How can brands make sense of social media?
This article originally appeared in “Vikalpa: The Journal for Decision Makers”, a quarterly publication of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India. The original can be accessed in this PDF (Page 105).
In February 2012, almost three thousand people descended upon the Leela Kempinski Hotel in Gurgaon to attend Ad:Tech Delhi. The gathering comprised of marketers, advertising agencies, publishers, media houses and digital service providers. Over three days, participants from over 20 countries would use the event to network, learn and understand how businesses could ‘engage consumers’ and take advantage of the fast growing digital medium. The event organizers called it the “largest digital conference in Asia”. The fact that it was happening in India, a country with less than 10 per cent Internet penetration at the time, tells of the potential businesses see in digitally enabled commerce. The speakers and panelists spoke on a wide variety of topics, but a common theme that emerged over those three days was how brands needed to engage stakeholders through story-telling. As a result, a lot of time was spent discussing the media channels best suited for such an exercise, so it’s no surprise that social media was one of the buzzwords of the conference.
Marketers tend to view social media as a new creation. A new way of hawking brands — and the products and services they represent. And who can blame them? Over the past decade new behaviors have taken root amongst the general Internet populace.
“Every day hundreds of million people are flocking to the Internet to blog, tweet, IM and Facebook. But when you look at the Internet on an evolutionary timeline, everything we consider ‘old media’ is actually very new. Books and newspapers became common only in the last two hundred years, radio and film in the last hundred. If all of human history were compressed into a single twenty-four-hour day, media as we know them emerged in the last two minutes before midnight. Before that, for the vast majority of human history, all media was social media. Media was what happened between people—teaching, gossiping, making music, making each other laugh. Media was participatory, media was social. There was a brief period of time in the twentieth century when ‘media’ were understood as things created by professionals for others to passively consume. But this new ‘mass-media’ was so relentlessly one-way and isolating that our older participatory traditions, story-telling, music making, eating together as a family—fell away. Enter the Internet. As soon the technology became available, we began instinctively re-creating the kinds of content and communities that we evolved to crave. We comment on Youtube videos, vote for contestants on reality shows, turn televised news events into live theatre. So what we’re seeing today isn’t really new, but rather the correction of a historical anomaly. The tools are different. But the behaviors come naturally.”
As a marketer and digital enthusiast, I’ve spent considerable time watching social media evolve over the past decade. I’m amazed at the pace of change. How quickly users tend to adopt new technologies, and discard them just as quickly, as soon as something more interesting comes along. Given the amount of time users spend on social media, and the frenetic pace at which the environment is evolving, it’s no wonder that many businesses today are still trying to come to terms with the nuance and potential of social media.
Building the Mahindra brand
When Mahindra articulated its brand identity, Rise, in January of 2011, it was the culmination of a two-year exercise in self-discovery. We were convinced that a strong, unified brand was key to achieving the group’s ambition to become a global household name and to satisfy consumers’ increasing desire to identify with the companies they buy from. So we conducted a deep-dive into Mahindra’s culture, interviewing employees, customers and communities in eight countries to understand what mattered to people. Again and again, people identified four qualities: a global mindset, ingenuity, social responsibility and a challenger spirit. Taken together, they are a call to Rise.
Rise isn’t just a word. It is a rallying cry which enables people to unify around shared ideas, values, principles, a way of life or a common goal. In other words, Rise is a value system and a call to action shared by people around the world.
At Mahindra, we have always been aware of the incredible opportunity that major corporations have to drive positive change and have been doing this consistently for over six decades. We create products and services that people use to improve their lives, from rural housing finance to green real-estate. For example, we built the small Mahindra Yuvraj tractor to serve the vast majority of Indian farmers, who farm tiny plots of five acres or less. Priced at the cost of buying and feeding a pair of bullocks for one year, the Yuvraj is driving a mechanization revolution in rural India.
The big challenge for Mahindra was not distilling the brand—but communicating it. Branding was only beginning to gain importance in Indian business. Most companies still focused largely on pure price competition, or simply overcoming infrastructure barriers to reaching markets. But for Mahindra, identifying the group with the human ambition to Rise was a key part of this forward-looking strategy.
Soon after revealing Rise as its brand identity, Mahindra set itself the ambitious goal of creating a campaign that would not only communicate, but also demonstrate the brand. The new initiative had to be participative. It also had to place the Mahindra Group as no more than one voice in the broader movement.
The power of cultural movements
In the two years that Mahindra spent developing and articulating Rise, a series of events took place. These events would change the way people and organizations viewed each other and the world around them.
– In the wake of the financial meltdown and the destruction of trust in much of the private sector, stakeholders were looking for companies they could respect and rely on. They were looking for institutions who shared their values and their goals for the future.
– People around the world were clamoring for change –in governance, transparency and accountability, not only from organizations but also governments.
These ‘movements to empower citizens’ were rapidly moving from the fringe to the mainstream. Enabled by the Internet and fuelled by social media, they were gaining momentum and creating dramatic shifts in business and politics.
With Rise we knew that we had tapped into something bigger than ourselves. We also knew that for Rise to be meaningful and relevant on the global stage, we had to look beyond our businesses and their immediate stakeholders. We needed to reach out to communities’ at large, empowering people to drive positive change in their own lives. By documenting these stories and showcasing their successes, we could inspire even more people to take action, sparking a movement of our own – enabling people to Rise.
Spark the Rise
In August 2011, Mahindra launched its ‘Spark the Rise’ program to support innovators and change-makers with the potential to creating positive impact for communities across India. (There are plans for expansion to other countries in years to come.) Successful entrants (or Sparks, as we call them) are awarded a grant from Mahindra. Additionally, we support Sparks by allowing them to use Mahindra’s brand and social media channels to spread the word about their initiatives. By connecting them with like-minded collaborators, including potential mentors, funders and volunteers, Sparks gain access to an ecosystem of partners enabling them to share resources and maximize their impact.
From the outset the program was designed to be participative. “You know what needs to be done,” says the website at sparktherise.com. “Now you can take action.”
Users can submit entries under one of five categories. In keeping with the spirit of sparking a movement, these categories were defined after conducting an extensive six-month survey. The survey asked people around the country to identify the key areas they felt needed most dramatic change when it came to the idea of nation-building in India.
The five categories that emerged were—
- Technology: Covering a spectrum of high-end innovations as well as frugal technologies that can have deep impact at the grassroots level.
- Agriculture and Rural Development: Solutions that help bridge growing divide between fast-growing urban India, and Bharat, the less glamorous rural sibling, home to the vast majority of its citizens.
- Infrastructure and Transportation: Solutions to meet the growing needs of communities across the country, both in urban and rural India.
- Energy: Utilizing a combination of solar, wind, water and traditional fossil burning methods to provide cleaner, more efficient solutions. These included solutions that provide power to communities in remote off-grid areas.
- Social Entrepreneurship: An umbrella term that covered innovations in health, education, sports, arts and culture.
In its first season, over 6,000 submissions answered the call for action plans, with 1,473 meeting impact, feasibility and innovation requirements for posting on the website. By keeping the evaluation criteria source-agnostic, ‘Spark the Rise’ allows both individuals and organizations (big and small) to participate. For-profit and non-profit entries compete on a level playing field.
Through the website, and Mahindra’s social media channels, these projects gained the visibility they needed to attract funding, volunteers, mentorship and press. Over a six-month period, 48 entries were also awarded grants from Mahindra on the basis of public vote and jury choice. The public voting mechanism ensured that innovators reached out to communities they were trying to help, mobilizing them to garner support. The jury choices ensured that entries which suffered from a lack of access to social media and other viral-enabling technologies were still able to compete on an equal footing. At the end of its first season, ‘Spark the Rise’ had given dozens of innovators across India a chance to craft their own story and share it with millions of people across the country.
Designing Spark the Rise
‘Spark the Rise’ was designed with six tenets in mind, internally known as the “6 Es”: Ease, Excitement, Energizers, Ecosystem, and Events and Engagement.
- Ease: Make participating easy—you have to be where people are. This directive sent ‘Spark the Rise’ to Facebook to attract young urban folks and to our rural dealerships to engage rural innovators. Since the launch we have also allowed participation via mobile allowing more than 900 million mobile subscribers to support their favorite entries.
- Excitement: You have to seed excitement so that people want to join you. Mahindra advertised ‘Spark the Rise’ in print, television ads, online and through roadshows across the country. High-potential Sparks have also featured on a popular TV show called Amazing Indians. The show airs on Times Now, one of India’s most popular English News channels. In addition Sparks’ success stories were also featured in full-page print ads that ran across national dailies and magazines in multiple languages.
- Energizers: In order to create a movement, you need to engage key members. These “Energizers” are key to your success. Not only do they amplify your message, but they also act as key influencers in shaping public opinion. Our team reached out to people like Ayaz Memon (recruited as a Rise blog writer) and Anand Mahindra, who could act as role models for the movement.
- Ecosystem: The development of an ecosystem of like-minded partners broadens the movement. ‘Spark the Rise’ reaches out to organizations like Ashoka, Dasra, Innovation Alchemy and the IIT Kharagpur Entrepreneurship Cell to build momentum. We continue to develop our ecosystem partners facilitating collaborative efforts between them and ‘Spark the Rise’ participants.
- Events: ‘Spark the Rise’ hosted events that the community could participate in, including campus idea drives at leading institutes of higher learning like XLRI, IITs and NITs. We’ve also created a series of Twitter chats curated by us and other members of the ecosystem, to deepen understanding of the challenges faced and the solutions needed to address them. The first year of ‘Spark the Rise’ also culminated in a Grand Finale that was thrown open to all participants and live-streamed on the Internet.
- Engagement: Movements are sustained by the people who run them and ‘Spark the Rise’ is no exception. Mahindra is constantly striving to create opportunities for people to engage more deeply with the program. Whether it is volunteering time towards a Spark, attending events to learn from practitioners and share opinions, or bringing new perspectives that will help us improve the program.
In its first year, ‘Spark the Rise’ was designed to overcome several barriers to action in India: a sense of disillusionment and disempowerment, a lack of information and communication about initiatives around the country, and a lack of resources. By including public voting in the selection of grant winners, ‘Spark the Rise’ drives innovators to spread the word. The result: collaboration among innovators, an exchange of ideas, mentorship, and even funding. In total, innovators marshaled 740 volunteers and received advice from 473 experts. And they spread awareness to over 2 million people who visited sparkthereise.com and Mahindra’s social media.
Lessons from Season 1
The 6 Es gave the ‘Spark the Rise’ team a strong action framework. But as movement marketing pioneers, Mahindra also had to learn by doing—and sure enough, many lessons were learned along the way.
Be paranoid: When you try to spark a movement and turn over the reins to other people, Murphy’s Law rules. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and you have to plan for it. In the run-up to the launch, our media agency created a conservative estimate for the number of hits on the site. A day before the launch our team decided to run the numbers again, only this time we chose to use an optimistic estimate instead. After running the numbers we realized the scenario indicated that a large number of users could potentially crash the servers. A new server was prepared and the site was migrated to the site a few hours before the launch. By end the of the season we had significantly beaten all the conservative estimates for site hits, but the increased bandwidth and server space mean we able to run the site smoothly.
When money is involved there will be mischief: Some pitfalls can certainly be avoided by planning for all scenarios. Others, the team learned to address in real time. Lured by the total US $500,000 in grants, a slew of attempts to game the web-based voting system sprung up. There were cases of collusion, fake email IDs from spurious domains, and even paying for votes. Our team responded with standard operating procedures for both algorithmic and manual checking of voting patterns and results. These resulted in some Sparks’ losing votes and for others it meant outright disqualification. It also meant that we had to delay announcements of results for several days to ensure that the winning Sparks were selected on the basis of fair and unbiased voting.
Clear and direct communication: Making tough decisions can lead to a storm of public criticism. After the delays and removal of fraudulent votes, the ‘Spark the Rise’ discussion forums bloomed with outcries. The experience served as a crash-course on the importance of clear, direct rules and communications, including an exhaustive FAQ.
Be ready to be attacked in public: Setting up social media means creating an outlet where negative as well as positive views will be aired. “Anyone using social media should be prepared to be attacked on it,” advises the Rise team. “How you handle those attacks is pivotal for people’s perception of your brand.” The key, they assert, is not getting defensive or aggressive. Instead, be clear about your stance. Apologize for mistakes—but never apologize for what you believe in.
Be fair to everyone: As sparktherise.com grew from just a few registered users to several hundred thousand, our team had difficulty addressing the needs of every user group. With over 2,000 project submissions demanding greater attention, users with basic problems like browser compatibility and vote submission felt like a second priority. Every user should have a positive experience in order to build a positive perception of the brand. In order to value all users equally, regardless of their level of engagement, it was necessary to allocate greater bandwidth to everyday interaction with the ‘Spark the Rise’ community.
Sometimes there is no perfect solution: The team also learned that some problems are not solvable. In these cases, the best course is to rely on clear communication to maintain trust and transparency, and plan to do better next time. For example, mobile verification and SMS voting was introduced to prevent fraudulent votes in the Grand Finale (the bigger jackpots were sure to attract more system-gamers). But one week before the Grand Finale, a user alerted the Rise team that anti-terrorist regulations in the state of Jammu & Kashmir forbid the push SMSes used to verify votes. The team made a tough call to go ahead with SMS verification, but it meant that citizens from the state could not be allowed to vote. Our team addressed this by clearly explaining its reasoning to the ‘Spark the Rise’ community, and as a result there was very little negative feedback. Since then, we’ve addressed this drawback by allowing participants to vote via missed-call from their mobile phones.
The vision for this year
In our first season, we realized that Sparks faced significant challenges when trying to scale up their organizations and impact even after winning a grant. As a result, we’ve devoted a significant amount of time to understand the needs of our participants and develop specific solutions for them. This year grant winners will have access to training and mentorship to help take their ideas to the next level. Each month, these Sparks will be invited to intensive workshops led by industry experts to help them develop a solid growth model and create deeper social impact. They will also be paired with a mentor from Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation whose mission is to help philanthropists and social entrepreneurs create large-scale social change. The mentors will provide additional support and coaching, and follow up with grant winners to track progress towards stated goals.
‘Spark the Rise’ is also focusing on increasing rural participation. Reaching deeper corners of the country means overcoming lack of infrastructure, illiteracy and multiple languages. The Rise team plans to use Mahindra’s extensive network of dealers—it is India’s largest non-banking financial company and a leading provider of tractors and utility vehicles—to meet rural innovators in person.
‘Spark the Rise’ events have also been scaled up. A series of nationwide roadshows began in September 2012 featuring keynote speakers on specific challenges faced by the ‘Spark the Rise’ ecosystem. These were followed by a panel discussion that includes a grant winner from Season 1. Afterwards, attendees jump into the conversation through a Q&A. Participants have found the events to be interactive and stimulating.
Through social media, ‘Spark the Rise’ is bridging innovators, and the communities they represent, with a larger ecosystem of organizations. The lessons learned here will inform future programs and our dealing with stakeholders and communities as we strive to support a movement that sparks real change. Through this we hope to create new models to drive innovation and entrepreneurship in India, and across the world – enabling people to Rise.
This article would not be complete without acknowledging the efforts of the people responsible for the success of the Rise and Spark the Rise. Specifically, I would like to mention –
- B.Karthik (Sr. General Manager, Corporate Brand Management) and my colleagues on the Rise team (past and present).
- Kate Pennington for her contributions in writing this piece.
- Strawberry Frog for their work in developing Rise and ‘Spark the Rise’
- Our partners VML Qais and Blogworks who have been instrumental in the success of ‘Spark the Rise’.
 June Cohen – The Rise of Social Media Is Really a Reprise