Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Elvis Has Left The Building

We've moved.

After nearly 6 years running this blog on Blogger and Wordpress, I've decided to migrate to what I think is the blogging platform of the future - Medium.

All the posts that you've read, interacted with and shared are already up on Medium, waiting for you.

So head on over, and follow me there.

See you on the other side.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Making Influencer Marketing Credible Again

Is influencer marketing as influential as it used to be?

This post is probably going to rake up some controversy, but I'm going to write it anyway.

Over the last year or so, I've been watching social media closely. I've been hearing whispers from agency folk and brand managers. And everything points to one irrefutable fact.

Influencer marketing just isn't as credible as it used to be.

I'll go out on a limb, one step further.

Influencer marketing just isn't credible any more.

And here's why.

One. Brands aren't being discerning enough. Anyone with enough followers or readership qualifies to be an influencer. No matter how tenuous the connection between the influencer and the brand promise.

Two. Influencers aren't being discerning enough. Most influencers today seem to be happy to work with any brand that is willing to work with them (read: pay them well). Rather than the brands they really love. The faked enthusiasm shows in every overexcited tweet, in every hard-selling blog post.

Three, following on from my previous statement. People today are becoming more and more aware that people who randomly start promoting a brand are being paid to do so.

Having been one of the earliest exponents - and practitioners - of social influence marketing in India, I can't help but wonder - whatever happened to the influencer marketing we used to know and love?

For those who came in late, here's how it's supposed to work.

  1. Brand identifies potential influencers. These are usually people who are perceived experts in a particular field (related to the brand's sphere of operation), or die-hard brand fans.

  2. Brand contacts influencer. Influencer agrees that the brand is a great fit for them.

  3. Brand and influencer work together to co-create content.

  4. It's a win for both, the brand and the influencer. In the truest form of influencer marketing, there is no money exchanged. The brand gains credibility. The influencer gains readership/following/indirect revenue through their association with the brand and wider exposure. And/or merchandise and/or products and/or an exclusive experience.

So here are a few thoughts on how to make it better again. Very simply, going back to the basics.

Brand Managers, be picky about the influencers you work with. Frankly, there's a limited pool. And every social media agency has pretty much the same list. Look for a few really good and relevant influencers, rather than a wide pool of irrelevant (to your category) influencers. Or work even harder, and discover someone who could become an influencer through your campaign. Your campaign will look and feel more authentic. And you'll save a few bucks too.

Brand Managers, avoid your instinct to hard-sell. The more sell-y the content you co-create, the more people will avoid it. Don't be lazy. Find a way to subtly weave your brand promise into your influencer's natural content. It's a brand-building exercise, not a sales one.

Influencers, stay true to yourselves. If music is your passion (and the reason people follow you), you have no business working on a food brand. And if you love rock music, don't pick up a campaign related to Bollywood pop. If you're an iPhone fan, don't work with an Android OEM. If you're a jeans-and-tees person, avoid the business/formal clothing brands.

Influencers, don't do every campaign you get. I've seen people tweet for OLX one day and Quikr the next. The agreement you sign with a client may not be exclusive. But being loyal to the brands you actually respect or use will win you more credibility with your audience. It'll also keep your client loyal to you. Money is always tempting. But eventually, you'll end up diluting your brand equity. And your follower count.

Influencers, be transparent about your engagement with the brand. There's no need to pretend that you wrote a post out of sheer love. Talk about how you're engaging with the brand. It's also ok to tell the world that they paid for your trip, or paid you to write the post, and leave it to your followers to judge for bias. It'll just help you build further credibility.

As usual, I'd love to know what you think. Do leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

Footnote: I want to touch upon the issue of brands paying an influencer. I personally believe that paying an influencer to engage is antithetical to the concept of influencer marketing. It's no different from hiring a celeb to endorse your brand. I do also believe that influencers work hard to create content and build a deeply engaged following, and deserve to be rewarded for the work they do. It's a grey area; so in the end, you should just do what seems ethical to you.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Creativity In Content Marketing

I was recently invited by DMAi to speak at Global Marketing & Advertising Week (#GMAW15), on creativity in content marketing. Below is an adapted version of that speech.

A few years ago, when I was working at one of India’s most well-known content marketing agencies, life was very different.

Back then we really struggled to sell the idea of content marketing to clients. The idea of engaging audiences all-year-round with words, pictures and videos, with metrics that were tough to define, was always a struggle to sell.

We failed more often than we succeeded. But we succeeded just often enough to help bring content marketing into mainstream conversation.

We’ve come a long way since then, I think. We’re all working hard to come up with content to engage audiences in a connected world. To ensure that we look at all our communication through a content lens. To make it part and parcel of our marketing communication DNA.

We now have a few years’ experience behind us; we’re learning through trial-and-error and experiments that often fail; we’re learning from markets that are ahead of us; we’re getting better at this game.

So what do today and tomorrow hold for us?

A couple of years ago, I'd begin every brief by sitting down with my pen and scribble pad and saying, “Right. Let's lead with with a blog post. That means I’ll need some social media posts to get people to it. Ooh, a hashtag would be nice, let’s do one of those too! #IsThisHashtagTooLong”

On my worst days, I'd even write down “run a contest” on that sheet of paper.

I could then walk away feeling pretty satisfied, pretty nice about myself. Time for a coffee break.

But today, when I'd look at that sheet of ideas the night before a presentation, I'd start sweating.

Because all of these have become hygiene. Because having a blog, or creating a hashtag, or running a contest, isn’t a content marketing idea. It’s become a format, another box you just tick.

Today, brands like yours are churning out this kind of content day in and day out. The Internet is flooded with it. As are my social media feeds. We're already churning out content calendars and figuring out how to spark brand conversations during the Cricket World Cup.

It’s come to a point where each brand sounds absolutely no different from the next...and I can't tell which is which just by looking at the content. Which, as you’d all know, is really not a good thing.

And so I ask myself, “In this sea of infinite content, where on any normal day of the week, 8 of the top 10 trending hashtags are brand conversations, where each headline is more click-baity than the next, what the hell is going to make my brand and my content really stand out?”

I’ve always believed that content is the ‘pull’ of marketing communications, rather than the ‘push’.

I believe that good content gets people coming back because it entertains, it inspires, it touches an emotional chord, it makes them rant and rage. Or it simply provides a utility or gives them information or education that they weren’t getting before.

Good content is also immensely shareable - because of the reasons I mentioned just now.

One huge, and often ignored, role of content is to generate positive earned media for the brand. There are huge synergies emerging between content marketing and PR, not just in terms of story dissemination but also in terms of story packaging.

I also believe that one can’t restrict content to words, pictures and videos that just wash over people sitting in front of a screen. Interactivity is key. And technology is the answer to immersing audiences deeper into a brand. Apps, games, platforms, devices - they all have a role to play in creating great content.

So, with all those filters in my head, I go back to “How do I stand out?”

The answer I’ve got to over the years is this:

Actions speak louder than words.

It’s a simple human truth, right?

We judge people - our friends, our leaders, our doctors, our wedding photographers - by that yardstick. By what they do, not what they say.

It’s the same for brands.

In a parity environment, what a brand does matters more than what it claims to do.

So, at this point in my life and career, I look at it this way:

Advertising is what you say.
Content is what you do.

Now, what do you mean by ‘do’?

I could, as a content marketer, ‘do’ a video. I could ‘do’ a blog post. I could ‘do’ an influencer engagement or ‘do’ a tweetup.

But that’s not what I mean. That's just playing with words, right?

To me, ‘doing’ means refocusing on your core brand promise, and then living up to it in front of your audience. In whatever manner works best.

It means proving, every day, that you’re true to your words and promise. That you mean what you say.

It means focusing less on changing perceptions by making a claim; and more on changing perceptions by fulfilling or exceeding expectations.

It means being less of an interruption in people’s lives; it means positively impacting people’s lives through your products, services and brand.

One way brands can stand out in a cluttered, parity environment is to create content that proves - honestly, credibly and creatively - what they stand for. And thus start owning that space.

Across any screen you can think of.

Let me show you a piece of work from one of my favourite content marketing campaigns. Chrome Experiments were begun to push the limits of Web technology, to push the limits of Google’s Chrome Browser. And, to noticeably demonstrate how good the Chrome browser is.


The Chrome team didn’t just talk about being faster, or having more features, or being more developer-friendly. They just kept creating pieces of content that proved it. Over and over and over again. And today, many Chrome Experiments are being created every day by developers all over the world, who are not Googlers. Just people pushing the limits of what the technology can do.

One of my favourite content marketing brands in the world is Red Bull. Everyone knows that they stand for giving wings to athletes. But they don’t just support these athletes morally, or emotionally or financially. They create platforms for them to shine. They identify athletes, work with them and then co-create content that makes those athletes world-famous.


It’s easy for a food industry brand to stick to the conventional food industry metaphors. Blendtec has always been different. They have a core brand promise; they stick to it; and then they deliver on it in the most amazing, culturally-contextual ways possible.


India’s favourite beer is known for their baseline - The King of Good Times. Kingfisher have embraced technology to create content and experiences that offer a memorable good time to their fans.


It isn’t just B2C marketing that can benefit from this kind of an approach. Every year, around Christmas, the Publicis Groupe create a Christmas card that they put up online. Last year’s card was an interactive experiment designed to entertain - and also to subtly prove Publicis’ strengths in creative digital marketing.


I’ll end with a story that’s very close to my heart. Everybody’s talking about the great Indian e-commerce boom. Billion-dollar valuations, transactions-per-day, the payment ecosystem and an ever-increasing user base. Nobody - I repeat, nobody - was talking about the wheels that make this economy turn. Last year, during GOSF, we decided that we should do something special for people nobody cared about. To get them into the conversation and recognise their efforts. Because we believe that the web exists to improve the lives of all people.


So, the next time you brief your agency on a content marketing campaign, don’t ask them what you can say.

Ask them what you can do.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Remarketing: From Stalking To Smart

If you haven't been through the experience of searching for a product or service and then being served ads all over the web for the same product or service, then this is probably your first day online. Welcome to the Internet. There's a lot more than porn here.

Jokes apart. The way marketers currently use cookie- or sign-in-based ad remarketing makes most users feel like they're being shadowed. Like their every move is being tracked. Like Big Brother is watching.

For those who came in late, remarketing is the act of targeting users who have already visited your website, or clicked on an ad, or searched for a particular product or category, or interacted with you on social media, or downloaded your app.

It initially began as a really smart idea. Someone who's interacted with you or your business' category is more likely to be persuaded if you are able to identify them and serve them an ad based on their earlier interaction with you. It sounded like a beautiful blend of digital marketing and CRM.

And then all hell broke loose.

Here's the greatest prank I ever heard of.

Remarketing Prank

This is exactly how remarketers work. If the user's shown interest in spoons, let's give him spoons. Big spoons, little spoons, silver spoons, gold spoons, plastic spoons, dessert spoons, soup spoons...

Here are some reasons why this kind of remarketing doesn't work.

  1. It's as close to online stalking as you can legally get.

  2. The user might have actually already bought the spoons, in which case the ad impression was wasted.

  3. The user may have had only a fleeting interest in the product or category.

So how do you make remarketing more effective?

By making it useful to your users.

Here's one way to do that.

Suppose you let your user pick what they're interested in. You store that information - either through a signed-in profile or a cookie or both - on that user's browser. And then target them with ads focused on those interest categories.

At any point of time, the user can update their interest categories, making sure they're always being served fresh, relevant ads. They can also - in the interest of privacy - choose to opt-out of this programme.

In a sense, you're getting your users to optimise your advertising for you. And increasing your relevance to them; and, hopefully, brand equity.