#Cattlegate: A Priceless Controversy For Twitter In India

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During the last two weeks, Twitter, the popular microblogging service, has almost become a household name in urban India, a dream scenario for a new generation Internet phenomenon and one that could not have perhaps been achieved even with a massive ad budget.

All thanks to India’s junior minister for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, who is also India’s top Twitter user by the number of followers. Even as an innocuous quip the minister made in a tweet spiralled into one of the more absurd political controversies of recent times, the winner was Twitter, which featured in countless frontpage stories and primetime television debates across the country. (If you are an overseas reader or is unfamiliar with the Tharoor controversy for some unfathomable reason, you can read all about it here.)

Much hilarity ensued as party spokespersons worked overtime to argue knowledgably about the role of Web 2.0 in the world’s largest democracy (“tweet is a very lonely man, and he needs counselling“, said Congress party spokesperson Tom Vadakkan, claiming he read research reports before coming to that conclusion). It was also a difficult time for non-English language media as they tried to translate and explain Twitter, Tweets and other related nouns for their audience.

The awareness about the Twitter brand and the microblogging service it provides skyrocketed during this episode. The last time Twitter got widespread mainstream media mentions was during the tragic terror attacks on Mumbai but the coverage this time surpassed a marketer’s wildest dreams.

While the debate is unsettled on whether the minister was politically naive or if his countrymen lack a sense of humour, we asked three professionals from the brand and advertising domains about what they thought the controversy was worth for the brand Twitter in media buying terms. In other words, how much would it cost Twitter to buy the amount of media impressions and the resultant awareness that arose from this controversy. All three were queried independently, and was not told what the other participants thought it was worth.

“I’d say, about Rs8 crore,” said brand specialist Harish Bijoor, CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., which advises more than 100 brands in several countries. “If we look at the eight metros and about 101 cities with one million plus population. The interest in the story was largely in the urban areas. So about Rs8 crore is what I think an equivalent campaign would cost,” Bijoor said.

Will this result in some lasting stickiness for the brand? “I think so. The brand is easy on the lips, and it should stay on people’s minds,” he added.

Shashi Sinha, chairman of media agency Lodestar Universal, said he’d put the figure at about Rs6-7 crore. He added the disclaimer that it was a ballpark figure not based on any scientific calculation.

Shubha George, CEO of media agency Mediaedge:CIA, said one shouldn’t even try to put a figure on it. “It was priceless,” she said. “The power of the medium came through from the coverage. It was really invaluable coverage for the brand,” she added.

Rise of Twitter in India:

India is already the third among countries that account for traffic to Twitter.com, closely following Germany and vastly trailing the United States, according to web metrics firm Alexa.

India’s interest in Twitter has grown steadily in 2009, according to Google Insights for Search (note the sharp spike in September).

Since the Tharoor controversy, there has been a noticable spurt in conversations on Twitter. If in India, Twitter had mostly remained a haunt for early adopters prior to 2009, it has steadily won over big league journalists, writers, artists and politicians this year, adding a lot of interesting content to the platform.

Another sign of Twitter going mainstream: Twitter ids replacing emails and blog urls for some print columnists in the sign off line.

(We shall compile an informal list of ‘famous’ Twitter users in India soon. If you follow otherwise well known people on Twitter and enjoy the interaction, please tip us off.)

Aside: Do you think a verified Twitter account might soon become the ultimate status symbol among our celebs? Shashi Tharoor has one.

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