Social media is not a substitute for on-ground market sentiment

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Years ago, when I was working on a MNC account, the MD of the Indian operations (a Canadian) asked why his ads (for an FMCG brand) were not shown on sports channels during telecast of golf tournaments. When I told him that the numbers didn’t warrant it, he said, ‘but all my friends watch golf’. That’s the trouble with hanging out with only a particular kind of like-minded people and being completely out of touch with real consumers. And then there are marketers who go the other extreme – they spend so much time with consumers who belong to a totally different mindset that they lose objectivity. It may result in second guessing the consumer’s tastes and values (‘this is how they are’ mindset). I guess marketers need to strike a balance in appealing to their consumers – neither pitching the message too high or too low.

Social media has brought in challenges of its own for brands. One such challenge is to gauge audience sentiment correctly. Many brands take to social media if they know a large chunk of their audience is on Facebook or Twitter. The audience’s interaction with the brand on social media varies from category to category. If the brand is in a high involvement category or has engaging content, audience engagement can be expected. The tone of audience engagement can say a lot about their equation with the brand & category, their problems & expectations, their affinity to the brand and generally reflect market sentiment to a great extent. Witness the brickbats directed at telecom brands in India like @Airtel_Presence or bouquets shared with service brands like Oberoi Hotels.

But as @ParamShobit said on Twitter:

That is just one part of the problem. Sometimes, what a brand perceives as endorsement on social media may just be a mirage. We all know what happened to Pervez Musharraf – he is believed to have decided to return to Pakistan and fight elections based on the huge number of fans for his official Facebook page. Which brings me to another ‘brand’ in the same domain: Aam Aadmi Party.

The party has had a strong presence on Twitter and other social platforms with an army of influential names supporting the party’s ideology. They were not just supporting the party but became official spokespersons, evangelists. They were joined by another group of relatively less-influential but more aggressive Twitter followers. Their sole aim was to defend the party’s actions and take on everyone who disagreed with them. This led to a huge visibility for the brand on Twitter. Coupled with mass media coverage, the brand had a huge share of voice in media in general and social media in particular. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there used to be an AAP-related trend virtually every day. Trends like #AAPWaveinKashi were the order of the day, everyday. It appeared as if ‘getting something related to AAP to trend’ became an objective in itself. In my view, there was a huge gap between perception and delivery for the AAP brand – as witnessed by the actual, on-ground results. Even today, after the elections and other recent developments, attempts are being made to trend hashtags like #AAPPromiseDelivered. There seems to be a mismatch between sentiments on ground towards the brand and its tone in social media.

All this takes me back to a famous marketing story about a hair-dye brand. When the sales of the brand shot up in rural areas, the marketing team at the HQ was puzzled about the reason-why. There were many theories – rural men are getting conscious about their looks and so on. The marketing head decided to find out for himself and visited the market himself. To his dismay he found that the men were buying his brand of hair-dye by the truck loads not because they were conscious of their looks. They were buying the hair-dye brand for a completely different reason: to blacken the buffalos so that they shine when they were put up for sale so as to command a premium price. What a contrast to fashion theories for men in rural areas.

In social media too, there could be many sophisticated tools to gauge sentiments (and they could be damn right) but there is no substitute for actual, on-ground listening. What say? Comment in.

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  1. Karan Mehta Reply

    It is very important to know ground realities and not get swayed into assumption due to reasons like few spikes in sales. Thanks for highlighting a very important lesson in marketing.

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