Think of the biggest a****l* you can; a cocky, testosterone-fuelled bully who enjoys humiliating people in the most vicious, rabid way possible. Imagine he does that on national television. Now, imagine that person winning an award for being the friendliest person in the world.
Insane right? But that’s exactly what happened on January 14, 2012, when MTV Roadies won the ‘Most Social Show in the World Award’ at the 2011 Mashable Awards beating shows like WWE Raw, Attack of the Show, The Glee Project, Supernatural, Pretty Little Liars and Bones. The Mashable Awards are the equivalent of the Oscars in the digital social media landscape. (MTV is part of Viacom18, which is a JV between Viacom and Network18. Network18 publishes Forbes India.)
For those who don’t know, MTV Roadies is India’s favourite reality TV show that’s into its ninth season now. For an hour every week, over two million viewers tune in to watch Ranvijay Singh, Raghu Ram and Rajiv Laxman (host, judges and producers of Roadies) make people squirm and cry as they are put through a series of gruelling tasks. Raghu and Rajiv, twins with shaved heads, play the evil bullies to perfection while Ranvijay is the kid who wants to be just like the ‘cool’ twins, but can’t because his on-air character has a conscience that still works. They are also the three guys that 3.5 million (and growing) Indian youngsters want to talk to. All the time.
Why anyone would want to talk to three guys who humiliate people for a living is a mystery. Maybe they are masochists, maybe they like watching others get humiliated, maybe they are just bored. But the fact is that Roadies holds sway over the largest demographic in India, on a medium that few brands have been able to figure out.
Roadies managed to target its audience by going to where they spent most of their time: Online. “We are a brand that provides content to young people,” says Aditya Swamy, channel head. “We had to automatically move to places where the content is being consumed.” That meant Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Roadies consistently ranks among the most engaging pages in the world on Facebook. It has been among the top 30 pages on Facebook for the last 32 weeks. At its peak, Roadies, in September 2011, hit a high of number six when it ranked above entertainer Lady Gaga and TV shows like Entourage, Friends, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. All the other shows have fan bases starting at around 7 million and going on to 25 million. Roadies had a mere 3.2 million fans at the time. But it makes up for the low numbers with a high interaction quotient.
While branding and marketing experts agree that social media is the way to go, there is very little clarity on how to conquer that frontier. Pepsi tried and failed. The company came out with a Change the Game campaign before the Cricket World Cup in 2011. “The contest went something like this. You had to upload a video of yourself talking on how India should change the game,” says an ex-employee of the agency that handled the campaign for Pepsi. “The prize was that 11 fans would get the chance to tour with the Indian cricket team. It’s every fan’s dream right? But we got less than a hundred video entries. It just didn’t work,” he says.
That is why the Roadies success story is remarkable.
While Roadies is a big hit on Facebook, its journey began on another social networking site that was very popular in India in 2008: Orkut. The first season of Roadies Battleground (RBG) debuted on Orkut in 2008. RBG was started to retain connect with Roadies fans when the show was off air. It enabled the show to choose its first contestants for the next season. The contestants were given tasks online. They had to shoot themselves performing them and upload the video online. The platform for season one of RBG was Orkut. By the second season, RBG had its own micro Web site on MTV. The third season of RBG in 2010 had 250 videos that were uploaded. Only one of them was uploaded by a girl. The Roadies team decided that had to change.
They changed the RBG format. They split RBG into a team event with three members, out of which one had to be a girl. The response was fantastic. Three thousand videos were uploaded for season four. The final episode was telecast on TV.
By then, Facebook had established itself as the leading social network in India. Yet, Roadies did not have an official fan page on Facebook. But there were many pages started by Roadies fans on Facebook. In February 2011, the Roadies team got in touch with Facebook and asked it to aggregate the Roadies pages. They started out with 500,000 fans on day one. Over the next 11 months, the number of fans touched 3.5 million, beating even MTV India. The satellite had become larger than the mother ship.
“A lot of people want to be touched by Roadies but Roadies doesn’t touch enough people,” says Swamy. “Roadies is like a cult. It’s almost a religion, at least in North [India]. You ask some kids what they want to become and they say, ‘Mujhe Roadies banna hain’,” says a member of the digital team on the condition of anonymity. These fans would become the drivers for Roadies’ growth on social media.
The fan page was created a month before season eight went on air on TV. Suddenly Roadies had a publishing destination for exclusive content and content that couldn’t make it on air such as behind the scenes, sneak peeks, photographs and interviews with contestants.
“Roadies has 6-20 cameras running all the time. But only 44 minutes [of that] make it [to the show]. A lot of good content doesn’t go on air. We put these up online and these would go viral. Why? Because people who were Roadies fans knew that they would get their fix online. They knew the only destination was online,” says the team member.
“We are able to get people to come back and find something new every day. We score high on engagement. There are other fan pages with 10 million fans but they are not active. We score over them with 3.5 million fans. The hyperactivity is what we live off,” says Swamy.
When videos of contestants weren’t uploaded, photographs, quotes by Raghu and Ranvijay and video chats with the hosts were. Roadies quotes online are simple. Something like ‘Don’t. Give. Up.’ These would go viral within seconds.
Roadies stays connected with its fans round the clock. “You’ll [find] a photograph going up at 12 a.m., a tweet at 2 a.m., a FB post at 7 a.m.,” says Swamy. “The medium is 24/7 so the team is 24/7.”
The team is probably the most important aspect in the success story. Swamy understands the medium, but he doesn’t speak the same language as its users. So, he hired people who did. “The people who work on this are youngsters. They are the ones who use this medium. They tweet, upload pics and tag their friends. They are not like me, someone who checks his Facebook account once a year,” he says.
Ekalavya Bhattacharya, Ajinkya Chikte, Raj Thadani and Xerxes Wadia all think round the clock of ways to connect with the Roadies fans. Wadia is 23, Chikte’s 25, Bhattacharya, head fusion-digital, is the ‘oldie’ at 27. Thadani, 28, would qualify as the grandfather.
All of them live two lives, one in the real world and the other as a digital being. The work they do is an extension of their self on land. They are the ones who upload stuff through the night. Since they work round the clock, motivation matters a lot. They have to constantly come up with ideas to keep users engaged. Incentives matter a lot. Right now, it comes in the form of beer. The individual who manages to engage users the most gets a bottle of beer from each of the other team members.
Beer may be replaced by something else soon, for after all, how many beers can one person drink?
While the team worked like fanatics, the fans became evangelists for the show, sharing, liking and commenting on posts and videos. While the fans went crazy for Roadies, the team knew that it couldn’t be all take and no give.
“When we were shooting in Brazil we were thinking of how to promote the show,” says Raghu. “And Ranvijay came up with an idea. Treat every episode as a premiere and hold it in cities in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chandigarh. Invite people to watch it.”
They bounced it off MTV where the people loved it. Roadies invited fans from Twitter and Facebook for the premiers. Raghu, Ranvijay or Rajiv would be present for every event. For the fans it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet their screen idols. When they went back home they got on to their smartphones and computers and propagated even more.
The hosts/judges of Roadies are powerful brands in themselves. Ranvijay is the heartthrob while Raghu’s screen persona is that of a foul-mouthed, heartless b*****d. They leverage themselves to the hilt. Raghu unashamedly admits, “There are two reasons why Roadies is a huge hit in the social media space. The first one is that MTV as a brand is incredibly active and knows how to do the right stuff online. The second reason is me. People either hate me or consider me a youth icon. So, I don’t know if its people’s hatred or adoration that translates into a lot of comments. Some post on FB that was posted one minute ago has around 3,000 to 4,000 comments.”
With Ranvijay the Roadies team plays it differently. The gender split in Roadies is 60-40 in favour of men. The average spread on Facebook is 72-28 in favour of men again. “It’s really impressive… the amount of girls who are fans. And you know how we leverage this; a lot of photographs of Ranvijay. We put up one image and every girl loves to click on ‘like’,” says a digital team member.
While Roadies was a hit on Facebook, it was a little slow on YouTube. Relatively. YouTube and Viacom International had a tiff going on. It was able to launch its official channel only in June 2011 after the eighth season of Roadies was over. By January, it had 10 million views. This was during the off season.
The first online video of season nine had 250,000 views on day one. Roadies comes out with a TV episode every week. It comes out with a ‘Webisode’ every day. The first Webisode had 300,000 views.
Creating so much content involves a lot of cost. For the season nine auditions, the digital team travelled with the TV crew of Roadies to all the cities auditions were held. The digital team had their own equipment to shoot and upload. They had a biometric Facebook connect that worked on RFID technology where the individual’s fingerprint was the tag. When a contestant entered the audition or the group discussion, it triggered a post where the individual’s Facebook ID said ‘Entering audition’.
“We don’t make a TV show and say how do we put it online? We create online content simultaneously,” says Swamy. That’s all very well, but how do you monetise it?
MTV hasn’t monetised it yet. “We are holding back right now so people can enjoy the experience. It can become a huge revenue-driving opportunity once you cross that critical number. I think we have crossed it now with 10 million views. We can insert ads, pre and post. I think people will still watch it with brand integration and ads,” says Swamy.
Apart from the ads, Roadies has a ready base to sell its merchandise on. There’s Roadies stationery, eyewear, footwear and accessories that’s currently being sold through various outlets. The total value of all merchandise at MRP is around Rs. 80 crore in the last 12 months.
Sandeep Dahiya, senior VP, consumer products, says, “We will use our Roadies communities to promote the products. The question is how we can harness that tool to make it into a sales platform. We’ll figure that out in the next financial year.”Five Rules For Making Social Media work
- • Know the language. Social media is not for fuddy-duddies. The people who manage your digital space can’t be ‘suits’.
- • The night is your friend. A lot of today’s social media consumers are nocturnal. Engage with them through the night. Late nights are the early morning. Social media is not a 9-5 job.
- • Abuse is good. People are very brave online. They will abuse you because they can’t see you. If they criticise your product/brand, take it in your stride. Ask them how you can improve. Don’t lose your cool.
- • Don’t hit the snooze button. Keep conversations going even when your company is idle. This will keep the connect alive and make sure you are in the consumer’s mindspace through the year.
- • Reward loyalists. Take the engagement offline. Every brand has a bunch of evangelists. Reward them well. Invite them for special launches, get them to meet your brand ambassadors.
(This story appears in the 17 February, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)