Signalling quality on Instagram ads

I have mentioned multiple times here before that I love Instagram advertising. I love that whatever Instagram learns from my likes (and not likes) on the platform, and through the various pixels that Facebook leaves all over the interwebs, gets used in showing me highly relevant advertising.

Rather, ever since I started using Instagram, I loved the advertising for its visual quality (that made it hard to distinguish if it was an advertisement or native content), and as things have gotten more relevant over time, I’ve started clicking through. And as I’ve started clicking occasionally, the advertising has become more relevant.

I’m sure some silicon valley marketer has some imagery about flywheels. I’m reminded of that hamster spinning this wheel when I’d gone to this animal farm near Bangalore last year.

In any case, I read this article about “the hard thing about easy things“. The basic theory, if I understand it right, is that by commoditising all the tools of production when it comes to direct to consumer selling, the business of direct to consumer selling has gotten that much harder.

The article goes on to say that unless the brand has a competitive advantage in manufacturing (or sourcing by any other means), it is pretty much impossible to make money off direct to consumer products – you struggle to repel the attack of the clones, and you have to spend increasing amounts of money on online marketing (through Google and Facebook).

While this makes sense (or not?) from an investment and entrepreneurship perspective, it got me wondering – as a consumer, how can I distinguish the quality direct to consumer products from those that have somehow simply managed to get into my feed?

Some advertising is like a peacock’s tail – it doesn’t signal any direct value about the brand being advertised. However, it signals that if the brand can afford to spend such huge amounts of money on this form of advertising, it ought to be a brand with sufficient spare cash flow that it is a good brand.

For example, when Vivo got title sponsorship of the IPL, it not only created awareness (which possibly existed thanks to its retail stores and advertising on Amazon) but also signalled that it is a “good brand” since it had bought prime advertising real estate.

Similarly, when a brand advertises on the SuperBowl, the actual dollars per eyeball may not make sense. However, when you add in the signalling value of having been there on SuperBowl (“if a brand can afford to advertise on SuperbOwl, it ought to be a good brand”), it starts making sense.

This works with a lot of mass media advertising. Front page of Times of India is premium because of peacock’s tail. Advertising in the IPL for the same reason. Perhaps similar with hoardings on the way out of airports. And booking prime time slots on popular television shows.

The problem with online advertising is that it is so targeted (and algorithmic) that this signalling effect goes away. Your instagram feed is like the Times of India where every page is similar to every other page.

From that perspective, it is hard to determine whether an advertisement represents a quality product when it appears on your Instagram timeline.

I bought Vahdam tea after someone recommended it to me on Twitter. I bought Paul and Mike’s chocolates after a friend wrote her appreciation for it on Instagram. When I started buying Blue Tokai coffee, I needed good coffee powder and was in the mood for exploration, but was helped by multiple friends and acquaintances vouching for it .

Marketing solely using digital means runs into this problem of not having the signalling effect. And that means you need to invest in “social” also, however you can imagine that to be. Then again, people have started seeing through “influencers”, like how they started seeing through “endorsements” a generation ago.

One axis politics

Historically, political leanings have ben described on two dimensions – economic freedom and social freedom. In the American scenario, the Republican Party has historically been supportive of economic freedom and restrictive of social freedom. The Democratic Party has been liberal on social freedom but illiberal on the economic freedom front.

While other major Western democracies occupying these two opposite quadrants, the other two quadrants have been largely empty. The libertarians occupy the “free on both fronts” quadrant, but nowhere is there a party to represent them – giving people freedom on all fronts means lesser power for the government and no politician wants that. And being restrictive of both kinds of freedom means people won’t vote for you – at least this was the way historically.

Of course things have been different in India. While we did have a series of governments between 1991 and 2004 that were reasonably economically liberal (“liberalisation” happened in this time period), all Indian political parties are required to swear by socialism, and they swear by it in spirit as well. So the difference on the economic freedom front between different Indian parties is marginal (in 2014, many of us thought the BJP might be supportive of economic freedom, given its record in the 1999-2004 period. Instead, it gave us demonetisation).

So in effect, in India we have a one-axis democracy, where parties try to differentiate themselves on one axis, which is the kind of social freedom they allow. Even there, it is not so much of an axis, but different ways in which they control social freedoms.

The BJP doesn’t want you to eat beef. The AAP doesn’t want recorded music in restaurants. The Congress and JDS don’t want live music in restaurants. The BJP puts cow welfare over human welfare. The Congress enacts and supports laws that allow suppression of Muslim women (by Muslim men). Many parties want to ban liquor, despite it having been repeatedly shown that such bans don’t work. No party wants to legalise marijuana, despite our rich tradition in the substance (heck, its scientific name is Cannabis indica). And we all seem to vote based on which of these social freedoms are more precious to us than others – economic freedom is a battle already lost.

In any case, it seems like other countries are also moving towards one axis democracy.  A chart posted on Twitter today describes results from a survey in the US on voters’ attitudes towards social and economic freedoms, and how they voted in the 2016 presidential elections (which Donald Trump famously won).


A large part of America seems to lie in the left half of the economic freedom spectrum. Yes, the republican voters are still more towards the centre than the democratic voter, but the bigger separation here is on the social rather than the economic dimension. And the Trump administration has been pursuing several policies cutting economic freedoms, such as tearing up trade deals and imposing tariffs.

So it seems like the world is following India in terms of enacting one axis politics – where voters vote more on the social dimension rather than the economic dimension. Then again, I don’t expect this to last – with parties moving left economically, soon you can expect economic freedoms to be crushed to the extent that it becomes advantageous for a party to signal economically right and still get votes.

PS: We don’t need to limit ourselves to two dimensions.  A few years back, Nitin Pai had proposed the Niti Mandala which has three dimensions.


GMail and Unsolicited Emails

About a year and a half back, GMail moved to this tabbed inbox format, where “promotional” and “social” mails were filtered out and delivered to separate tabs. This meant that most of the promotional mail and mail from social networks you got never hit the main inbox, which meant that your phone wouldn’t buzz for those and that you need not read all of to keep that “inbox zero” count (I know a lot of people apart from me who are obsessed about that).

What this meant was that we didn’t really bother about all that unsolicited mail – it would sit somewhere in the inbox away from where you saw, and all you did occasionally was to click on the “social” and “promotions” tabs so that nothing would be seen in the tab headers (for the OCD includes making sure those headers are empty).

In fact, now that all these promotional mail was hidden away, you didn’t mind getting more of that. And when more social networks and advertisers started approaching you, you didn’t mind. It was easy to ignore them. And once in a while you would click through, resulting in a payment somewhere, which made sense to the advertisers.

The new Inbox that google has pioneered in the last one month, though, has changed all that. Now, while there are several more tags which are automatically added to mails and they don’t hit your inbox directly (“updates”, “finance” and “forums” are examples), these tags are now treated no differently from the “social” or “promotions” tags.

Also, the way the mails under these tags are shown is interesting. Every time there is at least one unread mail under a tag, the tag shows up near the top of your inbox. And when you click on it, all “undone” mails under that tag are shown. So if there was a promo which I simply ignored and clicked “done” on the tag (rather than on the promo mail itself) it would show up again the next time something landed in the tag. And that is an irritant.

To put it differently, when a promo or social mail lands in my inbox, I now have this compulsion to open it and mark it as “done”. And over the last few days I’ve found myself doing this way too many times.

As a consequence I’m now making a conscious effort to track down and unsubscribe from any unsolicited mails I was getting. LinkedIn sends me a daily digest of some groups. I’ve unsubscribed from all of them. Amazon and Flipkart used to hit me often with promotions. That has stopped. Livejournal birthday reminders are gone, too. Over the last few days, I’ve been hunting down the “unsubscribe” button on all promotional mail and actively unsubscribing from unsolicited mail.

I’m now going to extend from my one data point and assume that others are behaving similarly. Based on this, I think GMail’s tabbed inbox format was great for promoters – by keeping the promos away in one tab, it meant people didn’t mind getting those, and they would click through once in a while.

In the Inbox, though, since promos are almost treated similar to “normal” mail, the annoyance factor has increased, and thus people are unsubscribing. And it is not good news for advertisers.