Social networking sites are beginning to change the face of business in a digitised India with companies adopting a marketing mix of online campaigns, promotions in print, television as well as road shows to reach out to people.
With nearly 10 million people accessing the internet in the country out of nearly 650 million users globally, companies are sniffing immense possibilities on social networks, said Gaurav Mishra, digital and social media director at the MS&L Group Asia.
"We are seeing more and more brands doing their marketing through word of mouth and social networking sites than advertising," Mishra, who helps global brands benefit from social intersection site Social Squared, said.
Any brand can make its presence felt in the social networking space and create a buzz-feedback chain at minimal cost, reaching out to the widest spectrum of tech-savvy buyers.
Recall Pepsi Refresh? In January, Pepsi launched a super $20 million Pepsi Refresh campaign on the social media to reach out to 250,000 (cached) Facebook fans compared to Coke's four million.
It is targeting Indian users with social responsibility and gender campaigns on the internet.
One of the most successful Indian social brand positioning campaigns is the Sunsilk Gang of girls which began as a promotional exercise for the pageant in 2002 - and later turned into a community platform with chats, networkings and blogs for the girls to share beauty tips.
Starbucks, the coffee company, tells its nearly 10 million virtual consumers across the globe to "share, vote, discuss and see" what they want on its social networking space.
Social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Orkut, Linkedin, hi5 and hundreds of brand-specific sites created by manufacturers are helping companies listen, said social entrepreneur Meena Vaidyanathan, a director for development at the Dialogue Social Enterprise.
"Most senior management globally get their information through social networking sites. The formal information channels have a tendency to filter and edit information. Social networking sites cannot edit and filter information," Vaidyanathan said on the sidelines of a seminar, "Social Media Campaigns - Uncovering Design Intricacies" in New Delhi.
Citing examples, she said, "Companies like Fab India, Body Shop and Starbucks have never advertised in conventional ad space".
"Five years ago, if I was in a similar market as a big MNC - my market entry would have been determined by my budgetary pipeline. But the entry barriers have given away. Small district-level brands can compete with big brands," said Vaidyanathan.
According to a report compiled by the Gurgaon-based Management Development Institute in November, a successful social media campaign by a company depends upon parameters like "integration, human approach, humour, baits to lure consumers, consistency and an ability to listen to feedback from customers".
"It has more to do with the East vs West policy. There is a reluctance to get on to the SMS in the West - in the US and Europe - but the Asia-Pacific region is using social networking sites more vigorously for marketing," said Deepak Mukharji, country head-corporate affairs of Shell Group of Companies.
"One of the advantages of the social media is that if one gets on a dialogue, it is difficult to get out of it," he added.
Mukharji said a year ago his company found three blogs on the internet urging two-wheeler owners to go to Shell pumps. This was free publicity and the company woke up to the potential, opening a dialogue with consumers on the social networking sites.
"How does information about his company reach the CEO of Shell who does not have the capacity to read newspapers? Through social networking sites," Mukharji said.
However, the future of social media campaigns in India depends on the kind of budgets companies allot to such campaigns and the revenue the campaigns generate, said Chirag Cherian of Perfect Relations, which switched to online space six months ago for client servicing.
"I am making more money on the social networking sites in India than I made in England," Cherian said.