Guest Article: Bitan Chakraborty: The Digital Divide

By Bitan Chakrabory , Hiland Group, New Delhi | In Digital | October 22, 2010
The question that faces brands today is not "where", but "how" to be present on digital media

Of late, the marketing and brand management departments across product categories have been subconsciously categorized on the basis of their brand's presence or otherwise in the digital media. Thus, a brand and its custodian brand management department is either "in with the times" or "behind the times", depending on whether their media plan beeps of footprints across various digital platforms.

An unprecedented volume of newsprint, as well as digital space, has been expended to confirm the claim that digital media has unleashed tremendous power to promote brands in a never-experienced-before effective manner.

However, on closer scrutiny, one may find this to be more hype than a confirmed trend.

As a medium, the digital platform offers the same core benefit of being a mode to disseminate information to an audience. Merely being present on these new digital platforms would be as effective as being present on a new version of a traditional media format -- for instance, being present in a magazine exclusively for billionaires.

A newspaper or magazine enables its reader to consume only that much information as is being offered by that particular article. For more information, the reader would have to scout for the same news or article in other brands of the print medium. Ditto for the digital medium -- a Web browser can read an article or news on a website and would have to move on to another website to access more information on the same subject.

The major benefit of the digital medium over traditional media is the expanse of information which can be disseminated, the speed at which it can be disseminated; and most importantly, transferring the power to exercise control over information consumption to the reader, which otherwise, in all traditional forms of media, rests with the media owner.

The actual edge that the digital medium has over traditional media is this independence. The audience can control its own variety and volume of information consumption.

In Web parlance, therefore, the digital medium is more "user-friendly".

How has advertising been empowered by the digital medium? And how are brands being helped to express themselves like never before to their TG?

If one were to meticulously scan the volumes written about this, it would take a few moments to note the repetition, with references to a set of social media vehicles, and how the membership of these networking sites has been multiplying ferociously in India.

However, it does not help us to make a "2+2=4" out of this. An increase in the usage of a Web medium is in no way proof of a proportional growth in the effectiveness of that medium in accurately dispensing marketing communication to a desired target audience.

Media is merely like a boat or a bridge, which helps to ferry across the river of clutter and reach out to the intended target audience.

Being present on the digital platform alone cannot be of any significance, unless we think a little deeper to understand how to be present there.

First, let's take a look at the more traditional forms of Web media. Advertisement representatives from various portals approach brand managers to showcase the advertising opportunities being offered on their portal. In almost all cases, the only difference that one advertising opportunity has from another is in terms of location/position on the webpage, and whether it is a static or an animated (Flash enabled) opportunity for a banner/skyscraper.

However, this alone cannot be the basis on which the world is proclaiming the unleashing of communication power through the digital medium. Location/position had been identified as an innovation in media decades ago in the traditional formats. Digital media, because of the very nature of its consumption, cannot proclaim location/position to be an innovation.

And yes, calling that blinking Flash-enabled banner an innovation in the digital medium would be atrociously undermining the collective intelligence of the owners, as well as consumers, of these digital platforms.

Here's where the digital divide lies.

It's the divide between those brand managers who understand how to harness the digital platform innovatively, so as to communicate effectively and engage the new-age consumer; and those who believe knowledge of where to be present in the digital mediascape alone would win the game for them.

Next, even if we were to look at the more recent variants of digital media -- the social networking platforms -- mere presence on them would not be of any help. Let's ask ourselves for a moment how many times we've actually consumed an advertisement on any of the social media websites; or better still, how many times we've even noticed an advertisement while socializing in the virtual space.

With all modesty, may I suggest, for the first time ever, that Marshal McLuhan's biblical adage, "The medium is the message" might be up for introspection with the maturity of the digital medium. In the case of the digital medium, what's more important is not "where" you are present; but rather, "how" you are present.

Since the digital medium is interactive in nature and people interact while using this medium, a static message would not be of much use. This applies more so for social media.

An interactive ad for Axe on a traditional e-mail portal would be more effective in generating response from the audience, than a static ad or community on a social media website.

Creating a community on a social networking website does not help, if we do not communicate about it offline, so as to generate awareness about its existence. Remember how we got to know about the various communities on Paul the Octopus. Chances are that eight out of ten times, our friends told us about it; and nine out of those ten times, it was not while we were traversing the digital space.

Besides, Paul the Octopus was the biggest brand on earth during its short shelf-life, and people were getting "pulled" to the brand's communication voluntarily. But the life of more mundane brands and their brand managers is tougher, wherein they have to "push" the communication to the audience.

And the audience, unfortunately enough, does reside outside the virtual space. Therefore, consumers react first to information received from outside the virtual space; and then disseminate the same information through the virtual space, in those fleeting moments when they flaunt their digital-savvy avatars.

(The author is assistant general manager marketing, Hiland Group.)