Digital media has come of age : Manish Agarwal

This question is neither being asked for the first time nor is going to be the last time. This question has been raised, adnauesm, in every forum since 2001 and replies of experts and research reports can give a run to a classic bollywood potboiler which oscillates between hope and despair.

One can argue the futility of this question and ask what does coming of age mean? Isn’t coming of age akin to “obscenity lies in the eyes of the beholder” where depending upon who is answering this question, the definition of “coming of age” itself changes.

If one has to feel elated and paint an optimistic picture, we can talk about IPL on Youtube; Facebook becoming a mass brand in India ; social marketing becoming the flavor of the day for the advertisers; Farmville becoming the topic of social circuit etc; and to top it up throw in a 500 million strong mobile consumer base and possibilities post the advent of 3G!!!!

However, if one was to take a pessimistic view of the digital medium, one can throw in the following statistics and suddenly it looks like a “lost game”.

A miniscule 18% YOY growth in online unique users for last 3-4 years inspite of a small base of ~38-40 million Internet users in the country (as per comscore June 2009). This definitely is not in line for online players to fulfill the 10 year old dream of overtaking markets such as the US and UK to become an attractive Internet market liken to China. To add to the woes of the Indian Internet market , the active user base is a fraction of the overall base (active being defined as – people who at least come once or twice a day) and hence digital coming of age seems to be far far away.

Online advertising continues to remain the last slide in a brand manager’s presentation failing to capture moods of the consumers on the Internet and developing their strategy for the same. Advertisers are still using the same approach of bombarding irrelevant ads in people’s faces. They did it on radio, TV, newspapers and now doing the same thing on the web. With all the Internet players, except Google, heavily dependent on display based advertizing, have got caught in a mess of their own making as the web has been sold as a performance based medium which acts as “the differentiator” when compared to traditional mediums. The combination of lack of reach and lack of contextual serving of ads has resulted in the web fighting for its survival.

The ubiquity of the mobile is a blessing for digital medium to finally gain its due place in the ecosystem as the Indian consumer has taken to mobile as a fish takes to water. However the advantage of 500 million strong consumer base has been frittered away by the wall garden approach of telcos with a strong desire to control every aspect of the value chain and not foster an Facebook / Apple kind of ecosystem which provides impetus for innovation across various consumer touch points so that true convergence can really happen on the mobile which for consumers has become their “window to the external world”. Coupled with this, an onslaught of “push based” products to make quick bucks with no emphasis on building consumer stickiness has lead to further erosion of the mobile becoming a viable alternative to traditional medium of advertising.

The Internet took the right away to publish from the media barons to the Independent thinker. The cellular revolution released people from geography. The combination of the these two aspects has to yet manifest itself for digital media to find it’s self. Innovations in utility based services across web, wap, voice, sms have proven that lack of bandwidth, delay in 3G are not the bottleneck in increasing penetration of digital medium.

In order to do this effectively a different thought will have to be undertaken at the content conceptualization stage. A thought, driven more from understanding the functionality of the technology at work and how it can be used to engage with the consumer effectively than what is currently being used. Digital media now needs to bring into its fold the “Intelligence” to determine how effective a campaign is, not by clicks but by the action that the user has executed after the click. We should not be bombarded by random smses, but an effective way of user profiling should emerge so that we are looked upon more than just as a number. For digital medium to grow it needs to build consumer destinations which can be exploited by all the players in the value chain.

……The author Manish Agarwal is CEO, UTV Interactive

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