Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The first major threat to Google's dominance is here

I wrote this post originally on LinkedIn.

The future is finally here. For long, we've been hearing about social media overcoming search and display advertising. That Facebook and Twitter would overcome Google. In the past ten days, there has been one minor, yet important change which isn't a digital savant's proclamation. You might not have noticed or received access to this new feature. And learning about what it is, you might go 'meh' But it's more important than anything that's happened in the past 10 years combined.
Here's what happened: Facebook and Twitter have added in-app browsers to their smartphones apps. This means any time you click a link within their mobile apps, the page will open in a browser window which opens within the app itself, rather than opening the Chrome or Safari mobile browser. This changes everything.

Here's why:

Facebook and Twitter now own News Discovery: Viral stories and email forwards aside, users struggle for a viable way to consume news. Google News is always buggy, and our tryst with portals like Yahoo is coming to an end. Chances are, 90% of the news you consume these days is from what you see links for on Facebook and Twitter. They've fixed discovery by adding the social layer to it- both those who produce and consume news can now share it with you seamlessly. There may be exceptions, but I would hazard a guess to say up to 40% of digital immigrants (those born before 1980) and up to 80% of digital natives today consume news through these two social networks. Primarily Facebook, but Twitter is adding stickiness by constantly answering the 'What's happening in the world now?' question.

Mobile ads within Facebook and Twitter apps are ineffective. But, on mobile web pages, they can still work: Twitter has 140 character tweets, Facebook has story units which can't do display ads well, or distract from the experience. That's why we have incestuous advertising units- promoted trends, promoted tweets; App install ads, Page 'Like' exhortations.

The number of times users would be okay to see such ad units is limited, and raising them beyond a point would impact stickiness. Both Twitter and Facebook have sold these units for more than 18 months now, and I'm pretty sure Sales are plateauing.

This isn't the case with mobile web pages. The page structure allows for ad units to be inserted, in some cases, dare I say, in an engaging, clean design. While click through rates are abysmal (and mostly accidental), there's still some money to be made. Brands get better visibility because of larger ad unit sizes.

Both Twitter and Facebook have added mobile advertising chops: Twitter acquired MoPub, and Facebook acquired and re-made Atlas. Both of these are mobile ad exchanges, and they will challenge Google on one key parameter: they'll have built in cookies- something Google doesn't have in its mobile offering. Also, they can build in user targeting at a much deeper level- this goes beyond demographics- Facebook likely knows more about us than we think. The targeting will please the marketer, and would likely be more effective.

Why these acquisitions are important is because they'll take Facebook and Twitter out of the experimentation mode, and getting down to selling some inventory straight away.

Google+ has failed: I don't need to elaborate on this. Google has lost the platform battle, and with it, the content consumption battle. They'll continue to own search, but on display, they'll have to be content with a product that will now lose the race.

And finally,
He who owns the interface owns the ads: Google owns the browser today. For Facebook and Twitter, the right to sell ads within the interface, and with it, the race to break Google's dominance, has begun.

In the online advertising market, Facebook currently has ~8% market share, and Twitter is much lower at ~0.80%. Google lords over the market with a ~31% market share. (link). If everything I say above plays out as I foresee it, Facebook's share should double, Twitter's increase by about 5%, and Google's decrease by at least 6% in the coming year. The other smaller networks would decrease to make up the difference. Others like LinkedIn, with its Pulse content publishing network would get in to the game. Also, the market would grow, as audience classification becomes acute.
Maybe, I'm calling this trend way too early, before in-app browsers are commonplace, before they're accepted by users and bought by marketers. But there's a big probability this might be the biggest change in the mobile market. I'll be keenly watching.
I look forward to your thoughtful comments here, or on twitter at @ironymeter.

Photo: facebook ad solutions
Note: The views in this post are my personal opinion and do not reflect those of my employer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Five reasons Politicians fail at Social media

I wrote this post originally on LinkedIn.

I'm based in India, the battleground of one of the last few decades' most divisive national elections, and the first one where Social media is arguably playing a big part. Political parties have hired specialist agencies and established large volunteer teams for a wide range of roles: to support their agendas, malign opponents with both propaganda and lies, and to act as trolls and converts as the day turns.
While I try to be nonchalant about their shenanigans, it is near impossible to ignore their efforts from a marketer's perspective. And so far, I think most politicians, whether in India or other regions of the world, fail miserably on social media. Here's why:
  1. Can't be firm on policy: Depending on the way the wind is blowing on a given day, a politician needs to change tack immediately. With multiple stakeholders, and a diverse set of audiences to satisfy, they end up making promises to everyone. With conventional media and one way dialogue, they could take a misstep on a given day and course correct in due time, or simply, say they were misquoted. With social media, the audience hears from the proverbial horse's mouth, and they have to be firm- which simply isn't the way politics is played.
  2. Spend half their time dissing competition: When in doubt, blame the other party- with such rules of engagement, politicians don't have the wherewithal to sustain campaigns by the strength of their manifestos. They necessarily try to malign opponents, and try to convert fence sitters. On social media, name calling and other such activities are frowned upon by people engaging with you, even as your supporters rejoice in your pot shots. With conventional media, one could think of responses and reply with wit, derision or amity in due course. With social media's instant pressure, they can't mostly keep up.
  3. Too serious for their own good: Try to remember the last time you heard a politician bring their personality to the table, Obama's House of Cards tweet notwithstanding.Politicians, often to add respectability to their 'image', become split personalities, reserving interesting aspects of their personalities for family and close associates. One of India's Prime Ministerial candidates, Rahul Gandhi, has been constantly criticized for being dour and unforthcoming, despite being collegial with groups closer to him. This isn't just about him- Politicians from every country strip their personality of candour and become a wee bit 'stuffy', which isn't something that wins you admirers on social media, who later convert to votes, hopefully.
  4. Engage with social in the same way as traditional media: While comparing thesetwo forms would take another blog post, suffice it to say Politicians don't want to appear ill at ease. With social media, their response is to create the same support teams and structures. God help you if you are a politician and not naturally 'media savvy'. Next to your publicist, your social media team will have the toughest task.
  5. Fearful of social media: Above, I cited examples from countries where social media is mainstream enough to congregate voters, and thus politicians. Let's however, not forget a wide swathe of countries, from Turkey banning Twitter to Russia restricting social media usage at the Sochi Olympics. Totalitarian regimes realise the losing battle they fight if they participate on social media. This is perhaps the most important reasons for many politicians' failure on social- they just can't stand to scrutiny.
These reasons, and the examples I cite above, may be limited in their worldview, because, like you, there's only so much of Politics and heated debates I can take on various platforms before I watch the next cat video. I look forward to your thoughtful comments, and examples of social media successes you've seen emerging from Politics in your country.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Power of Marketing

With marketing inundated with measures upon measures, and people hard pressed to show marketing's relationship to sales and revenue, it is always tough telling anyone what marketing does.

A couple of days back, I came upon a great example which shows the true power of marketing. Even though it involves a 'brand' that eschews capitalism and branding per se, but is a brand at the end of the day. I'm talking about the graffiti artiste Banksy. He is one of the most prolific street artists in the whole wide world, and his documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, is one of my favourite pieces of non-fiction. Pieces of art made by him sell for millions

Banksy is in New York this summer. He has been pulling various stunts, his art appearing in places for a couple of days before someone else spray paints over it. He's painted side walks, trucks and a project where the art spilled from a wall to a car parked nearby. All that done, he did something fairly unusual- he sold his art work off a stall in Central Park. 

The frames were selling for $60, and the first couple sold for a 50% discount. In the entire day, the total sale was a measly $450. Banksy abhors marketers and brands in particular, and yet this moment shows the power of marketing. Without information that aids their decision making, people thought of his original artwork as knock-off prints, and then too worth less than even the stated price.

This episode reminded me of something similar. Some years ago, Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, one of the contemporary world's most well regarded musicians, once took up a street musician's place at a subway station. He played for over 45 minutes, getting no more than cursory glances from passing commuters. Two days prior, he had had a sold out show where connoisseurs paid more than $100 per seat. 

Without context, both these greats received little more than the cursory glance, and very middling success. For me, if that isn't the success of marketing, I don't know what is. Reams have been written about the scepticism marketing faces, where people ask for numbers to prove its effectiveness. This rather simple yet stunning series of examples, shows what matters.

I'll leave you with a quote from the Washington Pots article Joshua Bell pulled the stunt for:

In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would Beauty transcend?

UPDATE 22/10: Some guy put up a Fake Banksy stall some days after this stunt. His stall was sold out in 60 minutes, and someone even bought the sign with the sale price on it! Read here:

Sunday, September 1, 2013

How to check Provident Fund Balance Online?

This is off the usual track on things that I usually post about, but after running in circles trying to find out my provident fund balance, I finally figured it out. Thought would pay it forward. 

Thanks to the government finally getting a move on when it comes to technology, checking your PF balance online is very easy now. 

Just go through the following steps, and you should be able to get your PF balance very quickly! If you want, there are additional steps below which tell you how to download your PF passbook, which shows monthly contribution from both you and your employer.

You will need:
  • Your PF No.
  • Your cell phone with working cell service (duh)
  • Have either of the following identity proofs as well:: PAN Card, Aadhar, NPR (National Population Register), Bank Account, Voter ID, Passport or Driving License. What is important is that any of these ID proofs that you use should have a document no.on them, since that will act as your user id in the future 
  • A working internet connection, preferably using a computer (desktop/laptop) on a broadband connection. This is because the PF portal, being a government web site, doesn't use HTML 5, and might just explode if you use it on GPRS or Dial up. This last tip is not a necessity, but free ki advice. We're Indian. 
Ok. Onwards to work. 

There is a page before that as well, but that's just a sarkari instruction manual. The page will look like the following:

Choose your state, and a list of PF offices should appear. Typically, your PF office would be in the city where your company has their registered office. This is important to remember. 

How to find out PF Office: If you're unsure about the PF office you're in, the best person to ask is your office HR folks, or your CA or Tax Consultant should be able to figure it out for you. In case you want to search your exact office code by employer, click here. At the bottom of this page, the search box can be used to input your company's name:

Once you've done this, you can just enter your PF no. and mobile no. and then get your PF amount sent by SMS to you. The page will not make this very clear, as the status message of the balance being sent to your mobile is given at the bottom of the page, so look at the page carefully after a couple of seconds, because it will change. I've highlighted the area for your easy reference: 

PF Balance sent SMS

Once you receive the SMS, you are done! You can now plan on withdrawing the amount, and getting whatever you need. Sadly, that can happen only if you leave your current job, retire or do some other shady things your CA can tell you about (this conjecture can be left alone). 

Now, in case you want to check if monthly transfers to your PF are happening accurately and in a timely manner, you would want to go through the next step. It's just another couple of minutes of your life, and you'd do well if you download the Provident Fund passbook. 

For downloading the Provident Fund passbook, the website link is http://members.epfoservices.in/index.php

On this page, if you haven't registered before, you'll need your identity document, since that'll become your login id. On the top right, click on Click here to Register

Add in all the information, and you should receive a PIN on your mobile, enter that at the bottom of the page, and you're done with the registration. Go back to the main page, and login using your identity document no. (for e.g.: your Pan card no., if you've used that) and your mobile no. as login and password respectively. 

On the next screen, click on Download E-passbook, as shown in the screenshot below:

On the next page, enter your PF no. again, and click on get Pin. The Pin will be sent to your mobile. Enter that on your mobile, and you're on the page where you can download the file!

You should check the downloaded PDF file thoroughly. Check each month's entries against the PF being deducted in your pay slip, and check for each month of employment. You can also know the total amount in the following categories:
Employee Share
Employer Share
Pension Fund.

There. You're done. Thank you for sticking with me till so late in the day. But hopefully you know how to do this by yourself. Would be great if you share this with friends and family members who aren't as tech savvy as you. I really wish the procedure was simpler. And I've tried to do the good thing. After spending a couple of hours running through loops, when I finally understood how to download my PF statement, I've put it here for your use. So Pay it Forward!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Does Micromax need to do a Lexus?

If you haven't noticed, the last couple of months have been great for Micromax. It has launched a handset, the Canvas HD which has been selling in black. If you're not familiar with the term, it denotes a transaction where a middle-man (in this case the retailer) has the customer pay a premium over and above the product's market price. This situation was reserved for Bajaj scooters in the 1980's, film tickets before multiplexes came in, and MTNL landlines. I can't remember a single thing that has sold in such a fashion in the past ten years. In an age of abundance, all you need is a will to buy.

Some of you may think that this was due to poor retail availability. That's true, they launched the handset just following the Chinese new year (China makes 90% of all mobile phones in the world, including Micromax's), and availability was sketchy. Still, for a product to create such frenzy is phenomenal in a market chock full with hundreds of brands and thousands of mobile phone models.

My wonder is however, for a different problem altogether. As a tech enthusiast, I'm routinely asked by those around me about which gadget to buy. Since I feel the Micromax Canvas HD provides tremendous value for money, with features and specs rivaling any of the other top phones, I'd tell people to go buy this phone. While a couple of them did, switching from their initial choices of a discounted iPhone 4 or the new Samsung Galaxy XYZ, others had a single point of disagreement- they 'can't go in for a brand like Micromax'. It's only natural. Micromax has built its pedigree on cheap phones for the masses, churning out one model after another that gave people in small town India a phone that had one redeeming feature- a battery that needed to be charged once a month, a dual-sim phone, or even a triple sim phone before any one else attempted it. They stole the thunder of the market leader Nokia in rural markets, and built a large sales network before the market was awash with cheap chinese imports, and the low entry barriers in the market meant even a phone distributor could launch their own regional brand.

Cut to today- Nokia has fallen by the wayside, Samsung rules the roost, and Apple is fast closing in to swoop in on the high end of the market. There are hundreds of brands, all trying to compete in a market so fragmented there's little to differentiate one brand from another on the lower end. Micromax has held its lead in the third spot, launching a model every three weeks, and working on rapid iterations that resolve issues in the last launch, and getting more market share as a result.

Now, coming back to the Micromax theory. The parallels are there- a challenger brand with a blockbuster product, the only thing stopping it is the legacy the brand has created for itself. Apart from the 'Cheap hai, Chinese hai' values ascribed to the brand, Micromax has little appeal for the yuppies. A youngster from an upper-middle class family or an office goer would be seen not as a part of the clique if they are seen carrying a Micromax phone. While it has built products that catered to the masses, the classes want something more. They want acceptability. While the Canvas HD offers great value for money, the brand stable it comes from offers little else. Customer service perception is dismal, with previous high-end models (from Micromax, this would be a phone in the 9-12k segment) infamous for large scale screen issues. With the Canvas HD however, they've reached a stage they may not have thought of- a phone that has cachet. The Canvas HD is that strange meeting of value, premium and blockbuster specs. It doesn't fall short on any parameter except one- the brand stable it comes from. Thus, my supposition, is it time for Micromax to do a Lexus?

Cut to the United States in the late 80's: Toyota, Honda and other Japanese brands flooded the US market in the late 70's and 80's, challenging local heavyweights such as Ford and General Motors, supplying quality sedans in an era the US market had greatly expanded. While the Japanese brands were seen with suspicion, with sketchy expectations on the quality front, they worked with great care to establish great car marquees that offered the one thing buyers wanted- extremely good value for money. The cars rarely broke down, had cheap parts and labour, and the share of the Japanese grew quickly. With the market saturating, Toyota wanted to expand its offering, and with trade embargoes in place to protect US industry, it was more feasible to export more expensive models to the car market. The competition was tall order- it had to compete with the world leaders in premium and luxury cars- Mercedes and BMW. They were well-entrenched German rivals- with a legacy of decades.

Toyota has so far offered cars that costed less, and cost less to run and own. While these were remarkable characteristics, the average luxury car buyer cared little for them. He wanted comfort, ergonomics, class-leading luxury and a brand with heritage. Toyota as a brand stood for something the masses drove. Toyota understood this too well (Unlike Maruti and Hyundai in India, who are still trying to invade the D segment, Hyundai funnily expanded the name of its premium car to Hyundai Sonata Embera Transform, as if the name would help).

Lexus came out of a long research, not just for the features and design expectations, but because a new Marquee had to be born. The new brand would help it shed off the legacy of Toyota, because the buyers in the premium segment cared little for it, and viewed it with derision.

Lexus launched with the LS400 in 1989, with the car offering features similar or even better than Mercedes and BMW, at a price that was about 40% lower. It was lauded by the automotive press, and till date, continues to be a strong brand in the luxury and premium space. It has helped Toyota move the other way in the brand spectrum, from the maker of cheap sedans and hatchbacks, to a manufacturer capable of producing high-quality automobiles. Of course, the launch of products like the Tundra truck, and the Prius electric car have helped cement this perception. The result- Toyota is the world's third largest automotive brand, and closer home, in India, its cars sell at a premium to other brands.

I think it's time for Micromax to offer a new brand in India, one that appeals to the youth and the office goer. And here are the reasons:

  • The competition- Samsung, even though it is the leader, has so far only focused on product-based advertising. It's the media budgets and the distribution that's keeping it at the top of the charts. It's flagship offerings are bought because they're well-known. They hardly look like premium offerings, with plastic casing and an overall sense of good value. That's hardly worth anything. If you look at it closely, its just Micromax on a larger scale, with large number of models and a boost through advertising. Apple has just started focusing on India, and even though it has a aspiration attached to it, it makes a single phone to meet all requirements. That can't possibly capture the market. With Nokia still developing its Asha line and struggling with the windows based Lumia, its a long way to go. Blackberry is dead in the water. Others are of little note.
  • The 'phone-type' market share- In the next three years, millions of Indians will move from feature phones to smart phones. Micromax's second brand can capture a boatload of these customers as they move to aspirational phones, devices that offer them everything. While Micromax does do this currently, a large number of these people will fly to Samsung because of better perceived quality. With a second brand, it can set up retail points like Experience zones, have enough brand power to get exclusive counters in larger mobile shops, and expand its service offerings, such as app and music stores, that all manufacturers are trying to break into. 
  • Market maturity- Cell phones are reaching near full penetration in the Indian market. While there is a humongous replacement market, with most people changing phones every 2-3 years, there is a certain finality in the number of new consumers that can be reached. Micromax can use this second brand to capture segments that are catered to by Nokia, Samsung and their ilk. The customer, when in the market for a new phone, should be able to compare a Samsung and a Micromax. Today, the Samsung Galaxy Grand, a poor man's version of the Galaxy Note, is selling in large numbers even though it is a poor excuse of a phone compared to the Canvas HD.
My entire post is not an ode to one true hit from Micromax. It is the belief that the company will have more models that it can sell at such enticing price points with great specs, its already established distribution model, and a certain scale it has already established in its media budgets.

What do you think?

Hat-tip for photos: fonearena.com, bbc.co.uk
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