Popular WeChat accounts rapidly shed followers and reads when Tencent implemented a temporary change to the server on September 29.
Ordinarily, a change to a system communication port should have no impact on the popularity of a WeChat article. But many top bloggers were using unapproved tools to boost their read count and visibility.
Trip Advisor lost at least 800,000 reads, and the “influential” account Luochaotmt tumbled from 10,000 reads to only 200. Both denied using any tools to manipulate their popularity.
Newrank, a website that monitors trends in WeChat, found that 60 percent of the “Big V” accounts experienced a dramatic follower drop after the change. The hardest hit 124 accounts lost 80 percent of their traffic.
Behind the Big V
“Big V” is the popular term for influential bloggers in China. The term comes from Sina Weibo, which displays a “V” mark after the name of verified users.
With the popularity of WeChat as a payment and communication platform, buying access to Big V accounts has become a major trend in China’s online advertising.
According to CBN Weekly, a headline advertisement from a WeChat account with 10,000 followers costs 5,000 yuan. But the scale of such accounts pales in comparison to that commanded by Big Vs. Baidu Baike defines a Big V account as one with at least 500,000 followers.
On Taogonghao, a website that estimates the value of WeChat accounts, a headline advertisement from an account with 400,000 followers and an average 100,000 hits is worth 16,000 to 30,000 yuan.
For super-popular accounts, a non-headline advertisement costs at least 100,000 yuan. A well-operated account that receives advertisements every day for one month could earn 3 million yuan.
But Big V account operators aren’t always willing to accept every offer. “Normally, those Big V accounts don’t take any low offers. They actually lend their names to the products they advertise, and they don’t want to damage their reputation,” said Zhangyi, CEO of iimedia.
It’s hard for users to guarantee the size and growth of their follower base. That’s why many well-known accounts often buy followers on Taobao or other websites.
On Taobao, every 1,000 hits costs 30 to 50 yuan. For manual hits that are designed to cheat simple cheat detection systems, the price climbs to 300 yuan per 1,000.
Following the Clicks
Based from data from iimedia’s 2016 WeChat Click-Through Rate Report, some 80.6 percent of WeChat users faked their user scale. Analysts from iimedia said most of the Big V accounts are entertainment accounts that lack professional management.
“Cheating is the best way to pump up their advertisement offers,” said an analyst at iimedia who would not be named. Zhang Yi, CEO of iimedia, said the WeChat account game is something like The Emperor’s New Clothes.
“If you try to build your followers organically, it’s just a matter of time until you are washed out of the game,” Zhang said.
Ma Wen, who created the popular “Something to Say About the Internet” account, said that buying hits and followers is a common practice in the industry. It’s one-part peer pressure and one part professional requirement, he said.
“The phenomenon is real, but it’s not as severe as people imagine,” Ma said. “We have to fake it because PR companies want user data to have a certain appearance before they will invest their money.”
It’s also cheap.
Investing 300 to 500 yuan on a hit boosting tool can bring in 100,000 hits, and 200,000 is enough to start getting advertisement offers.
“Cheating is much more rampant than it was before,” said Deng Jing, a new media overseer.
Tencent’s WeChat team posted their view on the phenomenon in late in September when their port change wiped out the activity of numerous users. It was not the first time WeChat made such unannounced changes.
“We will continue to strengthen our technology to guarantee the validity, fairness and equality of the system,” the team wrote. Insiders said the move might be a sign that Tencent plans to unveil its own advertising platform.
“Unlike other advertising media, WeChat account are run by individuals. It’s a hard platform for advertisers to crack,” an insider said. WeChat advertisers expect the company to lock out all but one or two of the cheating tools.
“It might secretly increase the cost of the software,” Beijing News said in an editorial.
“This may be the start of a bubble, misleading others to believe this industry has a promising future even if it does not,” Dongfang Daily wrote. “If they let this trend continue too far, it’s possible these accounts that exist only for advertising will drive out the good users.”