Did Facebook’s Free Basics campaign pay off?

Facebook has reportedly paid big money to promote its Free Basics program. We spoke with brand experts and PR professionals to figure out whether the gamble has paid off

e4m by Abhinn Shreshtha
Published: Jan 7, 2016 8:36 AM  | 4 min read
Did Facebook’s Free Basics campaign pay off?

Even as the debate around Facebook's Free Basics program continues, Facebook has embarked on a large-scale and ambitious marketing campaign. The new campaign, which has been going on for a couple of weeks, encompasses print, TV, OOH and digital

We had reported on December 30, 2015 that approximately Rs 25 crore had already been spent in print and OOH campaigns, with most of it on print.

Facebook spends around Rs 25 crore on Free Basics print & OOH campaign

Apart from this, the company has also been asking users to send messages to TRAI via Facebook to show their support for the programme; something that has drawn ire from netizens.

In fact, recently, while announcing an extension to the deadline for sending suggestions on the differential pricing issue, TRAI chairman RS Sharma also alluded to the fact that the nearly 14 lakh comments that have been received through Facebook are inadequate as they do not answer the specific questions raised by TRAI.

TRAI extends deadline for differential pricing comments

Further controversy was also caused when some users pointed out that messages to TRAI were being sent automatically in their names without their permission; a fact that Facebook has not addressed as yet. 
Giving his thoughts on the campaign and the messaging, N Chandramouli, CEO of Blue Lotus Communications, felt the print campaign was “overboard”, especially for an audience that is still to make up its mind whether Free Basics is a good thing or not. He also questioned the fact that the entire campaign was launched without any PR support, which would have been a more subtle way of getting the message across. “What Facebook is doing is classic propaganda; something you would expect a government to do. They are saying, ‘Join us or you are disappointing your country’. By using the kind of media they have and going overboard with it, they are further making people question whether there is an ulterior motive behind it all,” he said.

To say that Facebook is pushing for Free Basics to pass in India would be the height of understatement but in its enthusiasm, is Facebook unintentionally alienating the country? Has the multi-crore campaign actually attained its purpose?

Both Jaideep Shergill, Founding Partner at Pitchfork Partners and Paresh Chaudhry, CEO of Madison PR, opined that the role of the individual stakeholder needs to be looked into. A positive, according to Shergill, would be that it will foster more debate and scrutiny, which will ensure that consumer rights are protected. 

“Opinion remains sharply divided on the matter despite the campaign. Though some have come out in favour of Free Basics, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be against it. Many influencers have come out strongly against Facebook's initiative. What's good is that it's sparked off a debate and has motivated many to educate themselves about net neutrality and their rights as netizens,” he said.

One thing pointed out by PR professionals and branding experts we spoke with was whether the entire Free Basics campaign actually targeting the right audience. 

For example, Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder and CEO of Brand-comm, was of the opinion that internet users are people who are informed and have great access to information. “So, I don’t know how much sense it makes in coming up with full page ads to influence the unconvinced. Also, you cannot push people to do something against their wishes. The general consensus among the educated masses seems to be that Facebook is pushing us into doing something against our wishes,” he said.  

On similar lines, Chaudhry mentions the recent op-ed piece written by Mark Zuckerberg in The Times of India, where he gave the example of a farmer called Ganesh from rural Maharashtra, who used the internet to look up commodity prices and other information. “Surely Ganesh has a talent beyond farming, and it’s ironic for him to be positioned as a champion for Free Basics, when his more pressing need and value may be to educate fellow farmers on how he did what he did, irrespective of who provided him the internet to do so and this may need to be in languages other than English, or via front page ads in national English newspapers,” he said.

(Inputs from Priyanka Mehra and Sarmishtha Neogy)

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