I recently spent a week in India meeting with large organisations in Financial Services, Communications, Travel and Hospitality, eTailing and Fashion regarding their current state of development in social business and their plans to utilize Social as part of their overall business strategy.

It was a fascinating week and the landscape in India is changing rapidly. Just to set the scene; there are some 120M people on line in India which is a large number but is still only 10% of the population. There are some 900 million mobile subscribers and about 350 million have data packages. Mobile is clearly the preferred method to connect and its estimated that there will soon be more mobile subscribers than people. There is a $50 tablet (Aakash), which is being rolled out into schools in India. There some 13 billion adverts served to mobile devices every month and mobile commerce is set to rise spectacularly. Yet for all that, on line commerce today is still quite small.

On the social network side, there are 56 million Facebook users in India making the third largest country behind the US and Brazil. It’s estimated that on current growth rates there will be more Facebook users in India than the US by 2014. There are 15 million LinkedIn users – perhaps not surprising given how much of the recruiting process is offshored to India and the Twitterverse is growing exponentially. The largest brand page for Facebook in India is Tata Docomo with 9.2 million ‘likers’.  Yet for all the astounding numbers, the use of social media and the creation of social businesses is still in its infancy in India – as we will soon come to see.

Its interesting that from the outside India appears as one homogenous country but nothing could be further from the truth. There are significant regional cultural differences and many regional languages – all of which are going to pose serious issues to using social networks for business – many brands are already wrestling with questions of how many presence’s do they need in India to cater to these variations and how to manage that? Some are looking at pages per branch, pages per major Tier 1 /2 cities or per state. And how many languages to support? Understanding that every presence is a void to be filled with content and hopefully, engagement. These are serious issues for large Indian Enterprises.

If I were to categorise the state of Social Business in India – I would say it’s in an adolescent stage. There is a huge amount of buzz around social in general and almost every business of note is rushing to shore up its social network presence. There is a tried and true method of building a large Facebook community – create pages or content based around sport – cricket and English Football – or around Bollywood. There are more than 20 large Enterprises with pages or applications dedicated to the cricket T20 World Cup being played right now. There are also a lot of pages and apps around the upcoming F1 event in Noida.

Generally, these pages have large engagement rates – certainly compared to what we are used to – but the main brand pages still have very low engagement rates. So the challenge for many of these organisations is how to convert the sports and movie related fan pages (sub pages) to a community that is making a real contribution to the key business metrics.

Most organisations still have yet to operationalize social business. Social initiatives are not executed consistently; metrics are still very much ‘vanity’ based with the size of the community on Facebook or Twitter being proudly discussed and for a few, even metrics on engagement, sentiment and advocacy;  but mostly blank stares when questioned on the impact on conversion rates, revenue, customer satisfaction,  leads and so on. The exceptions here were a couple of pure on line businesses in retailing and travel which were well advanced in these areas. But for the most part the focus is still on ‘how big is my community’ or how do I get one as big as my competitor?

What was interesting was that besides this issue of building reach through large communities the overwhelming reasoning for many organisations I met to be on social networks was very ‘defensive’.  The buzzword of the time inside these corporations is ORM – Online Reputation Management – and this was often cited as the major goal of their social presence. Whilst I understand that Brand Health or Optimization is a valid goal for social business the notion of being there purely to be able to respond to critics of the brand rather than focusing on positive outreach and driving positive sentiment or advocacy. And when questioned further as whether they had a brand crisis management plan that included social network outreach that had been developed and tested – again, the current thought processes had not extended quite that far.

This defensive posture was even more evident in a few organisations I met who were focused on customer service as one of the major goals for their social business initiatives.  The reasoning was they had to deal with these public complaints because they were just that; not because they actually wanted to provide a better customer experience and it was rarely part of an integrated customer service strategy. Social was truly in a silo in this case. I am sure in coming years these companies will develop fully fledged social business strategies that look at the entire customer journey and will link them with development programs that address underlying service culture deficiencies in their business. As I said to one company, social does not create a service problem but it certainly exposes those problems quickly if they already exist.

One area I thought that was a bright spot in terms of development was that many organisations were thinking cross channel from a social marketing perspective. Many of the programs, campaigns and applications being used to foster engagement required participants to share their mobile number or their email address before being able to enter. This is something I often see that companies in other markets should think about more often. Being able to link social with email for example will help stop consumer fatigue in a single channel and will provide an opportunity to create more engaging experiences. Few were using ‘Like gating’ which was good to see.

I was also pleased to see that only one organization I spoke to was actually using an outside agency to undertake moderation and engagement. This was pretty much done in house by all. Agencies were certainly used very commonly for campaign and content creation, social listening (though many complained of a lack of insights delivered) and there often were multiple agencies used for brand, social and SEO functions.

So, in very many ways the state of social business in India is very much in an adolescence phase. Organisations are ‘dating’ with their audiences in social networks but are very unsure of the process and have yet to really decide what are the desired outcomes. They have a social media approach, perhaps even a strategy but not yet thought of a social business strategy. As a result, much of what is happening today is disjointed and very much a work in process – lacking clarity of goals and metrics – but equally, working very quickly to learn and improve. There is a real thirst for knowledge and experience in social business – they are fast learners! There were lots of questions on industry social benchmarks – what is the industry average for conversion metrics when social is utilized for example – and there is a large gap in the social business arena on this type of data. Sure, there are lots of different case studies and examples of programs but no real industry benchmarks in the social arena that are accepted – there is an opportunity here!

A final point – whilst I was there the Indian government announced its intention to overhaul foreign ownership rules around retailing and if this intention is carried through to regulation it is likely to light up the retail industry in India and create a halo effect for the on line businesses and for social business.  Look out for that one – it could be a very interesting ride indeed. Even if this never eventuates, it is going to be fascinating to observe and be a part of the social business development in India in coming years.

I did want to say a big thank you to all the wonderful people I met in India on this trip who were so generous with their time and insights. There are a lot of very passionate brand people working there and it was an absolute pleasure meeting you.


Will Bosma