Social media: The biggest casualty of the U.S. presidential election?

smrrOnly one presidential candidate was a winner on election night. But there was more than one loser.

Sure, minor-party candidates lost. But I’d posit that social media itself was a loser as well.

It isn’t an exaggeration to contend that the 18-month long presidential campaign has had a corrosive effect on the social media landscape.

You could even say that the social media landscape became downright “anti-social,” thanks to the 2016 campaign.

For those who might have posted politically-oriented social media posts, they’ve risked receiving strident arguments, flamethrower responses and alienated friends.

Along those lines, a recent Pew Research study found that significant percentages of people have blocked individuals or adjusted their privacy settings on social media to minimize their exposure to all the vitriol.

It’s a far cry from social media’s promise in the “good old days” – not so long ago actually — when these platforms enabled people to stay in touch with friends and make acquaintances across the country and the world that they would never have been able to forge in the days before social platforms.

The easy ability to share information and interests only added to the appeal of social media, as people expanded their horizons along with their network of friends.

Companies and brands got in on the action, too. They found social media a welcoming place – particularly in the case of consumer brands where companies could ride the wave of social interaction and promote all sorts of products, services and worthwhile causes.

Advertising and promotion on social media naturally followed, with many companies allocating as much as 20% or more of their annual marketing budgets to those endeavors.

Until quite recently, that happy scenario seemed to be holding, with brands launching interesting, fun, quirky or cause-oriented shareable content in the hopes that they would “go viral” and pay dividends far in excess of the resource outlay.

What a difference 18 months makes. Suddenly, brands are spending only about half as much on social media marketing as they attempt to stay above the fray.  That also means staying far away from venturing into current topical discussions, lest their prickly digital audiences become instantly polarized.

Unfortunately, for brands who wish to avoid controversy arising from even the most seemingly innocuous of postings, social media is no longer a welcoming meadow of lush green grass and bright flowers. It’s closer to a war-torn field peppered with land mines just waiting to explode.  Hence the hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, just like trying to unscramble an egg, it’s very hard to see social media ever going back to what it used to be.

And for that state of affairs, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Big Branding News on the Internet Domain Name Front

ICANN logoIt was only a matter of time. Internet domain names are now poised to move to a new level of branding sophistication.

This past week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decided to broaden domain name suffixes to encompass pretty much anything. Instead of being restricted to suffixes like .com and .net that we’re so used to seeing, beginning in January 2012, companies will be able to apply for the use of any suffix.

At one level, there’s a practical reason for the change in policy. As happened with telephone lines in an earlier era when a host of new FAX numbers and cellphones came onstream, the inventory of available web addresses under the original system of .com, .edu, .gov and .org has been drying up. Recent moves to authorize the use of .biz, .us and .xxx have been merely stopgap measures that have done little to alleviate the pending inventory crunch.

But the latest ICANN move will likely have ripple effects that go well beyond the practical issue of available web addresses. Industry observers anticipate that the new policies will unleash a flurry of branding activity as leading companies apply for the right to use their own brand names as suffixes.

In fact, Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN’s board of directors, believes the move will “usher in a new Internet age.”

It’s expected that major consumer brands like Coca Cola and Toyota will be among the first to nab new domain suffixes like .coke or .toyota.

It’s a natural tactic for companies to employ as a defensive step against unscrupulous use of their brand names by other parties. But it’s also an effective way to gain more control over their overall online web presence via the ability to send visitors more directly to various portions of their world in cyberspace.

Of course, we can’t expect these new suffixes to be acquired on the cheap. Gone are the days when someone could purchase an address like “weather.com” for a just few dollars … and then sell it later on for hundreds of thousands.

In fact, it’s being reported by the Los Angeles Times that the cost to secure a new domain will be in the neighborhood of $185,000 – hardly chump change. At that price tag, only well-established organizations will be in a position to apply – and those applications must also be able to show that they have the technical capabilities to keep the domain running. So no cyber-squatters need apply.

Bloomberg Businessweek predicts that leading companies may invest upwards of $500,000 each to secure their brand identities online and to prevent them from being “hijacked” by others. It certainly gives a fresh new meaning to the term “eminent domain”!

The Limits of Delivering “Cheaper Value”

Nano vehicle

Tata Nano car on fire
Tata Nano ... Tata "No-No"?
About a year ago, the international press was abuzz about the latest new “value” entry in the automobile business. Amid great fanfare, Tata Motors, part of India’s largest corporate conglomerate, was introducing the “Nano,” a car designed to appeal to India’s mass market.

The Nano, which can seat five people and has a surprisingly roomy interior for its size, carries a base price of only ~$2,200 — lower than any other car in the world — which proved irresistible to families of modest means whose finances had required that they make do with motorcycles or scooters before.

Some 9,000 Nano vehicles were delivered in July, but since then, sales have slowed dramatically – to just around 500 shipments to dealers in November.

How did Nano’s star fall so far, so fast – especially for a vehicle which Tata Motors thought was impressive enough that it planned to introduce it in other developing markets … then Europe … and finally to the United States?

Production delays have something to do with it. But the real problem is the performance of the car. Most alarming are reports that the vehicle can catch on fire, with one widely broadcast incident where a Nano caught on fire and was engulfed by flames on the way home from the auto showroom!

In response, Tata, while denying anything is wrong with the design of the Nano and studiously avoiding any language of “recall,” is offering to retrofit the automobile with extra safety features. It’s also extending the warranty on the car from 18 months to a solid four years.

Will these moves change the impression that the car is more of a “No-No” rather than a “Nano” and move its sales trajectory back into positive territory? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to note that sales of a rival “value” car made by Suzuki – the “Alto” – have now overtaken those of the Nano. The Alto carries a higher base price of $6,200, and yet it posted unit sales of ~30,000 in November, making it India’s best-selling car that month.

[The success of the Suzuki Alto in India is nice news for a company whose cars in the U.S. have been on a downward plunge all this year – with sales off ~42% in 2010 compared to 2009.]

The experience of the Nano and the Alto in India brings up an interesting question: Is it possible to make small, cheap version of products that are significant purchase items and win the confidence of a broad customer base?

To a degree, yes. But there are limits to “how low you can go” in value-engineering a product for performance and safety, below which customers just turn and walk away. (Or, in this case, drive away.)

Moreover, just like the experience of the Yugo or the Trabant, there’s a risk of forming a poor market image that’s impossible to shake off.

And in this particular case, the brand names don’t help at all. It’s just too easy for disgusted consumers to say “Ta-Ta” to Tata Motors and “No-No” to the Nano.