Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, the consumer is the winner

Imagine the Cola wars being fought in the social media age. Or for that matter, consumers buoyed by that old Doordarshan serial ‘Rajini’ and armed with Twitter and Facebook, taking on business establishments that seek to shortchange them. The power at your fingertips and the instant reach of your 140-character grouse or feedback is a different form of empowerment. It has made Corporate India sit up and take notice of tweets and wall posts that can go viral and spread faster than the common cold. As after-sales service is quite pathetic in the country, several international brands now claim to address consumer complaints through the social media. It could be a win-win for both sides.

For the consumer, a simple sentence could end in redressal. For the company, a sort of brand-building exercise and a bid to deflect negative feedback. However, if companies have such a facility, and don’t really solve issues, consumers could vote with their feet. A mobile phone manufacturer has been drawing flak for not even responding to complaints about defects in a few new models and instead going overboard with promotional content. One wonders why they exist on such platforms. Silence is not eloquent. And tokenism can be quite counter productive.

At the start of the new financial year, many top-notch companies have stepped up their presence on the social media by signing up tech- and media-savvy individuals and firms with an annual retainer model. Some have even hired professionals to manage their social media, as part of the Corporate Communications department. Because the 'word of mouse' can supplement the traditional advertising blitzkrieg. Ad gurus may soon have to reinvent the ‘deal’.

Alongside the common man and India Inc., the political class has also invaded the social media. Unlike crowds at political rallies, an educated ‘follower’ of a politician does not need biriyani and booze to peddle ideology or indulge in online sycophancy by attacking opponents with a different point of view or by simply retweeting – a classic ‘Follow The Leader’ game. While there are a few Chief Ministers who connect with people by tweeting about their development agenda, it’s refreshing to see the Prime Minister Of India on twitter. It’s probably the handiwork of his new Communications Advisor Pankaj Pachauri, who admittedly, is himself attracting close to five hundred followers a week. @PMOIndia has about a lakh followers. Strangely, the PM only follows ten people or organisations like Sam Pitroda, UNICEF, the World Bank, the White House, the Russian President and the UK Prime Minister.

But the medium can be a double-edged sword as Abhishek Manu Singhvi learnt the hard way. The former Congress spokesperson and legal eagle may have got a court injunction against mainstream media from publicising a sex video. But there was nothing to stop people from uploading versions or copies on Youtube and then posting those links in the social media.

The do-it-yourself syndrome that I often come across on Facebook is fascinating. A group in one of our metros called ‘Chennai Shopping’ -- started as a sort of hobby by a young corporate executive, Sarah Natasha, with a handful of shopoholics -- has, over a few months, garnered over eleven thousand members. A simple post like “where can I get good baking soda?” results in an avalanche of options in minutes. Everything from second-hand jewellery to a year-end garage sale pops up. The proof of its reach lies in status updates from business establishments. Here’s a whole new platform for free ads. And discounts for members too.