July 20, 2010

Solving the big mystery

                     As markets change and economies become more complicated, there is a proportionate change in consumer preferences too. To meet this change, there has to be another change-an organizational change! The change has to be not just in products but also in the marketing efforts. The trick to this change lies in evaluating existing marketing practices and benchmarking them against the best in the industry. Hmmm…benchmarking or heavy standardization is a broad term; depending on the context you use it. Each company wants to outplay the other in this competing age and feedback becomes as important as the initial planning of the system. Profits and Sales lie on the base of competition. No longer are high earnings or high dividend payouts regarded as internal excellence and similarly, customers are also asking questions if they find competition being more just to their demands. Hence, companies are carrying out competitive evaluation in a manner that will stump normal understanding but it has an underlying logic.

                  Recently, I worked for half a dozen projects which involved me going to places (read client locations) to evaluate their services and products. At the end of it, I had to fill a combined (structured and unstructured) questionnaire, answering various events that took place. From the ambience and cleanliness to the attitude of the staff and the presentation of physical evidence, all went in the review. Of course, it also depended on my mood and how happy I felt in the 'place’.

                  Welcome to the age of ‘mystery shopping’ or ‘ghost shopping’ or ‘service evaluation’ or whatever you want to call it. Here, agencies like the one I undertook this project for, sign contracts with their clientele, who happen to be leading service providers mostly, and aim at finding what really is going on in their area of suspicions. Sounds like detective work, doesn’t it? Well, only partly. It helps that sometimes the clientele already have done their research work, which is they know the problem areas and just need the agency to find out why such and such things are happening, and then arrive at conclusions. The agency in turn sends out their detectives (read mystery shoppers) to the client’s narrowed down list, say a couple of branches--treated as a sample--where the sales haven’t been picking up for the past six months. And then the mystery shopper does the rest, which includes assuming a fake identity and profile most of the time. Once the MS fills the questionnaire, then again the agency guys set to work on the collected data of their mystery shoppers. Generalizing the findings, one can easily arrive at a handful of conclusions to present to the client, who is more than happy to accept it and sets about ‘correcting’ things in the ways and manners of his organization policies.

                    Of the half a dozen, projects which I have handled, one of them included almost ten branches of an IT service provider that provides software coaching to students. Assuming a student profile and talking to the counselors was no big deal but when it comes to translating them in evaluation parameters, it becomes a tad difficult and of course, recording the premises without seeming suspicious is a little more than a challenge. Similarly, there was a leading animation academy, who wanted to gain feedback from its prospective customers and the closes it could get was simulated mystery shoppers. It played safe without giving its staff a whiff of things in the administration. Then there was a famous coffee chain outlet of the past, falling to modern competition but still wanted to spunk up internal matters, so out we went to its three locations in different parts of the city. Somewhere the experiences were pleasant whereas otherwise, it was horrendous. One of the most prime corporate houses of our times has opened a gaming chain, a concept that was touted to be the next big thing in India, especially after Xbox and PSP3 but it could not pull in the gamers, why? Ah, that formed a huge explanation in my report. It was strange to notice that a section of their target group was one of the factors driving out the crowd from some stores. It is amazing how viewing things from the consumer POV, opens up sections you would have never noticed before. A recently launched mobile service provider wanted to know how the sales were picking up in Maharashtra. It had outlined at least fifty stores, of which around twenty were in Mumbai itself. As an MS, I had to not only evaluate the buying process but also the service of the new sim-card.

                  Some clients want to evaluate their competition and ask for the MS to be sent to select competitor branches, which they have found out are doing better than their best and then, the agency usually benchmarks standard practices. But most clients want to evaluate their own branches, especially in cases of large corporate houses where decentralization has made it difficult to assume knowledge of all happenings. The client is happy and so is the agency as both have scratched each others’ backs and the itch is satisfied.

                     Ah, but why will the MS do it? What’s in it for them? How can their itch be satisfied? Well, the answer is very simple. The MS gets some good recommendations which build a healthy personal brand and of course, a little amount of money that keeps them happy. Apart from that, the MS is usually allowed to keep the products that he is asked to purchase from the client location and is paid for it too. Also, if the MS is evaluating services, no doubt he is allowed to try them out and experience them. Remember, intangibles have no value. So sometimes, the experience can be bliss and some agencies even allow you to take a friend together. It helps if you have a weak memory and you have to remember all the evaluation criteria and at the same time, click a couple of pictures or do an audio-visual recording furtively. Some agencies pay a travelling allowance in addition to, the regular MS fees and recommendation certificates. Working with a good research agency can only boost your career prospects and in this age of complex consumer behavior, being a mystery shopper calls for some looking upto, doesn’t it?

With hugs and kisses to the consumer,
The Young Marketer.


July 3, 2010

Social Media-Driving Results by integrating brands and consumer preferences.

                I have been away for too long. With my debut book steadily on the way to become a proper novel, I have been also working on my second book and a collection of short stories.A little bit of internship with a media orgnisation and my own assignments are also to be blamed for my laziness but neverthless it was a rewarding experience.A lot  has been happening but fristly, I hope you realise the most major loss of the marketing world this year, has been the death of C K Prahlad, the veteran who changed the very definition of the lower class. Three cheers to him and his BOP practices. Thanks to him, today companies are concentrating more and more on the rural hinterland rather than overstuffing the already saturated urban market. This has ofcourse, led to the opening of opportunities and a huge vaccum in corporate supply and users demand has been exposed.

             The other day I was on Facebook, I happened to notice RandomHouseIndia’s announcement about the launch of ‘The Betelnut Killers’-a book by one of my writing acquaintances, Ms. Manisha Lakhe. The author and the publisher were both putting up ample wall posts related to the book and the former even announced a book give away contest. With the publisher having over 2,500 fans and the author having over 350 friends in her list, you can very well decide the number of people who would be interacting with the potential launch of the book. We can safely bet that they are interested in the product because they are on the fanpage of a publishing house and most importantly in the friend list of a popular author.

              Needless to say, with more than 40,000 books under my roof (a second town hall), I added one more that day by ordering the book with a leading online bookstore which had tied up for distributing the book. Social media is not a new phenomenon from the consumer’s point of view. Ever since, users signed up on social networking sites they have been questioning practices and discussing likes and dislikes but it is only in recent times that companies have began to leverage the power of social media. We often talk about ‘meeting consumer needs’ which is such a broad term in itself. So are the marketers really listening when the consumer is busy talking to his peers online? Consumers today are somewhere between the real and virtual world, so it only makes sense for companies to not churn out an all-out virtual campaign without the proper research base and as such integrating social media with traditional methods and mode is a manner of playing safe. Organisations today also have to beware of not making it appear as if they are pushing the products too hard because social media would require a lot of pushing initially for it to actually pull.

             As Ms. Vinita Bali, MD of Britannia rightly says, “Marketers in India are following a model that there is a large population and even if it buys a little of something, it becomes a lot. The game has to move away from how many to how much.” As such, the focus should be on quality. In today’s era, revenue generation automatically becomes a long-term objective and companies dwelling on it too much are no doubt suffering from Levittian myopia. As per a study noted by Vineet Taneja, Marketing Head, Nokia India, 81 percent of consumers complain of too much advertising on TV. 60 percent trust recommendations from online discussion groups. With over 100 million blogs, 70 percent Indians between 15 and 34 years use social networks. Facebook has over 9 million users just from India itself. Facebook saw a growth rate of 230 percent last year and Orkut has been steadily enjoying a growth rate of 35 percent, though it has lost the early mover advantage alongwith sites like Hi5 and Tagged. India’s internet penetration right now is 8 percent but that means 81 million people having access to the internet. Imagine the potential! If a consumer decides to buy the brand he interacts with on the social media platform, a post is published to all his friends indicating of his latest endeavor. Apart from that, if he likes it, he is sure to put in a word both online and offline and initiate a viral chain that can spread to ten times his original friendlist.

             Author Chetan Bhagat, who believes himself to be a product of Word of Mouth narrates a tale about his book promotion event in Delhi. “My publisher put ads in tier two papers because of budget constraints. I put information about the event on my blog and Twitter. I did a survey at the actual event and we found out that 65 percent had come from Twitter, 25 percent were just walking around and 10 percent came because they had seen the ads,” announces the acclaimed author. A similar thing happened with me when I went for the book launch of Annie Zaidi's 'Known Turf' at Phoenix Mills. I received the invitation through the author herself on Facebook through an event posted and lo, I was the first one to land there (what with my enthusiasm for books.) It turned out to be a great event with Zaidi's vivid narrative and the great man called P. Sainath--I so adore-- who was the part of the panel (Book's a must read if you want to know what's really happening in true India as it is a journalist's take.)

          Neverthless, it just goes to show the strength of online platforms.Twitter has become popular as there are a number of opinion leaders and celebrities and the communication is quick, Facebook is a large platform and offers many possibilities with posts, applications, fanpages, et al. Imagine now, tying up with the popular celebs for a virtual endorsement policy. Ofcourse it would be kind of stealth marketing but then let us keep the option to the celeb and allow them to decide whether they would be able to experience the brand connect and pull it off. The Royal Challengers Bangalore Fan-club has almost 31000 engaged fans on its web-site and over 3000 fans on Facebook alone. The club has proceeded to build its own standing website first and then tie it up with social media platforms. Internationally too social media has been a revelation. Starbucks fuelled its campaign on social media after losing marketshare and status to competitors, who were still stuck with the conventional media. It ran hugely successful contests encouraging people to post photos of its posters using Twitter. Starbucks proudly states that it opted for millions of fans instead of millions of dollars as the campaign generated a buzz and is helped by its 1.5 million fans on Facebook and 1,83,000 followers on Twitter. Another case in consideration is of Cadbury which used social media to promote its twisted bar and Picnic brands. For the former, consumers were awarded after being registered as ‘agents’ if they managed to crack the game challenge that had been put up on their website. Some were given cameras to photograph themselves and create a buzz for the product and assigned points based on their achievements. Cadbury even managed to reposition Picnic in the minds of the consumer after integrating an advertisement campaign wherein the consumers had to videotape themselves eating a picnic in various moods and enjoying it. The best video was chosen as the commercial and awarded a handsome amount. It received over a million entries from all parts of the world. Back home, small time handset providers like Micromax and Lava are leveraging the power of the virtual world by running application ads while games load on Facebook or assigning sidebar ads with innovative lines.

              Social media has grown too important to be ignored now. Brands that to do so can get nowehere, a social media existence is necessary to validate your importance in the real world and support your real worl practices to develop a complete holistic marketing campaign. Social media holds a lot of promise for brands, provided they use it effectively. Some people who run the site are measuring the effects just like they would measure traditional media while some are taking it one at a time and looking at the effects in stages and at intervals. Social media has become a means of supplementing real interactions but is yet to become an end in itself. With my book coming up, no doubt, I am going to change the definition of my markets (Oh, you can LOL at that again ;))

With hugs and kisses to the Consumer,
 The Young Marketeer.