Flipkart, by Flipkart, on Flipkart8 min read . Updated: 17 Feb 2016, 08:25 AM IST
Flipkart wants to tell its own stories. On Flipkart
Flipkart wants to tell its own stories. On Flipkart
Mumbai: Not a single media outlet—digital, print or television—broke the story. Perhaps the biggest story in the start-up ecosystem in India.
On 11 January, the country’s largest e-commerce platform, Flipkart.com, named co-founder Binny Bansal as its new chief executive officer (CEO), replacing Sachin Bansal. The news was broken on Twitter, the micro-blogging platform. At 11.58am by a handle called @FlipkartStories. The tweet, which went out to 11,200 followers read:
At stories.flipkart.com, the restructuring news didn’t read or feel like a press release. It had a nice, large picture right at the top of the page, Sachin and Binny, smiling, facing the camera, seated at a desk. The story had space for tweets to be embedded. Followed by another picture, of Sachin and Binny, standing in front of Flipkart’s first office in Koramangala (Read: nostalgia). Plus a comment section, for engagement. If a reader felt like it, he could share the story, across popular social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and even WhatsApp. And 1,292 people did.
Sachin Bansal retweeted @FlipkartStories’s tweet, a few minutes later. At 12.09pm. To his 55,222 followers. And just like that, the biggest story in the start-up ecosystem in India was broken.
By Flipkart. On Flipkart.
There was no press conference. No fielding questions from pesky journalists. Nothing of the sort. Sure, a press release was issued, but only after a while; and it was identical to the story already put out on stories.flipkart.com. Journalists followed up on the news. Bloomberg put out an alert at 13:36:43. It read: “Flipkart names Binny Bansal as CEO, Co. says on website."
It will be fair to say that on 11 January, at Flipkart, a milestone was achieved. And in the world of corporate communications, it can only be called a public relations coup.
Perfecting the art of communication
Senjam Raj Sekhar, head of corporate communications at Flipkart, doesn’t do much to hide his ambition. Of what he is trying to do with Flipkart Stories. After all, Stories, as the initiative is popularly known, is Sekhar’s baby.
“We will tell our own stories," he said, when this reporter met him in Bangalore in December 2015. “This will be the platform to tell our side of the story. The story of the people who sell on Flipkart, customers, employees, everyone. Everything we have to communicate will be done through this platform. There will be journalistic rigour to it. This is why we have a team of journalists writing the stories. They are free to travel wherever they have to and tell good stories."
It is quite likely that you’ve never heard of Sekhar before. In his last assignment, Sekhar was the global head of communications at the Anil Agarwal-led Vedanta group. In 2011, he was named among the 100 most influential communicators in the world by Holmes Report, a leading source of news for the public relations industry. Before Vedanta, Sekhar was the global head of communications at Bharti Airtel Ltd. Before Airtel, he spent several years in public relations, on the agency side, including two years as managing partner at Genesis Burson-Marsteller.
Quite clearly, he is a man who knows what he is doing. And at Flipkart, he is creating an organization which can control the narrative.
Bijoy Venugopal is the editor at Stories. In his last assignment, Venugopal was the travel editor at Yahoo India in Bengaluru. He’s also contributed articles to several publications, such as Outlook Traveller, Open, Mint Lounge and Tehelka, among others. Till about January, Stories had a small team: Vishad Sharma (a journalist, who quit last month); Arjun Paul, the graphic designer; Pushpendu Kumar, the project manager; Madhu Karuthedath, the assistant manager in the corporate communications team, who also doubles up to write/edit stories.
And then of course, what does and does not see the light of day is decided by Sekhar. He is the behind the scenes editor-in-chief.
So, what will Stories do?
Remember the hard-hitting Forbes India magazine article—Can Flipkart Deliver?—published in July 2012? Well, if that story were to be published today, Flipkart will not write a letter to the editor and blow hot and cold on social media. It would just publish its response on Stories. It would communicate directly with its stakeholders and readers—people interested in Flipkart and its business. Sekhar calls it direct communication.
In a way, his logic appears to be, why bother with journalists? First they ask questions. Then they hang around and ask more questions—some related, others not related. Then they reach out for perspective to the competition. Then they find neutral parties or experts who can comment on the story. And they write the story, from their point of view. So seriously, why bother with journalists? After all, effective communication is all about getting the message across. Why invest time in communication that will go through so many steps? Plus, without any control on the outcome.
So, with Flipkart Stories—direct communication.
Of course, there are a few examples of how Flipkart has gone about this. Let’s pick two to understand this better.
On 16 December 2015, a story appeared on Stories. Headline: FlipTrends: How Digital India shops on Flipkart. (bit.ly/1Tl43mt)
Using proprietary data, Flipkart put out the word on who’s buying what on Flipkart—a one-of-a-kind study across 50 million Indian shoppers’ buying preferences between 1 January and 14 December 2015. Needless to say, in a few hours, this piece was picked up by various media—some added to the story, some didn’t. Plenty of questions remain on the trends:
—There’s no other number in that story, other than 50 million shoppers
—Flipkart claimed it is responsible for 1 in 5 phones sold in India. Okay. How do the numbers stack up?
—How was the trend in 2014? The years before it. What’s changed?
—How does Flipkart know the buyer is male or female? Are men buying more women’s clothing? Or is it the women themselves?
—How does FlipTrends compare with other e-commerce portals?
“This was like plugging a gap," says a former Flipkart executive, who requested not to be named because he doesn’t want to get into any trouble with the company. “You are in control of the narrative. This gives you greater traction with the investors. And then, that narrative becomes the dominant narrative. It is like an on-record thing, so you start with that point of view. So it becomes difficult to question it and more so about, who is going to question it?"
“For example, let’s take a story on Flipkart’s delivery boys or ‘wish masters’, as they are called. That story is already out. But the language had to be altered significantly. Because the journalist would like to capture their daily job and their gripe with the organization. Good and bad, you know. But the language had to be altered significantly, to ensure that the delivery boys don’t come across as being over-worked."
Right. Now, let’s quickly get to the other story. This one is more recent. On 10 February, Mukesh Bansal and Ankit Nagori quit Flipkart. The same day, on Flipkart Stories, Bijoy Venugopal put out a story (bit.ly/247c97r) Headline: Ankit Nagori, startup superhero, flies on a new mission. It had everything, Nagori’s achievements and the role he played at Flipkart since 2010, picture with the founders and quote from the founders. And just to quote from the piece: “Employee number 1033 might no longer swipe in at a Flipkart access card reader in the months ahead, but Ankit Nagori has left his imprint on Flipkart’s DNA. And that will stay for a long time to come."
No of shares: 2,118. Comments: 15.
Needless to say, compelling story. Not quite, says the former Flipkart official. “Glorified PR exercise. But is well thought out. We have to get this narrative out there..."
The unstated part? ... before someone else gets a different narrative out.
Owning the narrative
According to Raju Narisetti, senior vice-president, strategy, at News Corp.: “What this is in my mind is a good and not too noticed India illustration of a much wider global trend—brands increasingly want to be storytellers because modern consumers can be reached outside of the traditional gatekeepers (big media). It is one of the several ways native advertising or branded content is playing out and, if you step back, an ongoing evolution of how companies and brands communicate and want to own the narrative."
There are lots of adjacent, similar and growing examples. “Ranging from the use of Medium (Bezos and Amazon response to the New York Times story on workplace culture)," Narisetti, the founding editor of Mint, said in an e-mail. “PepsiCo famously ending all press releases to tell its own news/stories on its website; GE’s (General Electric) remarkable experiments in innovation storytelling and #sixsecondscience Vine videos on and off its own platforms; @Jack’s (Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter) use of Twitter; Koby Bryant announcing his own retirement on his own; the use of Facebook by many celebs to “break" news and the narrative; Adele’s release of her latest album. Richard Branson on LinkedIn or Red Bull’s incredible storytelling (remember Felix Baumgartner) or Sheldon Adelson owning Las Vegas paper or Washington Examiner owned by Rev. Moon. All variations on same theme of tell my own narrative."
Sure. But then, does this work with readers/viewers? Do they trust the information that’s put out?
“It depends on company, intent," said Narisetti. “A lot of people, journalists in particular, have a disdain for this as they confuse companies wanting to get into telling stories with companies wanting to own ‘news’. Most smart companies that are doing this, like GE, really want to be part of any conversation anywhere on “innovation". So it really depends. Of course people have less trust on branded content but in the Indian context, where the trust in media is at rock-bottom, not sure it is a major factor either way."