it is easier said than done, as building the interaction platform is completely different from traditional mass media marketing and needs a very different mindset. Splashing advertising such as banners and pop-ups is possibly the least efficient way to connect.
(Priyanka Mehra)
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First Published: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 51 PM IST