How to manufacture a Twitter trend

A look inside the world of orchestrating a trend on Twitter and everything that’s wrong with it in India


Over the last couple of years, several influencer marketing agencies have sprung up all over the country. Photo: iStock
Over the last couple of years, several influencer marketing agencies have sprung up all over the country. Photo: iStock

The campaign pitch is this: Launching a product? You want to build your brand on digital, right? We can get you to trend.

That’s where it all starts. With a campaign sales pitch from an agency to a client. What sort of agency? Any agency wanting a piece of a company’s digital media spending. A media-buying agency, an advertising agency, a one-man agency—anyone who has a client, a client willing to spend some marketing dough.

“My agency will pitch to my client and say ‘we can make your brand trend’,” says a digital marketing agency official, who requested not to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the media and also because he doesn’t want to get into any trouble.

“This will be the amount and the client jumps with excitement and says ‘let’s do this’.”

“Now my agency approaches companies which do this. Let’s say Blogmint. We ask for a quote, which they provide. We decide on a hashtag and these agencies promise us a certain amount of impressions for the hashtag. Now, my agency adds 15% commission, or maybe even more, and shares it with the brand. The brand says ‘ok no problem’. The trend happens, client pays us. We pay the company. There is a delay in payment because the money comes from the client who has a reputation of clearing dues late. How do we tell the brand how it all went? There is an online tool called http://hashtracking.com. This gives you real-time data of the impression of the hashtag, contributors, reach and the messages used with the hashtag.

“The brand manager is happy. His boss is happy, ‘We trended’. The bottom line is this. Even though my agency knows these trends are of no use, they won’t educate the client because I am earning money. The agency fools clients. Most of the brand managers from the client side are not that digitally sound, hence they trust the agency, and who doesn’t want to trend, because that brand manager also has to impress his boss. This is how it works. It really is that simple.”

On 13 April, Mint published a story about Vinayak Sharma , a teenager from Rajasthan, 17 years and 6 months old, who believes he is an influencer in the online world and helps orchestrate Twitter trends.

In other words, this was a piece on a cog in the wheel who helps create Twitter Trends, something that is increasingly figuring among the objectives of marketers. As the story explained: It was also the story of a surreptitious, thriving, get-paid-to-tweet cottage industry which has sprung up on the micro-blogging network. A world where companies pay money to a whole host of individuals to generate conversation, engagement and hopefully, trends, all without the “promoted tweets” disclaimer.

This is that story. Part II. Inside the world of digital media agencies, brands with a deep desire to trend and the role played by so-called influencers. This story is based on several conversations with all parties involved in orchestrating a Twitter trend. Only a few spoke on record. But people had plenty to say privately.

One digital media agency founder, who’s been doing influencer marketing for a couple of years, described his world thus: “We all do our jobs because we get paid for it. Some are passionate, some work to pay their bills. Same applies to influencer marketing. The former are creators—who believe, associate, as brand advocates. The later are mongers/junkies who jump on it for the money. Influencer marketing can really help a brand to grow. It is a global concept. But here, it has been severely abused.”

‘Trending a brand on Twitter is peanuts for us’

12 April 2016. First, the subject line of the email: Trending a Brand On Twitter is Peanuts for us. Just Call @ 09560786032 or Reply Back to the mail

Now the body copy. In big, bold letters:

Guaranteed Twitter Trend 4-12 Hours.

Yes, we have mastered the art of trending brands on Twitter. Yes, we are India’s biggest Influencer Network with 30,000 Social Influencers—Twitteratis, Bloggers, Instagramers and Video Bloggers (Custom Videos or Crowd Sourced).

Yes, India’s Top Brands are Using Us. Yes, all leading agencies are our clients. Yes we are BLOGMINT.

But, what you should know is that we can help you start a Twitter Trend for any planned or unplanned activity within 1 hour. Yes, You heard it right. 1 Hour and you see your Brand Trend On Twitter. And Most importantly, our network is a network of Real Influencers. We don’t Entertain Spammers.

Call Us!

(Mint has a copy of the email. And this is not the only email. Variations of the subject line with the same body copy exist)

Variation 1: Call @09560786032 to Trend Your Brand on Twitter: Yes, we can do it Real Time.

Variation 2: 3..2..1—Yes, Twitter Trending Is That Simple for us—Call @09560786032

What is Blogmint? It is an influencer-marketing firm based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The company was incorporated on 28 July 2015. It has three directors—Deepak Mittal, Raman Mittal and Irfan Ejaz Khan, the company’s CEO.

Mint reached out to Khan to understand Blogmint’s feverish sales pitch. “The email is just to show our capability,” he said, “but we don’t encourage that”.

Really? A. Orchestrating a trend; B. Claiming that it can be done in an hour; and C. Letting yourself believe that the conversations will be absolutely organic. That has naïve written all over it.

Still, Khan insists that Blogmint doesn’t do stuff like this. “Less than 5% of our revenue comes from Twitter,” he says. “Is that the right way of doing it? No. Can it be done? Yes. But we work with brands to get meaningful conversations.”

Blogmint is not alone. Over the last couple of years, several influencer marketing agencies have sprung up all over the country. To name just a few, Influencer.in, TeraReach, Get Evangelized, Dinfluencer.com, Influenzer.com, Fromote, Ripple Links, Pulpkey, Devumi Social Media Marketing Services, Flarepath Digital, Fork Media and MindShift Digital, among several others. The largest is Eleve Media Pvt. Ltd, a company based in Gurgaon, Haryana.

According to data from Tofler, a business research platform, Eleve Media has had a good couple of years. In the year to 31 March 2015, Eleve recorded revenue of Rs.5.1 crore, compared with Rs.1.7 crore in March 2014. The company recorded a profit of Rs.81 lakh in 2015, compared with Rs.15 lakh in 2014. Eleve is in two businesses—selling advertising space and digital marketing services. In the year to March 2015, it earned Rs.4.1 crore from digital marketing. Simply put, that’s 80% of the company’s revenue.

Now, guess Twitter’s India revenue? According to data from Tofler, Twitter Communications India Pvt. Ltd recorded revenue of Rs.13.2 crore in the year to 31 March 2015, compared with revenue of Rs.4.1 crore in 2014. The company made a profit of Rs.1 crore in the year to March 2015, compared with Rs.35 lakh in 2014.

Why the numbers? To make a point. It is quite likely that all clubbed together, in India, digital media agencies are making more money out of Twitter than Twitter itself.

There’s a funny side to this as well. Comb through Twitter and you’ll find a lot of random individuals peddling influencer activities, asking folks to fill up forms or sign up. Let’s name just a few. There’s Nivedith Gajapathy, who calls himself a social media influencer. In November 2015, Gajapathy tweeted: “Interested to be part of influencer campaigns? Fill up the form & if you are shortlisted, u ll get emails frm our end.”

Mint reached out to Gajapathy to get his perspective on the business of influencing. He said he wouldn’t be available because of “some urgent work”, but could share “his 2 cents” if only this reporter could wait for a week.

Then, there’s Pooja @RandomnessBleh. From Gurgaon, India. Her profile says: Social Media Influencers is what I am looking for. Please DM me your email address. Her Pinned tweet, as of 27 April 2015—”In order to get yourself involved in our campaigns and activities please register yourself in the link http://influencer.eleve.co”—needless to say, that tweet has several responses.

There are other interesting influencers. Take the case of @SID_SuRaj. From Jaipur. His Pinned tweet: “Intrested in doing Activites with me ?? :D fill the form :D”. There’s another dude, one Aditya Gotaparthi. His Pinned tweet on 26 November 2015: “Are you a Influencer? Want to associate with various Social Media Campaigns! Fill this from: http://bit.ly/SmmInflu #contest #ContestAlert”.

It is fascinating, isn’t it? But we will get to influencers in a while. Before that, let’s ask a simple question. What is the ethical thing to do when you are influencing?

‘Paid Ad uses only 7 characters’

In March 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US issued a set of guidelines on how to make effective disclosures in digital advertising. You can read it here .

Influencers are not exempt from disclosures. Simply put, for influencers who have been hired by brands—they could be bloggers, pinners, celebrities or tweeters—the FTC mandates a disclosure so the average consumer understands that these people have been paid or compensated for their advocacy. In cash or kind.

Another important point. A brand or an agency should not delude itself into believing that a hashtag is good enough disclosure. An average user does not understand the conversations around the hashtag—it could be anything, a trip, freebie, ad—in all these cases, disclosures have to be made.

More questions? Sure. How can I make a disclosure when my message is limited to 140 characters?

From the FTC: The FTC isn’t mandating the specific wording of disclosures. However, the same general principle—that people get the information they need to evaluate sponsored statements—applies across the board, regardless of the advertising medium. The words “Sponsored” and “Promotion” use only 9 characters. “Paid ad” only uses 7 characters. Starting a tweet with “Ad:” or “#ad”—which takes only 3 characters—would likely be effective.

Another question, perhaps. My company recruits “influencers” for marketers who want them to endorse their products. We pay and direct the influencers. What are our responsibilities?

From the FTC: Because of your role in recruiting and directing the influencers, your company is responsible for any failures by the influencers you pay to adequately disclose that they received payments for their endorsements. Teach your influencers to adequately disclose their compensation for endorsements and take reasonable steps to monitor their compliance with that obligation.

Surely, you have more questions. Here’s a fairly detailed FAQ from the FTC.

As part of research for this story, this writer reached out to Sidin Vadukut, foreign correspondent at Mint and editor of Mint on Sunday. In conversations with several digital agency executives, this writer got to know that they had approached Vadukut to be an influencer, because he is a micro celebrity, with 145,000 followers on Twitter.

“This is true. I refused,” said Vadukut. “I have nothing against influencing. But it seemed the wrong thing to do given that I still do a lot of writing and recommendations in Mint. If I did one campaign then I think I would have materially lost the ability to recommend products and services in my writings—things like apps and watches and luxury products that I routinely recommend. I think it would reduce my credibility.”

If you did sign up to become one, would you put out a disclaimer in every influencer activity that it is an ad/promotion/sponsored tweet, because you received a consideration from a digital agency/brand?

“Oh yes I would put out that disclaimer. On social media it can be very hard to tell advertisement apart from normal communication.”

Are there rules for trends too? Yes. Because, it is possible to abuse trends. Twitter specifically states that the following behaviour could cause your account to be filtered from search or even suspended:

l Adding one or more topics/hashtags to an unrelated Tweet in an attempt to gain attention in search

l Repeatedly tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending or trending higher.

l Tweeting about each trend in order to drive traffic to your profile or website, especially when mixed with advertising.

l Listing trends in combination with a request to be followed.

l Tweeting about a trend and posting a misleading link to something unrelated.

In an emailed response to a set of questions, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Consumers today are discerning about the quality of content they engage with, authenticity plays an important role. Twitter encourages brands to connect with users through innovation and influence that matter. Trends on Twitter follow consumer interest, and only one Promoted Trend spot is available each day in each market to an advertiser.”

There are guidelines. Rules. Ethical practices of doing business. But therein lies the irony in all of it—it doesn’t count for much.

‘Hi Influencer/blogger…’

In Part I of the Twitter teen influencer story, we referred to emails of brand campaigns. Like that of #BlaBlaWithGul and #SaavnOG. Here are a few more emails. A few point to paid activities on Twitter and a couple of others on the malaise of online influencing and paid reviews.

“Hey guys, we’re getting inspired by all the buzz that you guys have been creating on Twitter. We are doing an Influencer activation for Nestle on Twitter—Expected deliverables: 10 RTs + 10-15 original tweets/ day. Compensation: 2K per day for 4 days in March = total 8k. If you’re interested I will be sending out a detailed mail.”

Another one.

“Hi, here is the big brief of the campaign by Gillette India. You may have seen the new Gillette ad featuring Rahul Dravid. We take a leaf from there and build a case for Inner Steel on twitter. Gillette has launched a global campaign titled ‘Inner Steel’ which harps on and amplifies the Inner Steel values of everyday people…

The campaign is divided into multiple phases. Phase One:

- Firstly we establish what Inner Steel is all about. Have a look at the manifesto.

What we require from you? Launch a conversation on what is Inner Steel? Attach the Gillette TVC which talks about Inner Steel. Also integrate the brand tag line ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ wherever possible.

Some examples of tweets:

- A child’s mind is easily influenced. Let it be influenced by your qualities of #InnerSteel, for they define the future of the nation

- I believe cricketers like Rahul Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar are the biggest epitome of #InnerSteel qualities https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNKvF0DeBUE

- How you behave in intense situations is what defines your character. Let it be defined by #InnerSteel

- I believe everyone’s has #InnerSteel inside them. What do you think?

You can tweet more than once, up to you :)…”

Another one.

“Opportunity description: A Mumbai based Internet Restaurant is running a campaign to bring out the quality of its delivery and experience to prospective consumers that it caters to in Bandra/Khar (Mumbai suburbs) Your task is to nominate 5 friends via 5 different Tweets—whom you would like to gift a free meal (Chinese cuisine) with a quirky reason, why they deserve this.

Compensation: Cash compensation of INR 2,000. 5 x Free meals (assured) with a note from your side to your friends.”

Read on. Just a couple more.

Freelancers required for social media. Content writers—need to provide caption for social media post, post on official channels as per time given and execute campaigns and contests. Per month—Rs.2500. Clients—entertainment, fashion and CSR (corporate social responsibility).”

One more.

“Hi, I hope you all are doing good. Something new and really different. Setting up a team for Zomato reviewers. All we need is a rating, a review. Sharing on social media channel (optional). If you have multiple login, email ID, social media accounts you can go ahead with all your weapons, no limit for per person. Next if you can execute this in bulk like 100-500, please inbox. Please see the costing for the same. For Rating (stars)—Rs.10/Per ID. For review—Rs.20/Per ID. Sharing on Twitter & FB (Facebook)—Rs.10/Per ID (optional). Payment within 10 days for this!”

There you have it—the world of influencing and reviewing and blogging.

‘There are only two types of media. Paid. Not paid.’

The world of digital influencer marketing started with a problem. Let’s say, there’s a launch. Of something and you are a new brand. And you can’t get Shah Rukh Khan to talk about you. Or any other celebrity, because you don’t have that kind of money. Next step, public relations—in the hope that you get covered in the media. One step ahead, you want people to start talking about you, a word-of-mouth campaign. How do you make people talk? That too about a brand. Simple. Pay them. That’s all. They will talk.

Praanesh Bhuvaneswar is 27 years old. He is the co-founder of TeraReach, a digital media agency based out of Gurgaon, which he started in early 2015. TeraReach is the same agency that carried out the #BlaBlaWithGul and #SaavnOG activity on Twitter. The one Vinayak Sharma participated in. In a fairly candid conversation, Bhuvaneswar said that the influencer marketing model in India is broken, that both agencies and brands have a long way to go. But that it is also very nascent.

“Technically it is not supposed to be paid,” he said. “There is a difference between brand endorsement and influence. Honestly, if you are a social media agency, rolling out campaigns every week, will you be really putting in that much effort of getting your word out, how many people can you influence? Scale becomes a problem. Discovering the right influencer, organizing becomes a problem. That’s when agencies started seeking solutions.

“TeraReach is a product company and we are trying to solve this problem. We do some services because we are completely bootstrapped. But that’s not our core. We are looking at ways to find real world influencers and find methods to reach out to them.”

It remains to be seen if Bhuvaneswar can solve that problem. Or for how long he continues with his trending services gig.

But it doesn’t help when companies are impatient. Brand managers want quick results. They want people to say good things about them. They want the buzz, excitement and conversations. They want influence.

“There are only two types of media,” said a senior executive of a digital/talent management company who deals with several brands. He requested not to be named because some of them are his clients. “So two types. Earned media and paid media. The problem is simple. When it is paid, there is no disclosure. Despite it being paid, you often hear these things from brands ‘last year we killed it, we did so much of trending’. There is a lot of chest-thumping. What these brands don’t realize, or maybe they do, is that nobody is clicking on those links. It is like an echo chamber. The guys talking are following each other. It is amazing then to see these guys go around saying, ‘oh fuck, we’ve done something great. This is the power of our brand, our followers, what a creative, what a campaign’. It is scary what some of these marketing guys are smoking.”