‘We are blacklisted, we are free’

Pankaj Mishra March 15, 2019

As the founder-editor of gadget review platform PhoneRadar, Amit Bhawani has to perform a tough balancing act every day. The editor in him is expected to constantly establish to his readers that he is a fair reviewer, while the businessman in him needs to work with brands. In this Outliers podcast from August last year with Pankaj Mishra — transcribed by Kanika Berry — Bhawani explains how he builds communities by being open and truthful with them, and how that’s kept him in the reckoning with brands.

Pankaj: So welcome to Outliers. I am in the city of Hyderabad and sitting with Amit Bhawani, the founder of PhoneRadar. Welcome to the podcast. So why do I think you are an outlier? There are a few things I noticed from what you share (on social media), not just what you do but even your opinions on different things, and that attracted me. Because, one is, the massive community you serve as a reviewer of smartphones. The other thing is, I always have lots of questions about how this all works. How do you stay true to your community and things like that. To kick this off Amit, tell me where do you come from and why are you doing what you are doing, apart from eating veg biryani.

Amit: I am from Hyderabad and as we all say, guys like gears and cars and bikes and stuff. All these things looked fascinating, so I felt like, ‘Let’s buy a new smartphone,’ and then I felt, ‘Let’s share the opinion about it.’ Then I felt people were liking my opinions. When they were planning to buy a new smartphone or a new gadget or something, they started following me. We saw there is growth happening around that and so we started expanding this. Now we have a few million people reading our content on different platforms. We are planning on expanding this into different areas like IoT (Internet of Things) or smart robots and stuff.

Pankaj: Why does this world excite you?

Amit: There’s nothing specific but yes, whenever there is a new iPhone everyone gets excited. I probably get a chance to become the first person or one of the first to get my hands on that. So that’s something crazy. You are not standing in a queue to buy one, you are having one before the launch and you are able to talk about it. If you are in college, everything is like a race and you want to be Number 1. So this is how you can be Number 1. You can cut the whole race, jump ahead and say, ‘I already have the new Samsung, Nokia, whatever phone, I already have it with me and I will be sharing my opinions.’ I like sharing my opinions and being genuine with my audience. It’s fun communicating with people. When I do live interactions with people, they want to know what shoes I wear, what gear I use, which smartphone I use. So it’s fun to have a community.

In the initial days, a decade ago, when I used to write on my website, it was writing news like, ‘Apple is going to launch a new iPhone called iPhone 3S.’ There were like a thousand people reading it but I didn’t know who was reading it. They never come back and talk to us except one or two people commenting. But now, thanks to the new platform, which is YouTube or even Instagram, people come live on camera and say like, ‘Hi Amit sir, I saw your video, I have a specific question about this phone’ or ‘Valentine’s Day is coming, which phone should I gift to my girlfriend?’ So this is like a two-way conversation.

The best part is, what happens because of these new platforms is that, let’s say I am flying to Delhi, the security person comes and says, ‘Sir, I have seen you on YouTube’ and that’s a happy moment. It doesn’t matter how many crores you have in the bank, this is pure happiness… when your parents, your family sees that you are getting special interest from people coming and meeting you at the airport, at the lounge, at the coffee shop. You feel great. That motivates us to work more and more on creating content like this.

Pankaj: How do you balance being a fanboy and being a reviewer at the same time?

Amit: A few years ago I might have been a fanboy of a few brands and their products. But now I can’t be a fanboy. Even if I like a product, I start finding problems in them because that’s how I can share my opinions with the community. As a reviewer, you start looking only at the problems. The moment you say, for example, that OnePlus has a beautiful display people would say, ‘Oh, you are paid by OnePlus.’ So you can’t be a fanboy these days at least.

Pankaj: What has been your experience in growing with your community? Take me through some of the early lessons. What are some of the important lessons you learnt in staying true to the community, gaining their trust or losing their trust? Take me through that.

Amit: The initial days were very tough. You publish a video, people comment, they start judging you, they say things like, ‘Your English is bad, you can’t speak English, you are very shy, your face doesn’t look good, you have a bad haircut.’ I am like, ‘Dude, look at my content, it’s not important how I look or how I speak.’ Then what happened was, when we were expecting 1,000 or 2,000 people to be watching the video, there were 10,000 people watching the video. Then you feel that the criticism is less, people are embracing whatever you are creating because now they want to buy new phones or new gadgets.

Then we felt that let’s start being more and more open with the communities. People used to ask us initially, ‘Why didn’t X brand send you their new smartphone?’ And we used to be like, ‘Let’s ignore the question and move on.’ But now we felt like, ‘Let’s talk openly, it’s not a problem.’ When you start speaking openly on camera with your audience, the fewer brand endorsements you do, people actually love that and they come back to you regularly. We also started doing fan meets. Because of the community, we are where we are. And because of this, brands will come back to us. They have no other option.

I am blacklisted by probably 90% of the smartphone brands right now and I am happy with that. Because of this now you have complete freedom. If you are working with a brand, it’s not that you are working with them for every product, it’s a little engagement that you do with them, but what happens is you still get controlled in a way. It’s not complete control but still, it’s like a grey area. It’s like they call you and say, ‘Amit, we saw your review about this phone, can you make it a little subtle? Can you have a wordplay?’ We don’t have to do that now. We are blacklisted, we are free.

Pankaj: Good for you.

Amit: I am now actually venturing into different areas like IoT (Internet of Things), smart robots and stuff, which is something I feel is the next big thing.

Pankaj: So it also forced you to look beyond your current thing?

Amit: Not forcing me but yes, the options are great. The community also needs to learn or look at new products. I recently bought a smart robot called iRobot that cleans your home. It has been in the US for more than a decade but in India, no one knows about that. I brought it from China from Xiaomi, which everyone knows as a smartphone brand. It cleans my house perfectly. I am like this is something every person should buy but everyone is talking only about smartphones.

Also, there is no real IoT happening. IoT is happening in the startup industry, like people talk about funding for an IoT project but in reality, nothing works. So we have this room, there is an IoT hub there on the wall, and the lights of this room are controlled by voice. Once the integration was done, the set-up was completed, after one month the company is dead. They didn’t get funds. So the whole project now is dead. So this is not going to work unless big brands like Samsung, Apple venture into IoT because they have a lot of funds. Right now, I just look at this as a PR activity for brands to raise some funds.

Pankaj: There are always questions about influencer marketing and paid tweets. How do you answer those questions? How do you stay true to your beliefs?

Amit: It’s very tough right now in India because it’s completely screwed up. In the US, there are some guidelines. Let’s say, you post a picture saying, ‘Having a coffee at Coffee Day.’ If that’s paid by Coffee Day or if it’s a collaboration, you need to say ‘paid collaboration with Coffee Day.’ In India, if you look at Instagram, I don’t think even 0.01% of people are actually disclosing that. I wouldn’t blame the creators or the YouTubers or the bloggers or the people who are doing this or the influencers. It’s the agencies who are not forcing this thing. So whenever we get a brief from a brand saying, ‘We would like to work with you and we would like to talk about this X IoT product in your next video,’ we say, ‘Yes, we will disclose that we are working with you.’ Which is a very subtle way of talking instead of saying, ‘We have got paid to talk about this product.’

In India, it’s still a very confusing situation. If I am working with you for a product, let’s say you have a FactorDaily app and you say, ‘Amit, let’s work on a collaboration wherein I want your time to talk about my product.’ You don’t say, ‘Amit, you should say good about FactorDaily’s app.’ You just have to talk about my app so that people know that there is a brand called FactorDaily and we have an Android application. You are buying my time. But in India, the moment I say, ‘This is a paid endorsement,’ people think you have paid me to say good (things about something). So it might still take some time till consumers or the people who are consuming this content understand the difference between paid endorsements, someone buying someone’s time, versus a complete endorsement, wherein you are becoming a movie star who just says like, ‘This is the best app in the whole planet.’

It might take another three to five years before brands would be open to that. A few smartphone brands are very open to that. They are like, ‘Ok, you can go ahead, you can say that this is a paid endorsement.’ In fact, there are many websites in the tech industry that have started disclosing that this is a sponsored post or a partner story. Now, the moment you write ‘sponsored,’ people start commenting like, ‘Oh, you got paid.’ The moment they see this is a partner post, they get confused, they are like, ‘Ok, I don’t understand that, let’s ignore it.’

Let’s say I am into car reviews and obviously car reviewers need to get money from the car brands for the production charges. If I am a car reviewer and, let’s say, Audi says, ‘Amit, why don’t you do a review of the Audi A4?’ I can’t say, ‘Yes, I will do that and I will drive it in the streets of Hyderabad.’ I would like to go to Kerala or some fancy location near the hills and shoot it with a camera, a team for B-rolls and stuff, so this is all production cost. Now if my video cost is coming to, say, Rs 5 lakh, my team can’t bear this cost. The brand has to pay the production cost but that does not mean that the brand is actually buying the opinion. I will be having my opinion as a car reviewer. I will be talking whatever I feel about the car, the exteriors look great, the interiors aren’t great. But if you want to write ‘This is a paid collaboration with Audi,’ the brand won’t agree to that and consumers might take it in a very negative way, ‘Oh, you got paid by Audi, which is why you are going to say good about it.’

With ad revenues going down, what is the other way a publisher or a creator can sustain himself? There is no other way. I have a website, we have a few million page views a month, but I don’t think we can even run the maintenance of my office with that… if I only run on Google AdSense, the ad network from Google. Because a majority of the audience now reads the content from smartphones and most smartphones these days have ad blockers in them.

Pankaj: How trustworthy are the platforms? How good or bad is it to trust them with your community, with your future? Look at what’s happened with Facebook and other platforms. Two years ago, Facebook tempted all the media to come on board. Now suddenly things have turned around and they are saying, ‘Ok, go figure out, don’t talk page views or things like that.’ So do you see risks in marrying platforms for your future and journey?

Amit: Yes, of course. There are obviously pros and cons of the same thing. Right now, YouTube is the big platform wherein we are reaching new audiences. That’s a good way to reach new audiences. Websites, I feel that they are getting ignored or people want to have content in the media format rather than reading it because reading is tough. In videos, they can just play the video and enjoy the content. But I feel YouTube has a majority of the control. I have no control over the subscribers. If it’s my website, I have control over everyone, I can send them an email newsletter, I can send them a targeted newsletter saying, ‘Ok, my friends from New Delhi, I have a new story for you. From Andhra Pradesh, I have a Telangana-related story for you.’ In YouTube, there is nothing that I have complete control over. I just have one option, just upload and push, that’s it. So I think platforms are obviously controlling everything but I really hope they offer us something better wherein we get an option to differentiate everything and send them our information. But right now it’s all platform-controlled and we can’t do anything.

Pankaj: Does it scare you when it comes to the future?

Amit: It does, because of the new algorithm changes they keep doing regularly. Earlier, we used to send our videos to 100% of the audience. So let’s say, if I have 500,000 subscribers, the video used to go to each one of them. But now, thanks to this smart AI (artificial intelligence) and algorithms, they look at the video at the initial stage, the moment the video is published — are people liking the video, what is the retention rate, what is the watch time, how many comments are coming in the first hour compared to the last 10 videos, likes versus dislikes, positivity, negativity. There are like thousands of, millions of factors. And finally, they will make sure that if the video is going good, they push it towards the trending or subscription or the home tab. If it’s a slow video, not everyone’s liking it, they just ignore it and then we are at a loss.

Even though I made sure that 500,000 people have subscribed to my channel, they don’t get the video because of the whole algorithm. That’s the biggest problem right now. So we are trying to make a broadcast list through WhatsApp. We finally made one list with 45,000 subscribers and then WhatsApp comes out with a rule saying, ‘We won’t allow you to forward messages to more than five groups.’ So unless we pay a service through WhatsApp, one of the businesses which charges like $1,500 a month… It’s not a good ROI (return on investment) for us to do that. Right now it’s scary. Most of these platforms are great but great for themselves, not for us. They are just using us in a way, I would say.

Pankaj: Thanks, Amit. The battles that you are fighting are very important to find answers to our future as publishers.

Amit: Thank you.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham among its investors. Accel Partners and Blume Ventures are venture capital firms with investments in several companies. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham are entrepreneurs and angel investors. None of FactorDaily’s investors has any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.