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Internet is not just about measurement; It’s about innovation!

Yashraj Vakil is presently the Chief Operating Officer at Red Digital, a new media agency focusing across digital platforms including social media, gaming, mobile/iPhone/Android and the traditional web. In his role, he leads the company’s efforts to capitalize on long-term growth opportunities and align its operations with key customer segments globally.

Yashraj Vakil is presently the Chief Operating Officer at Red Digital, a new media agency focusing across digital platforms including social media, gaming, mobile/iPhone/Android and the traditional web. In his role, he leads the company’s efforts to capitalize on long-term growth opportunities and align its operations with key customer segments globally. Vakil has over 12 years of cross-functional experience in the interactive entertainment industry and before joining Red Digital, he was heading worldwide content outsourcing, acquisition and development at Zapak.com, primarily concentrating on games. In an exclusive interview with AlooTechie, Yashraj discusses how he has seen the growth in usage of digital media by brands and the way forward. 

How have you seen the growth in usage of digital media by brands?

Digital Media has been given digital advertising the thrust it was looking for. Unlike search or banner advertising now you know exactly who is interested in your brand and what their profile is. Advertising on the Internet is no longer blind. Obviously, brands have lapped up this opportunity to understand their consumer better. Businesses are exploring online media for customer relationship management, brand expansion, research, loyalty and promotion. Apart from this, social media has resulted in companies being transparent, interactive and more approachable to their end consumers.

Tata Docomo with over 4.4 million fans on Facebook is the by far the biggest brand on social media. MTV, Dove, Kingfisher, Vodafone, Mumbai Indians, Fastrack and Axe are some of the other top brands on Facebook in India. All of these brands, except Mumbai Indians, have at some point in time spent a few crore rupees in buying fans. The growth of Mumbai Indians has been entirely organic with not a penny being spent on social advertising.

Furthermore, many business houses in India have also taken to creating a social media presence for CEOs. Vijay Mallya has over 6,80,000 follows on Twitter. Social media has managed to carve a niche for itself in digital budgets and is forming a part of 360 degree campaigns that brands are formulating.

What are your key priorities at Red Digital now?

We think there has been enough said and done on Facebook and Twitter. We know everybody is either there or they want to be there. The questions are what does social media hold for itself in the future, which is what we are trying to explore. We have started experimenting with Foursquare for Monginis and will soon take location-based social networking to some of our other brands as well. We are also trying to explore the possibly to using social networks on handheld devices for brands. We believe, in due course, social networks will need to reach consumers than the other way round.

We are obviously formulating digital strategies for brands to help them make their presence felt online. The key objective is to leverage social media and build a long, sustained engagement with consumers through regular interactions, creating buzz and spreading a strong word of mouth.

With the advent and rise of social media, digital advertising has become even better in its targeting capabilities. Social advertising and more importantly social presence deserves a larger pie of the 360 strategy employed by the businesses and we are trying our best to convince brands about this fact.

Does branding work on internet? How do you see the core branding spend taking off on the internet in India lately?

The question is who wants to do branding on the Internet. FMCG companies are advertising online to capture their consumers, banks and finance companies have always been about generating leads and click and with social media they have found another toy to play with, Internet companies want to get traffic on their Website and many a time generate registrations, ecommerce companies are looking for shoppers, retailers are all getting into the ecommerce storm that’s sweeping our country, restaurants are quite local and would rather use the targeting capabilities of social media. That possibly leaves us with automobiles, technology and lifestyle each of who want to showcase how cool or practical they are. Is branding on the Internet right for them?

Let’s just say branding is required to be done every few months because the consumers memory is short. A new product comes and bham! Everything they saw in the last ad vanishes. On the other hand running campaigns to capture users on their Facebook fan page or Twitter profile assures brands that they need not spend money on the same consumer again. All communication to a captured user on social media is free!

In today’s market scenario it’s the consumer that has power not the business or advertiser. Internet lets the consumer to see, hear and discuss in their own comfort zone. It positions the brand as a specialist who caters to the audience. It assures a sense of belief in the minds of the consumers about the brand. They will be more inclined to accept your price and terms with less justification and intervention.

Branding has now moved from B2C to C2C4B! Reviews and recommendations play an important role in helping the consumer make a purchase decision. This offers innumerable opportunities for a brand to grow in terms of its equity and sales. Continuous engagement of consumers on internet when planned strategically will result in a higher brand recall along with brand loyalty.

Spends on digital and social media account for only 2 per cent of a business’ total media spend. Internet and mobile devices are the fastest growing medium in India as of now. With the advent of 3G and IPTV, trends suggest that these spends will only go north.

How marketers’ demands have changed from online as a medium in the recent years?  

Today the question a marketing manager asks is not how to go digital but the new and innovative things that can be done to stand out amongst its competitors. Spending on the digital is slowly becoming a secondary thought for marketers, provided the brand can gain momentum. Marketers are also looking at newer mediums where the consumer is present and how they can reach those consumers. Smart-phones and tablets provide one such opportunity along with 3G.

Traditional media like TV, print and radio is never sold on impressions. Why do you think the same doesn’t happen for online? Do you think online media in India can be sold on a fixed spot or time spent basis?

TV, Print and Radio are never sold on consumer action either. They are classic forms of blind advertising where everything works on sample size and sample data. It for what you mentioned earlier, branding. Online in India can be sold on a fixed spot and time basis when the advertiser is blind enough to not understand that Internet is by far the most measurable and dynamic media or when the publisher and agency is trying to make easy some money on the foolhardiness of the advertiser.

With new engagement forms such as videos and apps coming up on internet, what are your thoughts on visual brand building exercises on internet in India?

When agencies choose a medium, their priority is to create value for the client and maximize ROI on every rupee spent. Digital experts are still testing the impact of video advertising on the Internet and the brand recall and engagement it can generate from the end-user.

Videos on the Internet have been around for some time now. I was very excited to see YouTube’s Box Office initiative and I think it’s a great move if producers and production houses are will be willing to part with their content. Besides that ads which play before videos on YouTube are very irritating to me as a user because that’s not what I am there for. However, I am definitely forced to watch the ads as there is no skip button. Is that right approach? Video advertising apart from YouTube has also been around for some time and they seem to generate great responses. But again, when video ads start with loud blaring sounds, they get very irritating.  It’s a disturbance. I will wait to see when Facebook introduces video ads. Personally, it’s not something I am on the Internet for.

The Internet, with the advent of social media, is slowly becoming a recommendation engine. Soon everything on the internet will be driven by influence from those of friends, relatives an even unknown people.

Mobile is being held as a great medium for brand communication, but still, very less amount is spent on the particular medium. What is your take on this?

The gap between cell phones and computers is slowly but surely diminishing. Today there are over 1.8 million mobile users who use the Internet only on their cell phones. Every 8 out of 10 people are dual users who use Internet on both cell phones and computers. Many users’ also mobile devices as their primary access point for social networking Websites. The reach of mobile is vast yet personal and hence it provides something that no other medium does. However there is still a question mark over branded apps just like branded games. Maybe they won’t get downloads if there is no celebrity attached it to it doesn’t have gratifications for the users. The other problem on mobile is the problem of discovery. It’s very easy to conceptualize apps and release them but if no one discovers how to find or use them its money gone down the drain. The problem is been further accentuated by the DOD registry. No more unwanted sms from the operator and hence the discovery is now entirely reliant on word of mouth or advertising in media which doesn’t necessarily provide direct access to the app. Yes, you can use QR codes but the question is how do you make the masses understand what a QR code is and how do they use it. One can also look at advertising on mobile websites but many popular mobile Websites are themselves launching their own apps maybe because no one is really visiting mobile Websites! This has the potential to become big as long as the problem of discovery can be overcome.

Right now digital it’s all about social networking on Web and PC and we haven’t even skimmed the surface to see what all is possible. Whether ‘adverapps’ as a category will pick up remains to be seen. Presently, an activity like this could safely be termed as extremely niche and more innovation driven than driven to increase brand saliency. Something like this could be very successful if the problem of discovery can be overcome and it can socialize. 

At Red Digital, we have taken a step to use mobile as an effective tool for brand communication. We launched India’s biggest location based social networking initiative for our client Monginis using foursquare. The national launch kicked off with special offers across 447 Monginis outlets across India. This is the largest deployment of foursquare in India till date and with this strategy, Monginis is hoping to latch on to the location based social networking bandwagon which is already prevalent and popular in the western world. Users through foursquare can list their favourite food items and also add tips to the outlets they have visited. A frequent visit by a particular customer to Monginis outlet helps him to earn points and also achieve the title of Mayor for that particular location. Mayors are the most loyal customers a brand can have, which is why Monginis has rolled out special rewards for the Mayor of each outlet and is also in the process of introducing check-in deals. Foursquare helps in gamification of a loyalty program, adding to the fun of collecting points by making the information public.

Internet is said to be a measurable medium. What is your take on this? Have we overdone the measurement quotient and made this medium hard to understand for the brand marketers?

Yes, Internet is definitely and by far the most measureable medium in media today. In many developed countries it forms over 25 per cent of the total marketing budget. Having said that, the Internet is not just about measurement. It’s about innovation. People on the Internet are bored of seeing and doing the same things repeatedly unlike TV or print where trends seem to last longer. Maybe print is a medium where ads are welcome; Internet is not like that either. Ads on the Internet are seen as hindrances to experience. However, measure on the Internet can be in multiple forms and it’s not difficult to understand that.

Social Media is a phenomenon now a days. How do you see brands utilising this platform?

Facebook in India boasts of 34 million users while twitter claims to have 16 million users. This is testimony of how powerful this medium is and its reach. Of the 60 million regular Internet users in India, 34 million are on Facebook! The best part of social media is its ubiquitous access.

However, what people fail to understand is that social media for brands is a relatively slow process unless you are a global well known brand or a celebrity. In our experience it can take up to 27 months for a brand page to start showing substantial organic growth and that too requires a lot of thinking, hard work and formulation of an overall strategy converging offline and online. Personally, I believe, Facebook and Twitter are the biggest social networks out there but they are not the only ones. We have been working very closely with Foursquare, a location based social network.

Brands can be on social media and be available to their consumers both online and on cell phones. They can converse their consumers, solve queries and announce anything new. However, brands are still stuck to the usual suspects, Facebook and Twitter. Its important brands utilize the right social media platforms for themselves. For example, Foursquare, a location based social network can work really well for restaurants and retailers. LinkedIn can work great for professional networking and B2B companies. Google+ is soon expected to launch brand pages and it could be interesting how they position their approach.

Likes on FB can be misleading as well if done incorrectly and more importantly by inexperienced people. Many garage companies have jumped on to this bandwagon misleading advertisers and only helping KRAs not sales! In Our experience, random buying of fans results in a lot of frivolous users who don’t quite connect with the brand but are simply happy clicking “like” on everything they see. We have seen this trend being very prominent in the age group of 13-18. This reduces the interaction rate on a page in spite of a huge number of fans. However, the same might not be true with brands which connect better with audiences due to a common factor such as Cricket or Sachin Tendulkar in the case of Adidas Cricket and Mumbai Indians. Once you have the right audience and have built the connect then it’s about influencing then either to loyalty, word-of-mouth publicity or sales. It’s all up to the brand.

People say that cost of acquiring a fan on Facebook in India is Rs 2 to Rs 4, whereas in US, they cost around a dollar. How do you see the social media spends getting big in India and how do social media agencies make profit?

The cost of acquiring fans everywhere is the same and no it’s not 2-4 bucks a fan. The cost entirely depends on competition for particular keywords and targets. It also depends on reach of the advertising. External factors such as cost of manpower to manage the advertising and analytics tools too can increase the cost.

As per the recent ASSOCHAM report, it reveals that companies are spending over Rs 1,200 crore, which is about 30 to 40 percent of the marketing budget, on digital media. Social networks are also responsible for Rs. 23,000 crore worth of commerce and it’s likely to swell to Rs. 1.35 lakh crore in the course of next 4 years.

Today, companies are spending anywhere between Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50 lakh a year depending on the scalability and the objectives.

Many reports suggest that 75 per cent of the businesses have doubled their spending on social media in 2011. From products launches, deals and engaging directly with the customer, social media is now an important platform for sellers. An agency works on its model which may vary as per the campaigns, objectives and results.

Considering this, fan acquisition costs are only expected to go North. Besides the question one needs to really ask how important is it to have 1 million fans as oppose to 2 million. Facebook itself doesn’t believe in this and has removed fan-locked features such as commenting and linking on a fan page. What matters ultimately is the engagement on the page.

Facebook is not the only social medium. So how do you see brands leveraging other social platforms other than Facebook? What’s beyond Facebook and Twitter in social media today?

Undoubtedly, Facebook and Twitter give brands a concrete base to have a social media presence but for brands serious about viral growth, word-of-mouth and collective engagement, a more in-depth and long-term social strategy needs to be built. After all it’s a brand’s reputation that’s at stake. It is important for brands to remember that the social networking community in India is not limited to Facebook and Twitter. It is important to try and gauge where a brand’s target audience is, based on published social demographics.

Brands need to be holistic in their approach and explore all possibilities including Podcasts, Photosharing, social bookmarking and blogs. Marketers should take time to conceptualize a theme for their social presence as well as understand that it won’t show immediate results. It takes time to make your brand popular in the virtual world via Social Media and marketers need to be aware. There is a paradigm shift in the buying behaviour of a brand’s target audience and “Social Media Marketing” is now much more than what it has previously been thought as.

Brand’s can blog, share an article/post, and comment on somebody else’s status or share pictures and videos. Consumers today are also highly active on forums, groups, QandA sites and blogging communities related to their interest. All of this only leads to changing your potential/existing consumer’s perception. Right from location based services to tracking the mood of social media circles; Marketers have all the possibilities and it depends on the organization or company on how they make the most out of it!

Some of the social media tools to reach out to a larger audience are explained below:

Ning: Marketers can try Ning, an innovative and interesting concept to create their own custom social network for their brand, product or service to interact with more than 10 million users.

Foursquare: is a location-based service, which is apt for entertainment and hospitality industry including restaurants and pubs. This social app is well integrated with other networks like Facebook, twitter etc. Marketers can explore interesting promotions, contest, and offers as special tips for foursquare users. 

Moodler: is an interesting mood tracking social network to broadcast your own moods. It also allows users to start a conversation, search for things to talk about and do some snap polling.

LinkedIn: While known for its professional networking and job-hunting capabilities, LinkedIn can also be used as a great tool for companies and brands wanting to connect with their trade circles or suppliers. While Facebook always allows you to connect with someone you know. LinkedIn, from a business viewpoint, always allows you to connect with people better than anyone you already know. It helps extend reach and possibly find that extra-better deal. When combined with SlideShare it can even become your company showcase.

What potential do you see in Google + as a social platform for brands?

Google+ should be launching its brand pages by end of this year. It would be interesting to see how brands adopt this. Google+ has been working with celebrities to get more and more users to start using the social network but unfortunately it has a lot of inactive users presently and brands might stay away from Google+ is the audience profile stays that way.

(Editor: Google + has opened its brand pages now, but the time this interview was taken, Google + didn’t allow forming brand/fan pages.

Speaking about the current year, which sectors, according to you, have increased their media spends on internet?

With the growing rise of competition in various sectors and a failure to break the clutter, major brands and businesses have taken to the online and social medium.

Over the last 2 years we have seen major brands in telecom operators, consumer IT companies latching to the this brand wagon to create maximum consumer opening. With the advent of IPL and Cricket World Cup in India, we have seen communities like Adidas cricket and Mumbai Indians scoring big on their fan pages on Facebook. Hash-tags of these events on twitter have resulted in heavy inflow of tweets and also top trending spaces.

In a more recent pattern, we have seen FMCG, travel, finance who were low on their digital spends have started investing time on digital space and creating conversations.

Fashion and lifestyle products were always a big hit on social media, but they were the big brands. Recent times have seen local stores and brands also jumping on this media. We have recently seen local malls creating their fan pages on Facebook and keeping their customers informed on the latest offers and give-aways apart from special events. Pulse Mall in Pune has been an active marketer on this medium.

Speaking about Red Digital, what do you reckon as some of your best campaigns?

We have been very successful with Mumbai Indians, Adidas Cricket and Monginis. We have successfully experimented with multiple digital innovations on social for them. Adidas Cricket and Mumbai Indians are among the biggest fan pages on Facebook in India. Mumbai Indians is the 8thbiggest fan page in India without a penny being spent on advertising. It is also the 27th biggest sports team page in the world ahead of teams such as New York Knicks, Chicago Bears, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia Eagles, Manchester City and the New Zealand All Blacks

Where do you see the digital marketing and advertising industry move two years down the line?

Digital marketing and advertising is going to get more and more personal. It is going to intrude into your everyday life. You could soon be social shopping for groceries and your fridge which has a social media profile might tell you what really is required to be bought. You dog could have a social media tag tell you his location on a minute-by-minute basis. You will know exactly where the next bus you want to take is and how much time it will take for it to reach you stop. Traffic will become a breeze to skip as you friends will help with areas to avoid. The possibilities are endless to the extent that social media might not exist at all and all your actions will be automated without you having to ever login to your profile from any device.

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