Clients need to be handheld to think digital: Sabyasachi Mitter

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Sabyasachi Mitter

Sabyasachi Mitter, Managing Director, Interface Business Solutions

Interface Business Solutions was started in 2003 to provide services on Web Design and Development. Since then, it has walked parallel to the evolution of the digital space. It now operates in six different verticals with almost forty clients on board and is expected to log a turnover of 32 crore this year. Sabyasachi Mitter, Managing Director of Interface Business Solutions talks to Pitch about noticeable consumer trends, challenges and opportunities associated with digital, as a marketing medium. Excerpts…

What has been Interface Business Solutions journey? What are the different verticals it operates in?
I started this company in early 2003 and the first few years were undoubtedly quite a bit of a struggle. In 2003, digital was largely all about making websites. But, from the early stages we decided that unlike traditional digital media agencies, the differentiation we would bring to the table is technology. So, the first few projects we had done were e-commerce projects for companies like Bajaj Electricals, Morphy Richards. And in those days, e-commerce was not even heard of and nobody would believe that anything could be sold online. It’s only around 2006 that we actually started venturing into much larger clients and we got Tata Indicom and Samsung on board.

The real growth for the company started in 2009, when we got the Tata Docomo business, which allowed us to move into many more verticals in terms of the digital spread that we had. That’s when we got into social media, digital media planning and buying. And, today, the company operates in six verticals. Web design and development, which is what we started as, remains an area of expertise. We are now Microsoft Gold Certified partner and we have our own product, in the ecommerce space. Work on digital media planning and buying spanned over 2008-09 and mobile was something we started last year in 2011.

Can you highlight key consumer trends that have influenced the growth of digital?
When I look back, not just to 2003, but to 1996 when I launched the first website for Asian Paints, the first contributor is obviously the penetration of internet, which is why a lot of companies and clients began looking at the Internet far more seriously. Between the year 2003 and 2006, the trend largely was in terms of search and compare. Users were looking at the Internet as a medium for content and information. There wasn’t too much trust in transaction or commerce. It was thus, more about getting help with decision making rather than actually monetising the brand or getting into commerce.

The real change was in 2007-2008 when social communities started taking centrestage. You had Orkut in those days, where people actually had a reason to spend longer amount of time online whether it was through mail or messengers or Orkut and then subsequently, Facebook. That is where brands started realising that there was sizeable conversation happening, there was sizeable number of people talking to each other and it made sense therefore to have a clear strategy on how to engage with these people and how to convert them to customers.

The defining moment for the internet was when we crossed five crore users, which meant that most of your high net worth customers and the youth, especially from a SEC A profile. And, that is the time when airlines and railways were also moving in a big way towards ticketing online. That’s when the comfort of paying money online also started coming in. In the last two years consumers are not just looking for information. They believe that they can talk to brands and brands will talk back to them. Things are now getting even better with mobile internet marking its space and smartphones becoming cheaper.

Is it safe to assume that with digital is a medium better suited to target the youth?
A sensible brand would have already identified their target audience. For example, if you want to run a campaign for a brand like Renault, you would have various psychographic profiles in place. It’s not just about whether a guy, who is above the age of 35 years, who can buy a car. It is also about who is influencing the decision. It is the 16 or 18 year old son who can influence the purchase decision. If you look at another extreme, for a brand like Bingo which operates in the chips category, the maximum amount of consumption would happen in teens or early twenty year old segment.

On digital, unlike traditional media, when you take out an ad on the front page of a newspaper, you cannot really know who exactly saw the ad. Platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook allow you to target by age, city, profession, education or even by a particular workplace. It is also important for marketers to know that digital does operate like any other medium. It is the objective of the campaign that needs to be clear. With digital however, there is the freedom of changing the matrices depending on the objective of the campaign.

How comfortable do you think are marketers with this platform?
It is a big problem. But, to understand why it is one is more essential. Fifteen years back, most of my colleagues, were doing television, print and market research. In ten years’ time, when they began embracing top management roles, they had never worked with digital. As agencies ourselves, we also need to constantly keep ourselves abreast about what is happening and what is possible. The mix of technology and creative, which defines digital, is evolving by the day. The challenge for us as a company is also to work very closely with our clients, educate them and literally handhold them to think digital.

Can you cite an example of a recent campaign which has followed this process?
We’ve recently handled a campaign for Kotak Mahindra Bank. The client has been working on digital for some time. They brought us on board as a specialist. One of the first things that we realized was, that as a bank, on social media, everybody was largely talking about the same things- tips on finance, how to save money and related stuff. We asked ourselves how a brand like Kotak can differentiate itself from the others. We came up with a concept of taking their brand ambassador, Subbu, onto digital in an interesting way by co-creating a book on savings by the entire Social Media community. While Subbu would be the editor of the book, the actual content of the book would come from the community. The purpose was to extend the whole concept of savings in a very Indian way. The campaign also involves the physical publication of the book, which would be available in book stores.

What is the scope of marketing via social media beyond creating parallel engagement?
As an agency, we started social media marketing about three years back when engagement was a buzzword. But, most of our key clients have moved on from there. On Facebook itself, for Tata Docomo, we had done a monetisation of over one crore directly from the Facebook audience. This year we have launched something called ‘Twitter Commerce’ which is recognised even by Twitter since it wants to develop this as a commerce product on social media. For us, social media is not about talking to your fans. Needless to say, that’s where one starts. But, the end point has to be business returns. Otherwise, people will begin to lose interest. If any media cannot deliver business requirements, the honeymoon period is bound to rub off. For clients, who have been operating in the digital space for over a year, the focus is to monetize and get better data insights. That is the only reason your client will want to continue to invest in social media.

Do you think social media is still operating in a very nascent stage in India where it is still hard look beyond Facebook and Twitter?
I think the general awareness of Indians when compared to their international counterparts, on emerging trends, is unfortunately much less. Whether it’s a Pinterest which has a only two lakh users in India as against a one crore global user base or an Instagram, which has had many successful campaigns integrated with it, Indians typically take longer to catch on to a platform. Even if you look at Orkut, India was probably the last country, except Brazil, to ditch Orkut. Till two years back, India was lagging way behind the charts even as far as the number of Facebook users is concerned. Therefore, such platforms will take time to reach the critical mass in India.

The second problem is also that Indians are not very comfortable multitasking. So people, who use Facebook, would want to do everything on Facebook. However, in the western world, somebody who uses Facebook, might actually be using Instagram on his iPhone, which has a very large penetration in America. The idea will be to choose a social media platform ideal for photography. The same person might be on Twitter because he has a point of view and is communicative enough to write it in 140 characters. In India, however, majority would just go and Like a post on Facebook. It is therefore, about the way we are as a community.

What, according to you, should an e-commerce site do to differentiate itself from others?
I don’t think customers really choose one site of the other because of features. First, there is obviously a market leader like a Flipkart, which has a top of the mind recall. Large sections of the consumer base extensively indulge in price comparisons, especially in the electronics category. And, within a consideration set of 5-6 sites which you will trust, if somebody is cheaper, a customer will immediately switch loyalties. Thus, there are no long term loyalties with any e-commerce website. At this point of time, it is really driven by ‘Who has the best price?’ and ‘Who offers maximum discount?’. It’s also interesting that more and more traditional players, who have an established credibility, are going online and taking these e-commerce players head on.

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