Paid post

I had tweeted a positive experience with Urban Company over the weekend (on April 1, no less!) and two of the replies made me pause and think a bit harder.

For context, this was my first interaction with Urban Company. I had booked for servicing our air conditioner via the web version and only when the service person asked me to approve the quote when he started the work did I realize that I had to install the app to approve it 🙂

I chose Urban Company after being unable to find our usual, neighborhood air conditioner service guy. I used to prefer local folks in the belief that I’m helping them instead of choosing someone from an aggregator, but there is no specific basis for this belief, I do understand that.

It was a personal experience after having been adequately impressed with the quality of work, particularly because I wasn’t expecting this kind of—and quality of—work, having been used to the neighborhood guy who does things very differently.

One of the responses was this:

The other one, I’d let that pass – it was a handle self-identifying as a parody and was meant to provoke since it was framed as a poll.

I blocked this handle since there’s nothing meaningful to engage there with an anonymous prankster not having even the basic decency, civility, or courage to ask a question by putting their actual self online.

Again, this is not new – I have been asked this question earlier too, for tweets that were positive towards a product.

The question of whether a positive experience with a service or a product was a ‘paid promotion’ could come from many different perspectives that need not have anything to do with me at all.

For instance, if a lot of people were vocally expressing their negative experiences with Urban Company, my positive experience may seem like an exception and hence the question may be quite appropriate.

If the person asking the question had a poor experience with Urban Company recently, they have every reason to wonder if someone else’s positive experience is colored by money. Fair enough.

I don’t take such questions personally. It’s just a question and all I need to do is to respond as honestly as possible – that’s it. I personally have a policy of ‘no paid content at all, on any platform’. In other words, I’d like to ensure that my words are not for sale, on any social media platform.

I have no issues with others’ paid posts whatsoever. I do point it out occasionally when some paid post from a celebrity lacks a disclosure as per Government and ASCI rules, but I stopped caring about the lack of disclosures from influencers. I do not consider myself an influencer within that context because of the same reason – I don’t (want to) write content for a fee.

But the larger context is interesting and worth thinking about. Back when Facebook opened to the world and Twitter launched, both in 2006, we started posting the most mundane things to begin with – what we had for breakfast, about our pets, vanilla photos, etc. We were just testing things out and it was all largely innocent.

Then, when people started sharing their positive experiences on social media, either with products, services, or outlets (like restaurants), it was seen as being helpful.

Then the opposite materialized too – people started complaining about poor experiences with products, services, or outlets on social media, either out of having no choice (after having exhausted other, private modes of complaining) or directly as a first choice (the equivalent of washing dirty linen as the first option).

Brands used to care a lot about negative social chatter back in the early 2010s. Now, in 2023, it barely passes muster and any and every negative chatter goes into the giant cauldron of “Online Reputation Management”, much like how emails and phone calls were sent to a “Customer Care” team earlier.

Now, in 2023, our default setting seems to be a bit wary of social media praise for a product or a service. The more followers for the person who is sharing such praise, the more the suspicion that the praise probably involves some quid pro quo.

The main reason for this change in perspective is possibly because of the number of influencer marketing agencies out there looking for all kinds of influencers – micro-influencers with 5-10K followers, and big-time influencers with 100K+ followers. And they peddle every kind of product or service from their clients, offering assorted monetary packages.

For instance, I get about 5, on average, emails a week from such agencies. And the ask is usually the same: this is the product/ad campaign, and we want you to post positively about it, please let us know the financials for 1 LinkedIn Post or 1 Insta Reel/Post, or 4-5 Tweets, and so on. It’s almost like the agencies believe that whether we have our Aadhaar cards or not, we surely have our ‘rate card’!

Occasionally, a friend or an acquaintance reaches out to me asking what they should charge because they received a mail like this from an agency! I help them with some basic numbers from what I learned in my agency days, though I’m quite clueless about current rates 🙂

So, social media, which was once about discovering like-minded people and connecting with each other, has morphed into a giant promotional platform even beyond conventional advertising. Everybody can be an influencer, no matter what the follower count. Every post can be incentivized with money or freebies because there is always some company or brand that could gain, whatever little, from such a push. All it needs is an intermediary agency that can find the right match for the right fee.

As I had written in my post about Shah Rukh Khan’s Twitter feed where paid posts mingle with personal posts about his family, things are adequately murky now, as a result.

Imagine what the brands and agencies could do next.

Think of what insurance agents used to do. They were normal people like you and me. But they befriend someone and sell an insurance policy. Or they sell a policy to someone within their extended family. Each sale gets them a commission.

Ditto with multi-level marketing from brands like Amway, Avon, Herbalife, or Tupperware. The intent behind befriending or reaching out would be to rope someone inside the scheme and gain monetarily from it.

But, in those models, at least there was a tangible sale needed to earn a commission. With the influencer model, you just need to share a post online to get your fee. So the influencer model is based less on sales and more on advertising, which implies visibility.

Perhaps we should evolve a model where posting for a fee needs to be formalized and regularized 🙂

Why not? If people have varying degrees of followers online anyway as they grow up in life (regardless of when they start getting online), why not make the entire exchange formal online, probably via Government intervention?

An online marketplace where influencers could register by sharing their online social media presence, and areas of interest that they would be open to promote for a fee. And brands could search for self-registered influencers and hire them to post, and the fee could be regulated like how Governments regulate autorickshaw meter charges! For instance, it could be based on various slabs vis-a-vis platforms:
5,000 to 10,000 followers on Twitter (Rs. X), Instagram (Rs. Y), LinkedIn (Rs. Z)
10,000 to 50,000 – …
50,000 – 100,000- …
… and so on.

Sounds bizarre? It’s anyway happening in an underground sort of way, with haphazard figures being quoted based on imaginary influence not tied to any hard, tangible metric other than vanity metrics that the platforms themselves peddle. So why not direct some sunlight as a disinfectant in this zone and make it fully transparent?

Think about it! A penny for your thoughts? 🙂