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Meet India's attention merchants
Meme purveyors speak about the highs and lows of reaping dividends once sown on Facebook Pages
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we talk about the business of Facebook Pages, and how that has evolved over the years, through the lens of three companies with mixed fortunes. Also in today’s edition: we have curated the best weekend reads for you.
Do you remember many years ago when your Facebook timeline was cluttered with Rajnikanth vs CID jokes? A predominantly text-based content page named ‘Rajnikanth vs CID Jokes’ had surfaced just for the lols before things got serious in terms of virality.
Every now and then, there's a good chance your Facebook friend shares a screenshot of a meme, an inspirational quote or even relationship advice. You lol, reshare it, and the Facebook algorithm then does what it's known best for: amplify it. Chances are you don’t know where it originated from. You also likely don’t know that you are a part of a content ecosystem that profits from your few seconds of attention.
Such content is the handiwork of companies such as RVCJ Media and Digihood Media, India’s biggest meme lords. Digihood runs a Facebook Page called ‘Sarcasm’, which is fronted by a stock image of Chandler Bing from popular sitcom Friends.
Sarcasm has over 42 million likes and 48 million followers. For the record, that's not too distant from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s following on the platform (46 million likes and followers each). At one point, Sarcasm nearly cracked the 50 million followers mark, according to the Meta-owned content discovery platform Crowdtangle.
The Sarcasm story is a curious one because it begins in Karnal, Haryana, far away from the tech parks of Bengaluru and Gurugram, where growth hackers and CMOs rack their brains over endless espresso shots to crack “content” and virality.
Perhaps they haven’t met Meet Luthra, or even heard of him.
Luthra runs multiple Facebook-based properties with a collective audience of 65 million-80 million. His portfolio includes Sarcasm and adjacent pages Sadcasm, Sourcasm, Sarcastic Bro, Sarcasm Gifs, and Sarcasm Tube, among others. Sarcasm’s popularity has spawned hundreds of copycats (Cricket Sarcasm, Sarcasm Lifestyle) by others.
His company has worked with marquee brands such as Vodafone Idea, McDonald's, and production houses that want to advertise to his massive audience.
The Business Of Reach
In India, Facebook Pages entrepreneurship can be extremely lucrative. With few or no entry barriers (creating a page is free), minimal investment in content piggybacking (repurposing and presenting the same content differently) and audience acquisition through advertising, one can gain likes and followers with “engagement” as a hero metric. After all, it's about playing the algorithm to maximise “organic reach”.
Over the years, many fan pages of film and sports stars, those discussing social and political issues or promoting popular politicians have grown into attention-consolidation businesses. Sometimes, companies rope in popular Facebook Pages to post content and direct traffic back to their website or page in exchange for a share of advertising revenue.
Needless to say, the more likes and followers a page has, the more ad revenue it fetches. Pages are even bought and sold. Back in 2019, as a reporter for the Economic Times, the author’s conversations with several page merchants revealed a going rate of anywhere between ₹75,000 to ₹1 lakh to buy a page. This was in the run up to India’s general elections.
Now, amid Facebook’s waning popularity, plateauing growth, frequent algorithm changes, and fractured user attention, Facebook Pages entrepreneurs are looking elsewhere.
From Pages To Platform Via Memes
Mumbai-based RVCJ Media discovered that image-based memes gaining traction on Facebook courtesy 4chan, Reddit and other forums, could be profitably repurposed for an Indian audience. It played the algorithms in order to expand reach before realising that it wanted to build a destination of its own.
That destination is the foundation of today’s RVCJ Media. Founded in 2017, RVCJ Media has a combined audience of around 30 million across platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter). Its jokes of yore have given way to meme-based, newsy content across categories such as general affairs, sports, and entertainment.
Co-founder and chief revenue officer Aziz Khan says his bootstrapped company is just getting started. RVCJ is gunning for a piece of lucrative pies such as meme marketing and the creator economy and even morphing into a production house of sorts. “It wouldn't be wrong to say that we pioneered this space [meme marketing]. When we started in 2018, only 20 brands were interested. We now cater to over 300 brands. You can safely say that it is eating into the influencer marketing pie with better ROI [return on investment],” Khan told The Intersection over the phone.
That should not be surprising, given the promise and potential of memes: they can be funny, engaging, relatable, and informative at the same time. They are also cost-effective for brands. Khan estimates that India’s meme marketing opportunity stands at about ₹80 crore-₹90 crore, currently and is expected to double by 2023, growing at a CAGR of 100%. The Intersection could not independently verify these figures.
Earlier this month, Khan launched RVCJ Plex, a talent management service to help budding creators leverage its 30 million-strong audience and score brand deals. “Having started as creators ourselves, we know the ins and outs of the creator economy. Making it big as a creator is a struggle, and we felt we should help the talent with marketing, PR and other forms of support,” says Khan, before adding: “We also realised that with dwindling attention spans and long-form on the wane, there’s a lot of original storytelling you can do with short videos.”
RVCJ has one eye on the original content space with OTTs too, especially in newer formats such as ‘mini series’, something Amazon is trying to pioneer through its ad-based MiniTV service. These are web shorts spanning 15-20 minutes, spread over three to four episodes per show. “We follow the TVF and Dice Media model and pitch to OTTs for these shows. Unlike long-format shows where large production houses are in business, we see an opportunity here,” says Khan.
This is not too dissimilar to what Vinay Singhal is trying to do these days, albeit with STAGE, an OTT platform.
Live By The Algorithm, And Die By It
Singhal is probably the best storyteller out there when it comes to the business of monetising attention via his once-popular website Wittyfeed. Its story is interesting, heartbreaking, and cautionary all at once. Known for its ability to churn out viral content at a near-industrial scale, Indore-based Wittyfeed once went head-to-head with BuzzFeed for unique monthly traffic. And much like BuzzFeed, it too relied heavily on Facebook’s algorithms.
Those were halcyon days. An email from Facebook in November 2018 would crush Wittyfeed, plunging the company into debt overnight. All its Pages were taken down, and years of content wiped out in one broad sweep. “We still don't know why those Pages were taken down. We got the mail after everything was deleted, and all it mentioned was a violation of Facebook’s platform policy, without specifying the exact clause,” Singhal told The Intersection over a phone call.
Singhal speculates that a probable cause could be one of his affiliates committing ad fraud or posting links to Bitcoin scams. Or, with substantial inbound traffic coming from markets such as the United States, Facebook—reeling from the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—cracked down on non-American companies reaching out to American voters. “We were reaching out to every third voter every month. They had to show some action, which could also be why they took down our Pages,” he adds.
At its peak, Wittyfeed’s content empire spanned from the Philippines to South America, with over 65,000 affiliates directing traffic to its website every month. It made hires in the US paying annual dollar salaries, with a monthly payroll cost of ₹2 crore.
“We had the third-largest digital media balance sheet in India and just before we got banned, we had a term sheet for a $5 million funding round for an upcoming product since the overdependence on Facebook was proving costly. But it was not to be,” says Singhal.
The Post-2018 Freefall
2018 was a pivotal year for Facebook-reliant publishers and entrepreneurs. In the annals of the Facebook-era digital content landscape, this would be the second such coming of dread for entrepreneurs, the infamous “pivot to video” being the first.
Coming off two major events in its life cycle—Donald Trump’s rise to power and the Cambridge Analytica scandal—Facebook tweaked its algorithm to encourage more “meaningful social interactions”. Facebook would show more content from friends and family (i.e. what it felt users would engage the most with) instead of publishers and brands. Not that it was successful at this either, as the Facebook Papers showed. One such victim was the woman-centric website Little Things, which shut down immediately after.
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Facebook saw a monetisation opportunity in throttling organic traffic. To reach similar audiences, Pages entrepreneurs would now have to spend money (inorganic). That's when content shops had to look for opportunities elsewhere.
The freefall continues. Further tweaks to the newsfeed after 2018 and a renewed focus on Instagram in the wake of increasing competition from TikTok could mean more problems for publishers. This, even as Facebook wants to allow users to have more control over their newsfeed.
Crowdtangle data accessed by The Intersection shows that Facebook’s algorithm changes are progressively starting to have an impact on Luthra’s empire. Sarcasm, the biggest of them all, has lost nearly 650,000 likes since August. Sadcasm, another Digihood Media page with an audience of over 20 million, has lost over 350,000 likes.
The Intersection reached out to Luthra for comment repeatedly over phone and sent a questionnaire on WhatsApp as per his request. As of publication time, Luthra did not respond.
“The clickbait era is over. Facebook’s algorithms are smarter and stronger. But people have also become smarter,” says Khan of RVCJ Media.
Singhal agrees. “Those who had to make good money from Facebook have already done that. Paisa bana liya hai. Audience bana liya hai. Now it’s about what they put them to use for.”
Update: The story has been updated to reflect the following changes: Mr Aziz Khan’s designation and industry figures for meme marketing opportunity in India.
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