On November 6th, billionaire Wang Sicong, to celebrate his team’s victory in the League of Legends World Championship, posted a raffle announcement on his Weibo. Wang used @微博抽奖 (Weibo’s official prize drawing system) to pick 113 lucky users who had engaged (reposted, commented or liked) with the post, and awarded each with 10,000 yuan.
Motivated by the financial incentives, this lucky post soon received 24 million shares, 20 million comments, and 19 million likes, which is said to be the Weibo with the most comments ever (well, almost). As for Wang? Giving away so much money doesn’t mean squandering in vain – he gained 2 million fans in a few days, starting from a follower base of 39 million.
Screenshot from Wang Sicong’s Weibo
A more popular Weibo feed?
Although this number is remarkably high, Wang’s post is actually not the most engaged Weibo feed. That honor goes to an announcement for a new EP release by superstar pop singer August Tsai on August 2, which was reposted 100 million times. Given that there are 300 million users of Weibo in China, it’s no exaggeration for us to conclude that, considering the repeated participations across repost, every one out of three registered Weibo accounts joined in this “yell for your idol” campaign voluntarily without any material rewards from Tsai or Wang.
Did this bound-to-be-a-hit song go viral across China? From my personal experience, it failed to reach friends around me and didn’t leave an impression that the Weibo post had been so popular since it never appeared in their feeds. So who contributed to the 100 million reposts and who was supposed to see them? The answer has to be bots.
If you unfold the repost list, you’ll see several zombie accounts repetitively forwarding the same postings, which will only be seen by other bots and not by any real users.
Because every registered account can only “like” once, Weibos with fake data always present a higher percentage of reposts/comments engagement than likes.
The notable craze also exists in real life
In August, a fashion magazine covering Kris Wu, a rising Canadian-Chinese hip-hop star, sold 100 thousand copies in 45 seconds when some super fans placed dozens of orders with repeat copies to boost sales. His recently-released album, Antares, swept the U.S. iTunes charts and topped rankings, blocking Ariana Grande and knocking Lady Gaga out of the top 10, and was later accused of using automated bots in order to inflate sales.
What’s behind those celebrity figures? Their teen fans. Empowered with decent financial status and enamored by their favored celebrities, teenagers, who were mostly born after 1995, tend to show admiration towards beloved idols by repeatedly buying associated products hundreds, even thousands, of times. This makes the products seem more popular with the general public than they are in reality.
You might say, “Yes, that explains a lot, but that’s all fine to me – that trend is commonly seen all around the world. It’s not affecting me and it’s harmless to society.” Well, really?
Unwise celebrity worship is degrading the efficiency of marketing campaigns
The fake engagement numbers on social media paired with inflated sales figures are deceiving sponsors who are looking for advertising solutions and resort to celebrities’ exposure, resulting in following this trend blindly.
These young and good-looking celebrities with limited influence but legions of followers are generally called “traffic stars,” as their presence always makes a huge splash online but not for very long. They are good at bringing instant sales but not with developing branding awareness – once those crazy fans got bored with their fancy idols, what’s left for sponsors is endless pain. Traffic stars, together with their teen fans, are leading testaments to the adage “bad money drives out good,” also known as Gresham’s Law, and infects the whole market.
Let’s make a sales vs. recognition comparison between the state renowned skincare brand Pechion and an emerging label, Yoseido, which sought August Tsai’s endorsement. (Yes, the same August Tsai we mentioned earlier.)
The sales figure of Yoseido is almost fivefold of Pechion (a similarly-priced product), but is it five times more famous than Pechion? I asked 100 contacts in my WeChat and feedback was unanimous– no one knew Yoseido, while everyone has heard of Pechion. Though Yoseido had decent sales data and promising revenue, the big money Yoseido had invested in the celebrity endorsement deal turned out to only target August’s fans rather than reach a mass audience.
This fake popularity is taking its toll on the public moral belief that prestige should go together with personal virtue and ability. The spread of the idea that “money can buy you fame” misleads the younger generation into thinking they can win fame and fortune without making efforts to achieve any goals. Amid the bots crisis, Chinese art is now not trusted or appreciated, and the situation which might take years to turn around.
Being in the Chinese marketing field, I more than anyone am wishing a better marketing environment. Apart from encouraging government intervention, perfecting a more accurate targeting system, whether technologically or methodologically, are also critical in forming a benign competitive market. This will prevent traffic stars from eating into the budget. In the short term, given the fact that fans will still be attracted to products associated with their beloved idols, they should be encouraged to genuinely comment on their opinions instead of lying in an attempt to protect their idols’ public image.