Ramesh Srivats: When Brands Pay Influencers to Trend a Hashtag, Everyone Loses

Ramesh Srivats, MD & CEO at TenTenTen Digital Products

Ramesh Srivats, as we all know, is a Twitter superstar. His incisive humor and consistent ability to keep a pulse on what engages the digital population has helped him amass a large following and earned him accolades such as being crowned the 2012 GQ Digitial Man of the Year. But it is his day job as MD and CEO of TenTenTen Digital Products that keeps him busy, and which allows him to work on innovative apps and digital campaigns for his clients. Last week, Ramesh was visibly busy with the launch of the IPL Fantasy league, but found time to sit with us and discuss everything from Twitter trolls to digital budgets to the need for brands to create long-term, scalable properties online.

In case you are not familiar with Ramesh’s brilliance on Twitter – if, for example, you have been living in a cave for the past few years – you can find him here.

Click here to watch Ramesh Srivats speaking in the social media panel at PRestival 2012.

Q. Your tweets make it into the newspaper on a regular basis when the media publish articles about what the “Twitterati” have to say. What do you think about this trend? Is it a curiosity factor or is social media being taken more seriously by traditional journalists?

It is more than general interest when one is talking about the “twitterati” section. Several news stories now pull content from tweets. Twitter is not just becoming a section in the media, but it is actually informing the core of editorial.

If one notices the content of the stories that get highlighted, one can tell that they are extracted from Twitter. Headlines of many stories make them seem like a journalist has covered it but if you read the contents, it will all be based on tweets. The core media now understands that Twitter is useful for actual news and not merely as a source of entertainment.

Earlier, the tweets were not correctly cited, but people have corrected that now. Sometimes it is attributed wrongly because somebody plagiarizes it but I don’t blame media for it. There is a lot of plagiarism on Twitter but media is essentially looking at tweets only to put it out there.

Plagiarism used to annoy me earlier but Twitter itself doesn’t allow one to crib about it. They had something to check that earlier but now the copyright violations are only for genuine copyright – music, art etc. Tweets are not considered intellectual property.

As far the newspapers and television is concerned, they have got the hang of Twitter now. Earlier, there used to be instances where the newspapers would mention the tweet without giving the Twitter handle. They can quote me by all means, but they should put my name there. They’ve learnt to do that. It was never a malicious act but earlier they just didn’t know the protocol.

Q. You ran an immensely popular blog, Let’s Put Da, and you gained a lot of following as a traditional blogger. But your blog has seen very little content over the last few years. Is all your focus on Twitter and TenTenTen?

My blog has been inactive for the last two years. It was popular because people liked to read and share a collection of PJs. Now I can get those jokes out one at a time. Twitter is instantaneous; one is out there when everybody is discussing the same thing. A blog lacks that. It only comes forward the next day. Blogs are not dead, but they are going down. People like me, and others such as Krish Ashok, are getting out of blogging. Blogs have moved from general interest to niche topics. Humor bloggers have especially switched from blogs to Twitter because it is fun, better to use, and the feedback is instant. I can interact with people and crack jokes. Serious bloggers who do tech reviews or political analysis still need a blog but I don’t.

Q. You’re clearly one of the most influential Indians on social media and I’m sure this means that you are constantly approached by brands – and PR professionals – for campaigns, “paid tweets,” etc. How do you respond to those?

I don’t do that. In fact more than brands, agencies approach me and the most embarrassing is when friends approach me.

I want to have fun on Twitter. The moment I start taking money for it, it’s not fun, it’s work. Personally I don’t think I will ever do it. However, I do use Twitter to promote what TenTenTen [Digital Products] does because I have declared my ownership of it. Usually when I promote an app. which we have developed, people know I own it. I think people are free to do this.

I look down upon people who manipulate their following. There are a lot of people who will not disclose that they have taken money for a promotion, and spam. They will start a hashtag, which is actually of little use to the brand to start it. I think everybody wastes money in the process. The brand wastes money by paying such people and the person tweeting loses a bit of his credibility.

I unfollow a lot of people who spam; those who take a hashtag and promote it endlessly. They don’t disclose that they are talking money for it but they try to trend that hashtag, they RT all the replies, and spam my timeline.

Brands haven’t understood that trending a hashtag is extremely simple. Any person with a following of 5,000-10,000 people can do it. Make a tweet and start retweeting replies. The moment one starts retweeting replies, people also figure out that there is a chance to get retweeted, and they will start replying and the hashtag will trend. The way some companies do it, no one learns about the brand. They are just trying to get retweeted.

In this chain of the brand paying an influencer to trend a hash tag, everybody on the line loses because the final end to viewers is spam. I unfollow these people. I find it vaguely dishonest, because one has a certain number of followers because of certain kind of content. Now they are milking their followers without telling them. TV also does this, but on TV it is an understood contract that you are watching ads in the middle and the ads are detached. It is like a newspaper interfering with its editorial and people crib about paid media. Every person is a media on Twitter. When any person with a decent number of followers tweets for money, how are they different from paid media? As opposed to declaring that I have been, for example, asked to promote Samsung and that I tried the phone and it is actually good. When one discloses that they have taken money for it and then giving their judgment, it is up to people to take it or leave it.

But that disclosure doesn’t mean it is okay to spam. It is like watching a media channel which has only ads and no content, like The Times of India of twitter! It is spoiling the editorial content by spamming. 

I personally don’t want to treat Twitter as professional work. For me, my work is TenTenTen. I go on Twitter and Facebook to have fun.

Q. Have you noticed social media budgets for brands in India increasing? Why are Indian brands still hesitant to spend as much as foreign brands?

They should because the trend is in that direction. They are slightly behind, but it is not that people are not realizing this. I have been trying to push this for the last 3-4 years in India, and the acceptance for this is becoming easier. 

Some of us feel that more one looks at Facebook and Twitter as media, the more they are going to have bad habits of so called “old media” come in to the so called “new media.”

For the “old media,” one builds up an audience, as a TV program or the newspaper does, and then they push messages to the audience. It is effectively the same on “new media” with hashtags and the Facebook pages. These platforms may be more interactive but the fact is that people are first creating an audience, either by getting influencers or by creating their own account and getting followers. Then, they’re pushing messages to them.

This approach is narrow. I don’t think it benefits the brand enough. Brands know that social media is conversations between people. Paid content tries to join any and every conversation. I am also a consumer of social media, not just a producer. People including myself talk to their friends on social media and we don’t want a beer brand or any other brand to stick in as part of the conversation. Brands should stop interfering.

They should stop looking at social media as a medium. Social media is a cultural phenomenon. It’s changing the way we relate to friends, celebrities, and how we form opinions about brands.

They should see how to tap into this phenomenon instead of blindly looking at it as media and trying to push their message. Apple and Google don’t push messages. They do things and people talk about them. Tapping the social phenomenon for brands is not about pushing messages to audiences and getting a hash tag to trend.

It’s about doing something so that people talk about the brand. Social media has allowed a lot of people to talk to each other, and their conversation is influencing their opinion about brands. It is not about entering the conversations, but being the topic of the conversation that matters.

Apple doesn’t have a Facebook page, nor do they try to trend their hashtag. They trend without promoting or sponsoring any posts, simply because they are talk-worthy.

If a brand wants to crack the social world, it has to be talk-worthy in terms of product and in terms of everything. Even if they do a great TV commercial, it will be talked about.

Q. So, can social and digital efforts only add to the perception that a brand creates through its products and services?

There is no need for value addition. If brands do things properly, people will talk about them. People don’t mind talking about brands; they have a problem being talked to by a brand. Both good and bad actions by a brand come to light immediately on social media.

Brand need to be talk worthy. If Airtel has a customer service and hypothetically it works 99% of the time then it’s not talk-worthy. In such cases, only the negative works. If it fails 10% of the time, then it becomes talk-worthy in negative sense. Mostly customer service is talked about only when it fails.

What we do for brand actions is creation of apps such as TripAlong for Make My Trip which tends to be social. Brands should do cool things and people will talk about them.

Brands should understand that we are living in a world where customers are connected and listen to each other, so there is no point in just talking. They should use Facebook and Twitter to listen and respond to their customers. To think that a brand can be built through a Facebook page or a trending hashtag is a waste.

Digital agencies call for it because it is easy for them to trend hashtags. They have projected these metrics as the key things and clients have also bought it. Now there are a bunch of people chasing a certain metrics because they can be measured, even though it is virtual. There is no further significance of the real one.

Q. Digital ROI is a pressing issue for the PR community. What is your opinion on the social media tools that measure influence and impact? What is the best way to capture ROI?

I think the entire metrics are wrong. If you put any metrics which is dividing one number against the other, it is a fraud. Ordinarily, an agency has a Facebook page, and they will have an interaction quotient and an engagement quotient. Interaction quotient is essentially number of comments divided by the number of posts, and engagement quotient is number of likes by some other number. Dividing one thing by another like this is fraud.

Most metrics that are useful are slightly more complex. I think that the structure is wrong and what you measure in the wrong structure is completely irrelevant.

According to me, if I have a budget, I would create long-term, scalable properties on the net. Facebook pages are not scalable even though more users can come into it. Eventually its quality is completely dependent on some kid sitting in the agency and putting content. Typically, if it is Sunday and the post gets 100 likes, the agency will show an ‘engagement rate’ of 100. That’s the current game everybody is playing.

We need to create brand properties. For instance, we created TripAlong for Make My Trip. It’s a brand building effort. They are not trying to make money from it. They are trying to get people to talk about their brand like any PR exercise or Ad etc.

TripAlong does something which is useful to the customer in the zone of travel. For instance one has 500 Facebook friends but they are not really in touch with them, but there is a strong chance to meet with them while travelling, in the plane or at the airport or something of that sort.

One can tell their updated travel plan and the app will tell you which Facebook friends you can meet there. One need not book only from Make My Trip, they can book on any other service. But if they book on Make My Trip the travel plan gets pulled automatically, that is the benefit.

I have a community in which people are using this product and enjoying it. It is a property for Make My Trip. Today it has over 10,000 users which will increase over time, making it scalable. It is software; it just becomes more and more useful.

For budgets, as long as the digital is portrayed as an expense with immediate ROI, I don’t think one can get more budgets, because ROI of the internet is not comparable with TV. If the marketing manager treats digital as a media budget, he is going to look at TV and look at cost per region customers and TV will win there. One needs to think about expenditure on the internet as investment. 

Trending a hashtag is not an investment. Creating a scalable property which will last forever is an investment. Clients are willing to put more money in it because they don’t have to look at it as this year’s budget; sometimes, they can pull out from other department’s budget. If agencies want the clients to increase the budget, they have to reposition the internet as a cultural phenomenon which can be tapped by creating properties which will last forever. More emphasis on “this is a new media by which you reach people” and evaluation by the rules of media won’t get budgets.


Q. What has been your favourite campaign that TenTenTen Digital Products has worked on?

I always like my latest one, which is the IPL Fantasy League. It is an online property for the IPL brand. It is a fantasy cricket game. I wanted the fantasy league to match the brand value of IPL.

The core of IPL is cricket but it is packaged with a lot of fun, entertainment, cheer leaders etc. We have an app which has cricket at its core, but it is packaged very attractively and is easy to play.

We also did 3 promos for Nivea, all of which have been very successful. It was for their whitening deodorant. When it comes to beauty, women don’t listen to brands, they listen to other women. We went beyond likes and hits on Facebook, and made women model for the brand. Approximately 10,000 posters were made which eventually reached out to 7-8 lakh people. People on Facebook essentially saw their own respective friends modeling on a Nivea poster, which has a great connect.

We also created an audio for Fresh Active, a men’s deodorant. We recorded morning songs of people brushing teeth etc. and created a character called Slumberjack who danced based on what you created. It went on Youtube, and over a brief period of time it had four and a half million views, which was a very big number.

The promos for Nivea are short termed in the sense that we will repeat it this year, but brand properties such as TripAlong and IPL Fantasy League are more permanent. We have also done something for Kingfisher beer which will come out very soon.

I think brands are ready to invest. I am talking to Airtel and ICICI and they are ready, but budgets are an issue with brands.

I don’t talk about media budgets anymore. For me a property is like a new production of a TVC. And when one is making a TVC, the budget is 50 lakh – 1 crore, and then run it for 9 months. Give me the money that is required for creating a TVC and I will give a property that will last for 3 – 5 years. That talk makes sense to clients. They have money and they are sensible, but they will put their money only in things that make sense to them. It is the job of digital industry to figure out where you can add most value to the client, how you can make sense out of the client’s product?

If an agency says to the client “I will make your hashtag trend and run your Facebook page,” the client will give only Rs.50,000 or Rs 1 lakh per month and with that money the agency can only employ people whose salaries are Rs. 15000.  And then they are in that vicious spiral of producing bad quality work and earning smaller fees.

What advertising has managed to reach over the 65 years of bad quality with lousy talent, digital will reach in 3 years!

Q. Have you ever had a tweet that has got you in trouble?

I delete conversations. I get into trouble in many tweets, but not official trouble. Most of my tweets are political, and sometimes on film. Now, In India if one says anything bad about BJP, BJP guys will troll him, they are aggressive. If one says anything bad about Congress, they also troll.  But I think the Congress guys have given up on me, they don’t bother me anymore!

If I say something about Shah Rukh Khan, his fans troll me, so it depends on who I am mocking. I get trolled by those people. If someone gets very abusive, I block them.

Twitter is not a place for arguments because one can’t argue in 140 characters. For me, if any argument reaches more than two tweets, then I assume that it is not going to get resolved on Twitter. If a person I am arguing with doesn’t get it after a few tweets, I just ignore the tweets and let it be. The only trouble is that my mentions column gets slightly hateful.


Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management


4 thoughts on “Ramesh Srivats: When Brands Pay Influencers to Trend a Hashtag, Everyone Loses

  1. Ramesh’ best interview I ever read! “I want to have fun on Twitter. The moment I start taking money for it, it’s not fun.” — Loved his thoughts, he’s the man!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *