This is a post that has been in the making for a while. Having failed at trying to frame it properly all this while I figured it was better to just write it the way it came out. Before I start off I should make it clear that I am not an entirely unbiased party in all of this. I have my skin in the game in the social* industry segment primarily through Shack Companis who have been a client of mine for about a year now. They are involved in various aspects of the industry built around the digital social system and the subject I am about to cover are equally applicable to them too.
As a sort of an insider (due to my aforementioned work) and as an outsider (thanks to sometimes being considered an influencer due to my 1600 followers as of August 13, 2012) I am fairly unenthused by how brands and agencies are using the social platforms to promote themselves through various events. The concept of using special initiatives as entry points to having a substantial presence in earned media is nothing new. The practice itself is almost as old as Twitter’s breakthrough into the internet’s public consciousness; but with time agencies have figured out how to game this system and give an exaggerated view of the impact and effectiveness of the initiatives.
To be honest, this form of misrepresentation is only a small chunk of the larger problem of determining key metrics for anything digital. Even as the domain slowly creeps up on its 20th birthday, the tooling to measure various aspects of the digital business is still notoriously absent, be it on the product side or, more crucially, the investors’ side. We have seen the industry progress from the ‘eyeballs’ of bubble 1.0 to the ‘likes’ of the current times, both driving often misinformed decisions at the product, process and business levels of any digital operation.
Anyhow, going back to the special events bit, I was fortunate to be invited to one such event. Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t consider myself as in influencer. Yes, I have about 1.5K followers on Twitter, but most of that is thanks to being one of the early adopter crowd (started in mid-2007) and organically getting to that figure. If you have been around for that long on Twitter and have been an active user, you’d also probably have a similar or greater number of followers. I am not on Facebook or on Google+ and I love Twitter for the small, but carefully curated, list of people I follow there (and dislike it with a vengeance for odd periods when I see lynch mobs form).
Thus, the invite did not make me feel the full weight of my influencer status, rather, it made me feel quite grateful that as a near-nobody I was getting an opportunity to do something that I’d otherwise probably be unable to do. The invite was to drive a few laps in a newly-launched car at the Buddh International Circuit and being a fanatic motorsports fan I jumped at the opportunity. The event was well-organized and it came with no conditions that I generate any given number of tweets about it. The organizers were even kind enough to accommodate a dear friend of mine to be a part of the event. So, what exactly went wrong?
What I did not like was that at the registration counter for the event we were asked to register our Twitter/Facebook accounts at a kiosk and during the registration the application posted tweets/updates on our accounts without informing/asking us about it. This is where the mechanics of the exercise comes into play. If you have 50 people registered for an event and if you get all of them to tweet with the same content or hashtag, you can easily amplify it through a network of ten others re-tweeting it, thus easily creating a trend out of it for smaller demographies like India. And the sad fact was that the event was so good that if it was not for that forced tweet, at least I would have tweeted a lot more about it.
Since that time I have declined similar invitations. I did attend another event at BIC, but that was thanks to an invite to a relative of mine to a members-only event for owners of a particular make/model of automobile. For me, there is an inherent conflict involved in this – both as a consultant working in the space and as someone who likes other things outside work like travel and music. It is a conflict that I have seen before in my years in the media – of paid junkets for journalists – and I would really dislike to see the same thing happen in digital social ecosystem.
That said, it would be wrong to paint the entire practice as wrong with a broad brush. I do enjoy some of the content that is posted by the participants in events. But I am never sure if the participants would post as much or the make the same posts if they were not, in a manner of speaking, sponsored by a company. This is the key conflict where the ‘earned’ in all of this slowly crosses over into ‘paid’ even if that payment is indirect. What makes it worse is that brands are often sold the impact of an event on the volume than quality/sentiment. Even when sentiment is measured, it is often inaccurate as even the more accurate sentiment measuring tools don’t get it right enough for our market.
I do not, though, have any solutions to offer for this conundrum. For both brands and users it is crucial to understand that reputations are hard to earn and easy to squander. For me at least, Twitter is like a little social club of around 100-people I like to know and converse with. I have little desire to use it to excessively promote myself or my work. I love the ability to be able to speak my mind on it without having to think twice about professional conflicts and I intend to keep it that way.