Manufacturing a blockbuster article on Mint, using Twitter trends

As someone who knows how Twitter trending operates—and having written a LOT about trending in the past myself—I chose to ignore Ashish K Mishra’s earlier article on Vinayak Sharma.

I know this, this is not new… was my reasoning. I do understand that there may be a lot of people who may not know this, and I hope they subscribe to Mint, to gain this kind of clarity around social media influencers cottage industry.

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Then, this second article happened – around agencies, clients and influencers colluding to create trends and echo chambers of chest-thumping social media success.

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This too is all true.

Happens. Clients indulge. Agencies execute. Influencers make money. And so on.

What I’m not ok with is the condescending tone of the piece, directed at the wrong party. I know what you will ask me – “Are you saying all this is alright? That it is legitimate?”.

The simple answer to that is, yes – it is perfectly legitimate. There is nothing wrong with it. The questions should be different – how effective is this? What is the point of this? Is it helping any brand beyond the brand manager’s KPI and impressing the dinosaur boss? (this is addressed towards the end, I agree, but given very little focus)

To address that and more, I need to open your eyes on a lot more things beyond social media influencers and trending.

Let me start with the media side of things.

Before social media, there were limited options for ‘media’ – television, print and outdoor, to be specific. All three avenues were tightly controlled and hence expensive to use, by brands (or whoever cared to use them for broadcasting whatever they want).

Then, social media happened, on internet.

What it led to is this – democratisation of opinions.

And democratisation of amplification of opinions.

This means, if you had an opinion—on anything under the sun—before social media, you can either shove it up one of the many orifices that nature bestowed upon you, or you can share it with your friends.

Now, on social media, you can share it with the world. Even absolute strangers who don’t know you from Adam can read your opinion, if they stumble upon it.

So, media has been disintermediated as far as opinions are concerned. A few media-specific folks don’t get to share opinions for the rest of us; at least they are not the only ones anymore (they are still an integral part of this, of course). Anyone and everyone can, if they want to.

Next, influence and endorsements.

Before social media, imagine who endorsed brands and products. Who influenced your decisions?

Film stars did. Sports persons did. Celebrities did. Let me break that down to you.

People who gained fame using one or more media avenues – TV/films, print or outdoor (for a legit reason, of course; by acting well, by playing well, by speaking well etc.) – used the same media avenues to endorse brands that paid them to do so.

If that sounds like a circular logic, it actually is. Mainstream media aided in creating famous people, and famous people use mainstream media to endorse brands for a fee.

Is this wrong? Not at all, as long as these folks paid their taxes.

But, disclosure?

That’s the 3rd angle – disclosure.

Should a TVC featuring an actress add a disclosure that she has been paid to act as if she’s enjoying the soap she’s endorsing (and hence, the possibility that she may not be really using the soap and is merely acting as if she does)? You’d argue that this is a stupid ask – isn’t it obvious that stars are paid to act, and that includes TVCs?

Sure.

Let me extend that logic to the 3rd topic on disclosure.

Stars and celebs are paid to act as if they like a product/service.

Twitter influencers are paid to tweet as if they use/like a product/service.

Why does a disclosure become important in the latter, but not in the former? Because the former is ‘obvious’? The latter is not?

How long has the former been around, to become this ‘obvious’ with the whole world? And how long has the latter been around, to yet become ‘obvious’? Or, how long are we willing to offer the latter till it becomes obvious and mainstream media stops wondering about it?

Now, at least people who spend money on the latter should be aware by now about the ‘obvious’. This is about the clients, the brand managers and brand owners. They merely apply what they did with mainstream media, and hope they can replicate that with social media too.

So, instead of going for a super expensive Shah Rukh Khan, they go to a 10,000 followers Twitter ‘influencer’. Do they expect a Shah Rukh Khan level impact with the Twitter influencer? If so, they need to consult a shrink.

The other mechanics are exactly the same – if you don’t believe that Shah Rukh Khan will use a Rs.80 hair oil that ‘cools’ you in summer, why would you have a problem with a 10,000 followers Twitter influencer saying the same?

Because Shah Rukh Khan is a professional actor? And the Twitter influencer is supposed to be ‘someone like us’? One among us? And hence won’t lie about this endorsement? That is SO naive! You know as much about that influencer as you do about Shah Rukh Khan; in fact you know more about Shah Rukh Khan, I say… thanks to mainstream media’s endless chatter about him!

Incidentally, Times of India’s city supplements do exactly the same too, for a fee, of course. If we are perfectly alright with these city supplements merely adding a tag line under the page 1 mast head “Advertorial, entertainment industry promotional feature”, and not a ‘This is a paid-for spot’ in every piece of write-up across the paper (which it actually is), I’m sure you’d be happy with ‘social media influencer’ in the Twitter user’s bio instead of asking for FTC-level disclosures in every single tweet that is paid-for.

No? Not convinced?

That’s the problem with social media.

It is new. The rules are still being written. It disintermediates conventional media that ruled the narrative, public discourse and conversations for the longest time. And brought in real-time 2-way communication to the mix that mainstream media still only dreams about (as a nightmare).

At one point in the Mint piece, it says, “Brand managers want quick results. They want people to say good things about them. They want the buzz, excitement and conversations”

Brand managers actually get all this with social media influencers, but in a bubble.

Paid influencers do say good things about the brands – it is as fake as Ajay Devgn saying great things about Vimal pan masala in a TVC or print ad. The reach is commensurate with the cost too.

Paid influencers do generate buzz – it is as buzzy as a page 1 ad. The reach is commensurate with the cost and clout of the influencer selected.

Paid influencers do generate excitement – it is as exciting as Shraddha Kapoor’s excitement while using Veet in a TVC.

Paid influencers do generate conversations online – these conversations are as fake as 2 totally happy customers of Airtel in Mashobra telling the much-loved Airtel 4G girl how pleased they are with the 4G in their remote corner of India (which we, in India’s top metros search for 4G signal desperately).

What brand managers do not get while using paid influencers online…
– authentic opinions about their products and services (the negative ones they wouldn’t want to listen to anyway)
– genuine excitement for their products and services (for which their product—the 27th paste brand in India, for instance—should actually be exciting, as if paste brands do create excitement beyond the paid models who act all excited in their ads)
– purposeful results that moves the needle for the brand on some parameter in the real world where people buy their products

These need long-term planning and thinking, and quarterly move-the-needle KPIs do not go well with that.

I’d wager that most brand managers know what they are getting, when they sign up a Blogmint or Eleve. It’s just that they get—however illusory it is—to see a tangible result (trending) at the end of the activity that they can show to their bosses that entices them to indulge again and again. I’d need to question the bosses’ sensibility, in that case.

I really hope the Mint article opens clients’ eyes and they start demanding better results from the entire social media, digital marketing ecosystem. Only if the money tap dries, will the snake-oil machinery stop. As long as there is money to be made, one or more agencies will succumb and take advantage of the opportunity. After all, it is a legitimate opportunity to make money – it is legal and it provides employment.

If anything, this article just goes to show the client side in massively poor light. It showcases how naive and dumb clients in India are. And how whip-smart certain digital agencies are, mining that stupidity to build a full-fledged business out of something so utterly pointless.

I’d love to see Ashish exploring a piece on efficacy of media vehicles when it comes to marketing and advertising. In that, at least based on spends, social media influencers would be a mere footer, not worth spending time and commentary on.

I’d also love to see Ashish exploring a deeper perspective around disclosure, between social media and conventional media. Here is some context, to begin with.

Here is RJ Prithvi plugging Idea Cellular within his regular program! With no disclosure.

Here is RJ Ophelia beaming about Microsoft Sharepoint, on her Facebook page, with no disclosure.

Here are leading media journalists helping Disney promote a quiz and spamming people’s timelines on Twitter, with no disclosure.

Here is All India Bakchod promoting Truly Madly using their brand name (All India Bakchod), with no disclosure (besides the media interviews that they have a new wing called Vigyapanti). There is a larger story there for Aashish to explore, however.

And here is Shah Rukh Khan himself, seriously greying the line between real and fake, in his Twitter timeline.

The point is… these are not instances of wrong-doing. They are all perfectly legitimate. As are minor social media so-called influencers mining their 10K and 20K followers and making a quick buck.

The question should not be around legitimacy of these people or their tactics. The question is really around who is paying them to do these? Why do they pay knowing fully well the futility of Twitter trending? And what do they gain?

This article was first published by Karthik S,  on Beast of Traal.

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