At FITIS: Amitha Amarasighe on Social Media


Amitha Amarasinghe is a name that most people in Sri Lankan social media marketing circles have heard of. Lean and bespectacled, Amitha heads Ogilvy’s social media efforts, and has handled both his fair share of success and controversy. At Galadari, FITIS invited him to speak to an audience of a few dozen top-tier professionals looking to get a handle on social media.


Amitha began social media in 2005, when he was working on marketing for RoomsNet (an early, local Airbnb-style operation). A person on his team realized that a lot of people were talking about rooms and accommodation, not across email, but across the various traveller’s forums scattered across the internet. They promptly set up accounts on forums and started helping travellers – pure help, with no hard selling involved. Eventually, the goodwill kicked in and people started dropping by their site to reserve a room or two.

“At that time,” he said, “we didn’t know we were doing social media marketing: that term was coined later.
Now, it’s emerged as a separate discipline in marketing, and I know there are many companies that run off social media alone. A good example is @iamsrilanka: a tour company that operates purely off an Instagram account.

So, to understand the space we’re working in, we have to ask: how big is the Internet in Sri Lanka, compared to the other media?”

He pulls up some statistics on a spreadsheet. In neat columns are arranged the audiences for various newspapers and radio networks in Sri Lanka.

“According to LMRB, these are the top newspapers in Sri Lanka. The most popular newspaper in Sri Lanka is Lankadeepa: it reaches 4.6 million people. Now, what if we think of Google, Facebook and other websites as newspapers? Lankadeepa retains its reach, but Google and Facebook take than second and third slot. Compare that with radio traffic: your Google display ads alone can reach a bigger audience than the most powerful radio network in Sri Lanka.

TV, however, is still massive, so I’m not going to compare. But the general perception of marketers goes like this: TV, Radio, Press and lastly, Digital. But today, in reality, it should be TV, Digital, Radio, Press. It’s one of the most powerful platforms in Sri Lanka.

These are the dynamics of today’s market. We see telco companies competing in the data market; device manufacturers are rolling out cheaper smartphones. Devices prices are going down, service providers are pushing their products, so, as a result, 5.9 million people – and counting – are on the Internet.  For many people, the first experience of the Internet is now not email, but Facebook.

We saw an example of this level of massive reach during the Presidential election. For a more recent example at the recent Save Wilpattu trend. Media can say that they talked about it a year ago, but nobody cared: it was only when it started going viral on social media that people – even the President – stood up and paid attention.

So what is social media? Social media is people having conversations online. So what is social media marketing? It’s ‘the marketing effort of securing a place for your brand, in the online conversations taking place on social media, and hence increasing the likeability of your brand.’


Likeability is important. It’s not the number of likes you see on your Facebook page. It’s about the likeliness of a customer buying from you, recommending you to their friends. It is to prefer your brand over the competition. This is Dialog vs Etisalat, Pepsi vs Coke, Pizza Hut vs Dominoes.

Traditional marketing is interruption. You identify what the most popular TV program is, you go in and interrupt your customer – just as the show gets to the best part. Social media doesn’t work that way. It relies on feedback, and a human appeal. It has the power to turn give a human front to a faceless company.

Here’s Social Media planning framework that outline what you need to do to be effective at this:

1) Listen. The marketers in Sri Lanka rarely listen to customers: most of the decisions are being made not after being made not after listening to the customers, but the most influential person’s spouse or the next door neighbour or something. The HIPPOs. You need to listen; to understand the current status of your brand.

2) Analyze. Once you get this data, identify the vulnerabilities, action points and sentiments. Once you start listening and mapping out the data you start understanding problems. Say, for example, that you;re getting comments saying your data coverage in Negombo is bad. In that case, when you put enough of these together, you see that there are large numbers Internet users in Negombo who are not getting access and may switch over. This is insight you can send to your engineering team to fix.

3) Set Goals. Know where you want to go and what you want to achieve.

4) Platforms. Most companies start with this: you see someone else on Facebook and you decide you want a Facebook page. Before that, understand what you’re selecting and why. What is your mission? As a brand, why are you there? Otherwise, you just ending up bleeding money. Show people why they should like you.

5) Engagement. This is where you do your Facebook apps, coupon promotions, viral videos. All of these should lead to fulfilling those set goals. Otherwise, the practicality is that you see someone else doing something cool and you end up doing the same; at the end of the day, you end up with something that doesn’t fulfill your goal and is impossible to justify to your CFO.

6) Amplify. Support with promotions. Say you have a brilliant idea. If you don’t support this with paid advertising, it will likely not capture that tupping point that makes it go viral. This is the unfortunate thing with so many Sri Lankan social media campaigns – there are good ideas, but they don’t spend. There’s a perception that viral is free. Viral is not free.


Take Gungnam style. That was not an accidental hit. While it reached unprecedented success, it was Sony Music’s attempt to sell Korean Pop to the US Market: they picked the right person, got PSY to do the video, and spent a lot of money getting it to that critical mass that would make it viral. With the proper planning and timing, they created a media property that would have otherwise taken a phenomenal amount of money to succeed.

People often look at the number of likes a fan page has and think that’s good – in fact, there was recently a company that rated brands based on how many likes they had. That’s useless. That doesn’t measure sentiment. It doesn’t measure whether those likes are real or from bot farms. You need to understand social media. We all know what happened to Lakpahana, right?”

For much of the next hour, Amitha explored these steps in detail, breaking down on the metrics and how to deal with them – how to decide, what to deliver, and so on. That done, he goes on to dissect crisis management. After detailing recent social media blow-ups, he lists his break down of what triggers a social media crisis:

1) Due to product failures
2) Simulated by idenfitied pressure groups
3) Court cases and legal action
4) Isolated complaints from individual customers or bloggers

“The very first thing that turns a situation into a crisis is your initial response. It’s very important to have an initial response when someone asks you a question. If you don’t know, it’s important that you at least acknowledge that you don’t know, rather than ignoring it.

So, in order:
1) Intial response
2) Timing
3) Critical mass
4) the Politics of Power
5) Pressure groups
6) Empathy towards a product


In a battle between a brand and a human being, people will automatically back the human being. Look at Youtube’s “Unite breaks Guitars”, for example. This is why it’s important to bring that human element into your brand.
Ideally, for a large social media brand, you should have the following:

1) A quick response group – a team of company reps who can make the decisions on responding to social conventions. It needs to be a group that can make responses fast without waiting for costly approval processes.
2) Listening post – the internal process or tools designed for scanning the social web and examine social media conversations
3) Response mechanism. Aftwr monitoring all these, you have to make decisions. Respond to what? When? How? By whom?”

He examines threat evaluation using examples like bendgate, dividing into content that threatens the brand (in this case, Apple) and the messengers that are influential in spreading in the story. Based on this, he goes into the arcana of responses.

This we’ll leave out – honestly, this is why you should show up for events. Put it this way: there were some pretty impressive case studies (including Maliban White Chocolate puff) and the if/then equivalent of the advertising industry.


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