As rapper Badshah comes under scanner for feigning online popularity, we ponder how brands can separate the wheat from the chaff.
In 2019, Punjabi rapper Badshah’s song ‘Paagal’ created a stir when it garnered 75 million views on YouTube in one day. A year later, the song has landed the rapper in trouble. On August 9 (Sunday), the Mumbai Police alleged that the rapper spent a hefty Rs 72 lakh on buying YouTube views for the song in a bid to break records.
In a PTI statement, the rapper says, “Following the summons, I have spoken to the Mumbai Police. I have aided the officials in their investigation by cooperating and carrying out the due diligence on my part. I've categorically denied all the allegations levelled against me and made it clear that I was never involved in such practices, nor do I condone them. The investigation procedure is being executed in accordance with the law and I have complete faith in the authorities, who are handling this matter.”
The trouble began when singer Bhoomi Trivedi found a fake profile of herself on social media and complained about it to the police. Mid-Day reports that this led to the uncovering of a larger racket in which a gang creates and sells fake social media likes and followers for influencers willing to pay.
Influencer marketing is no stranger to purchasing metrics for money. So much so that these metrics are called ‘vanity metrics’. Likes, shares, followers, subscribers, comments, etc., are all indicative of how popular a personality on the platform is. But, these metrics only measure an image on the surface.
In other parts of the world, its not uncommon for musicians and celebrities to have fake followers on Instagram and other platforms. In 2019, Harper’s Bazaar did a roundup of celebrities with the most number of fake followers (or bots) and some of the names on the list included Taylor Swift (46 per cent), Ariana Grande (46 per cent), and Miley Cyrus (45 per cent). It also featured two Indian celebrities who had made a splash in the West – Deepika Padukone (45 per cent) and Priyanka Chopra (43 per cent)
It remains unclear what will happen to Badshah’s brand associations as the case has not yet reached a conclusion. He has been associated with brands like Pepsi, Yamaha, Hitachi, Mahindra, OPPO, among others. In some places, he had starred in their commercials and in other associations, he had created music that was uploaded on the brands’ YouTube channels.
The difference between an influencer and a mainstream brand endorser (like a model, or a celebrity) is that the former is able to create opinions because she/he is capable of influencing their audience on the basis of relatability.
What happens to the credibility of influencers and the brands associated with them when they get caught tampering with these vanity metrics? On whom does the onus of responsibility lie - the influencers themselves, or the agency which handles them?
Well, it’s a combination of both. Sai Ganesh, marketing head, Dunzo, a Bengaluru-based delivery services company, calls influencer marketing the ‘TV advertising’ of the digital world because it can be heard to measure impact, even if it appears to be creating many impressions. In this context, he also mentions that the ‘followers’ count is a dubious measurement metric of popularity.
In his personal experience, Ganesh finds that creative influencer marketing campaigns work. “Beyond just asking an influencer to post about a brand, or a service, it helps to make a creative campaign that pushes for engagement. One example is the influencer marketing campaign that we ran on social media with VJ/influencer Nikhil Chinapa. That kind of friendly banter helps drive engagement,” says Ganesh.
He explains that many brands use a clause in their contracts, while speaking to influencers, that dictates that they (the latter) can’t delete the post unless it has stayed on their feed for 30 days. Ganesh attributes this to the fact that many influencers chose to endorse multiple brands on an almost daily basis, which could lead to a diluting of authenticity.
“If you look at the comment section of these sponsored posts, you’ll see that people are still wary and sceptical of influencers’ posts and recommendations. Only when an influencer is authentic is when they will be in a position to suggest a product,” he says.
“Aashish Chopra of ixigo writes in his book that users today have a very strong bullshit radar. They know what’s fake and what isn’t. There’s no point putting money into an influencer marketing campaign if people aren’t going to believe that endorsement. When it comes to high frequency low category value products, authenticity matters a lot more,” says Ganesh.
Ganesh adds that if a brand is new and the goal is to reach out to a million people in one shot, then it makes sense to get a brand ambassador like actor Varun Dhawan on board. But, he believes the smaller the influencer, the better the benefit and the more organic the reach.
There are also tools to validate influencers and their reach. They allow clients to check profiles of individuals to find out how many of those are inactive and how many are real profiles.
"There needs to be a due diligence done by the brand’s team, or the influencer’s marketing agency, or the in-house creative team. This authenticity is, in fact, the USP for many influencer marketing agencies," says Ganesh.
Sanjay Vasudeva, founder and CEO, BuzzOne Influencer Marketing, agrees that both the social media managers and the influencers themselves need to be held equally accountable for authenticity. He adds that the main distinction between celebrities (models, actors, sportspersons etc) and influencers is that the influencer would be trusted as an authority/specialist on a particular subject matter.
Vasudeva agrees that there has to be accountability for authenticity and explains that there are many tools like Social Blades and through analytics, it’s possible to understand if the followers are real or fake. BuzzOne also has its own tools to detect fake followers.
He also adds that almost every celebrity in Bollywood has bought followers and that Badshah has unfortunately, been caught for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The celebrities have social media managers and they tell their managers that they need the so-and-so numbers and whether the celebs are aware or not, that money is spent to buy bot followers and get those numbers,” he explains.
He opines that the onus of accountability for forged metrics lies with both the brands and the influencer marketing agencies that handle them. “If an influencer is buying followers, understand that the platforms themselves are trying to purge the follower list of celebrity accounts on the basis of these bots. Brands are aware of it, but what action they take depends on the larger marketing plan that influencer marketing is a part of,” he says.
Vasudeva explains that brands that use influencer marketing as a full time strategy have to be wary and pick the right influencers (based on engagement, following etc). He adds that when a brand decides to use a celebrity in an influencer marketing strategy, they are going after the reach that a celebrity has, not the engagement they get from their account.
"For some brands, getting a celebrity to post content on her/his social channel is one part of a large marketing plan. Sometimes, they make appearances in TVCs, or live events, and the social media post forms a smaller part of the marketing pie, in that sense,” he concludes.