Umaire Effendi
Jan 16, 2015

Double Standards: Does social media today empower brands more than consumers?

Karthi Marshan and Ashok Lalla speak about whether social media is empowering brands more than consumers today. Who is it empowering, really?

Double Standards: Does social media today empower brands more than consumers?
Does social media today empower brands more than consumers? Or has it put power firmly in the hands of consumers?
Karthi Marshan, executive vice president and head – group marketing, Kotak Mahindra Bank (KM): It is absolutely true that social media has empowered consumers and given us a voice that we lacked before, at least a voice that has the potential to spread so fast and be heard so soon. However, I think brands have been empowered too. Many brands operate through intermediaries, both for transactions as well as communication. The power used to be with the distributor and retailer who really owned and knew the consumer, and with media who had to be paid (advertising) or persuaded (coverage) to carry the brand’s message. But today, thanks to social media, brands are able to know and interact with their consumers intimately, and those who embrace it rather than hide from it, can reap rich dividends in a win-win formula.
Ashok Lalla global head – digital marketing, Infosys (AL): It’s really a two-way street as there are benefits for both, brands and consumers.
For brands, social media provides a relatively new, and interactive, fluid channel to reach and influence consumers. It allows brands an always-on means to listen and learn from what’s been said, and to adapt marketing initiatives on-the-go. For some brands, social media has turned into an important customer service and grievance redressal channel too. And in the case of others, social is being explored as a business and ecommerce channel too.
For consumers, social allows them to connect with people like themselves and to share experiences and express opinions related to brands. In addition, social is increasingly providing consumers with an instant and direct channel of communication with brands, both at a formal customer care level and an informal level where executives working with the brand are but a tweet away,
Is consumer feedback on social channels taken more seriously than those sent through non-public channels by brands? Are brands more responsive to public outcry?
KM: When feedback is sent through non-public channels, it is also responded to on those same channels. Hence this engagement is totally invisible to us all, leading to the myth that feedback on public channels is taken more seriously. Speaking on behalf of responsible, consumer-centric brands, I would say that feedback should actually be seen as free R&D, and if taken in this spirit, we will find that consumer input loops back into product and service design in a virtuous cycle that benefits all.
AL: I would not comment on how seriously feedback is taken, but certainly more and more brands respond quicker to feedback through social channels. Response refers to getting back to the customer and usually seeking more details. The actual redressal of the issues may take the usual time as it often involves offline investigations into the matter.
Some brands have evolved their social customer service channel to dovetail with their CRM channel and so are in a better position to more meaningfully address problems, particularly for their more important customers.
Are brands floundering the opportunity to address issues on social media -- with automated responses and the like?
KM: Automated responses are certainly a poor approach on social media. All engagement needs to be contexted to the environment it is happening in. And social media is about authenticity, connections and being human. So yes, those brands that automate responses on social media are definitely missing a trick.
AL: Automated responses are a part of the response and redressal process. However, when these are not used judiciously, or irrelevant responses are repeatedly sent, it does aggravate customers. And also lead them to air their frustration around this on social, something brands should take steps to avoid through a better programme of response management.
It is observed that negative feedback is shared on social media more than positive. Do you agree that this is the case in India?
KM: The fundamental truth is that negative feedback is shared more than positive feedback. We only see this amplified on social media because everyone’s feedback is captured for posterity and is visible to many people who are connected to the commenter by very weak network ties. In the old days, we would rant about our poor brand experiences, but it would be limited to how far our voice could reach. Literally. I am not qualified to comment whether this is uniquely Indian trait, though.
AL: The fact is that negative feedback spreads faster and wider than positive feedback. That perhaps creates the perception that more negative feedback is shared than positive feedback.
What is more likely -- ‘likes’ converting into buys, or negative comments leading to lack of favourable consideration of the brand?
KM: I am very  of likes converting into buys. Because the like is so often a forced endorsement, frequently even gamed, and when u look at the demographics of those who liked, rarely do they resemble your real customers. Negative comments certainly have power to turn away others who were considering the brand. But, when dealt with in a timely, sensitive and solution-oriented fashion, negative feedback can not only win back irate customers, it can actually turn into a powerful endorsement to those who were sitting on the consideration fence. And this is advertising that money can’t buy.
AL: ‘Likes’ converting to buys is more a social marketer’s fantasy than a reality. ‘Likes’ are only one of the buying considerations and a direct correlation between ‘likes’ and ‘buys’ is incredibly hard to establish.
Negative comments can certainly affect the favourable opinion someone has about a brand. However, whether the buying consideration for that brand gets affected is not just a function of negative comments someone may have come across. But also a function of the credibility of those comments and the person’s own views and experience of the brand.
Is listening on social media more valuable for brands – does it outweigh the potential negative w-o-m?
KM: Negative word of mouth is not a function of being available on social media…if a brand chooses not to be there, consumers will create their own brand page and populate it with all the issues. In my view, there is no choice about being present, listening and responding on social media. The only questions are around speed, tonality, et al. By the same token, listening per se has never been a choice…while brands may not have been publicly embarrassed before social media was there, irate customers always voted with their wallets and their feet when they were unhappy and unheard.
AL: Listening is an important means for brands to tune into what’s being said – about them, their competition and their category per se. Listening itself does not address negative word of mouth. It is the actions taken based on the insights culled from the listening that can do so, in case there was negative chatter in the first place.
Does brands’ ability to shape opinion on social affect believability of social media commentary? Is it taken less seriously than a similar comment on mainstream media by an identified author?
KM: An unequivocal yes. When brands ‘plant’ content that masquerades as independent commentary, discerning readers can make out and this hurts brands credibility a lot more than negative commentary. Being authentic is a key imperative in this age of total transparency. Like a wiser man than me said, you can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all the time.
AL: This depends on how it is done. Both on social media and in mainstream media if brand influence is sought to be built through commentary that seems seeded or paid for, the credibility will be low. Consumers too are getting more savvy by the day and usually recognise planted ‘user generated content’ or blogger outreach activities that seem orchestrated rather than genuinely organic. Further mainstream media is often consumed via social media (links) and so the lines between social and mainstream

(Appeared in the 9 January issue of Campaign India)

Campaign India

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