Has the Meesho incident highlighted the flip side of influencer marketing?

Social media platforms drastically altered the way we socialise. But in recent years their role has expanded beyond that of connecting us with our friends.

Consumers are now exploiting these platforms for other use cases – like keeping up with news on Twitter, getting product reviews on YouTube or gaining an inside view of celebrity and influencer lives on Instagram.

In fact, a study by US influencer marketing intelligence platform Sideqik revealed that 50% of millennials feel that they know the influencers they follow on social media better than their friends. At least 78% of consumers said they discovered a new brandor product from an influencer.

And, according to an October 2020 survey by Rakuten Insight, about 72% of the respondents from the age group of 25 to 34 years in India to following at least one influencer on social media.

While there is no rigid classification, the category in which an influencer falls in is typically defined by the number of followers.

Nano influencers are those with a few thousand to as much as 10,000 followers while micro influencers have up to 100,000 followers. For macro, this number goes to a million. A mega influencer would be someone with a million or more followers. They may not necessarily be celebrities.

Brands leverage influencers to not only promote their products, but also to get their messaging across to consumers in an engaging visual format.

Influencers have a big impact on consumers, especially millennials. And influencer marketing has democratised digital marketing. It is not just TV ads anymore. The time spent on social media platforms is going up, and so is the clout of influencers.

They command a higher engagement rate than celebrities, and enjoy people’s trust too. And brands know it very well.

But, off late, a flip side of influencers marketing also seems to be emerging. Allegations are surfacing that brands are using influencers to not just to mold their better image, but to pull down their competitor too. As with any industry, there are a few bad apples here too. For such agencies, it is just another service they offer to brands for money.

SoftBank and Meta-backed e-commerce startup Meesho recently got a taste of it. It took note of this after a startup executive on Twitter pointed out earlier this month that several influencers — in a seemingly coordinated manner — tweeted negatively about the company while tagging its investors. These posts accompanied a link to a news article about Meesho’s cost-cutting strategies. Meesho claimed that some influencers acknowledged that the tweets were paid promotions while others deleted their posts.

It has now asked the marketing agency’s CEO to disclose on whose behest it was working and issue an unconditional apology.

Two more startup executives revealed they were approached earlier this year to make negative comments about Meesho in lieu for money.

A journalist shared her observation that articles on Meesho often receive coordinated abuse from verified accounts on Twitter.

Meesho Founder and CEO Vidit Aatrey claimed that paying influencers to peddle rumours against the startup has been happening for the last many months.

The agency which engaged the influencers for this alleged smear campaign and to whose CEO Meesho has sent a notice is reportedly based in Ahmedabad. It is one among the scores of such influencer marketing agencies that have cropped up across the country as brands look to reach 400 million social media audiences.

Balasubramanian, co-founder of Bengaluru-based influencer marketing firm Greenroom, says that smaller influencers sometimes get paid through free products in return for promotional posts talking up a product or sharing their opinions after using a product.

She says nano influencers can get paid as little as Rs 500 for a post that can go up to Rs 5,000 whereas a micro influencer can make as much as Rs 15,000 per post.

Lakshmi Balasubramanian of Greenroom says influencers are people like us who record their everyday activities online. Their reliability quotient is much higher than a celebrity. With influencers, smear campaigns just moved to a different medium. As such, until rules are put down, such campaigns using influencers will also continue to happen. Agencies are doing it simply for the moneym she says. We get influencers signing up with us to agree that they will not abuse a brand, she says.

Influencers who tweeted against Meesho for a price may have fallen afoul of the guidelines for influencer advertising in digital media issued by the Advertising Standards Council of India, a voluntary self-regulatory organization of the ad industry.

Greenroom’s Lakshmi Balasubramanian says that in such cases brands and agencies can be pulled up since policing hundreds of influencers involved in a negative campaign can be impractical.

A report by GroupM India pegged the size of India’s influencer marketing industry at Rs 900 crore in 2021, growing at an average of 25% annually till 2025. Around 40% of this consists of nano and micro influencers.

While the exact number of total influencers in India is hard to come by, it could very well run into tens of thousands if not lakhs, with more being created every day.

According to the Advertising Standards Council of India or ASCI’s guidelines, influencers are required to disclose any material connection between them and the advertiser by using any of the permitted disclosure labels.

Material connection is not limited to monetary compensation. Disclosure is required if there is anything of value given to mention or talk about the advertiser’s product or service. The anti-Meesho tweets did not carry any such labels.

Influencers are also advised to review and satisfy themselves that the advertiser is in a position to substantiate the claims made in the advertisement.

ASCI CEO Manisha Kapoor told The Morning Show that the regulator has not been approached by Meesho so far but if they do, ASCI would examine the complaint to the extent of its remit.

Speaking to Business Standard, Manisha Kapoor, CEO, Advertising Standards Council of India, says this is not the first time influencers have been paid to talk negatively about a competitor’s product. This is not just unethical but also misleading to consumers. The anti-Meesho tweets potentially violates both ASCI guidelines and Consumer Protection Act, but the final responsibility is of the advertiser who commissioned a campaign of this nature. Influencers are also responsible

Manisha Kapoor also says that even one or two of these agencies engaging in malpractices give the entire industry a bad name. She suggests that the influencer industry, including players in the ecosystem, should step up and look at implementing a code of conduct for itself, to keep the industry clean.

The onus to nip this malpractice in the bud also lies on influencers. It will not just dent their image, but that of the entire influencer community as a whole. The trust they enjoy will erode, and brands may also stop coming to them for promotions. ASCI too should act tough against such incidents to instil confidence among social media users.


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