The dizzying world of India's social media influencers
From niche, micro, macro to mega, social media influencers of today are helping consumers ‘mould’ decisions.
The business of buying and selling in India has new gurus. The country’s consumer market is growing and predicted to expand from $1.5 trillion at present to nearly $6 trillion by 2030, says a World Economic Forum report. It further states that India is poised to be the third-largest consumer market behind only the US and China.
The ever-expanding market lends certain clout to social media influencers who attract digital shoppers to products they endorse.
Natasha Daruwala, who is part of a marketing agency, Influencer, says, “If a celebrity tells you to buy a certain product, you might take it with a pinch of salt. But when someone, whom you have been following for a long time and trust, recommends a product and tells you in detail about it, chances are that you will buy it.”
A trend that started in the West where big bucks promote products, corporates are taking a relook at the con factor. But in India, it is just a few years old. As Natasha puts it, a friendly face you can relate to doling out advice on picking a product—rather than a celebrity doing the same—creates a connect with the consumer.
In the days of fast-moving apps and a plethora of choices, desire is no longer a streetcar but a digital feast on YouTube and Instagram. Influencer earnings in the country across segments have risen by a whopping 200 per cent, say, market insiders.
Driven by increasing popularity of platforms such as TikTok and ShareChat, advertising spending on social media influencers by brands is rising.
What to buy, eat, wear, and read or how to raise kids, keep fit and where to travel—need help with any of these?
Turn to an influencer. The influencers of today, many of who trace their roots to blogging, help consumers ‘mould’ decisions.
Covering the whole spectrum from niche, micro, macro to mega or celebrity influencers and boasting followers in thousands and lakhs, companies and brands have begun to lean heavily on these messiahs to promote their cause.
According to Business Insider Intelligence estimates based on Mediakix data, brands are set to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing globally by 2022.
Vidya Sury recently walked away with the 2017 Orange Flower Award in the Wellness category for Digital Creative Superstars. Take a quick look at her website—vidyasury.com—and you would know why. The site is dedicated to mindfulness. “My audience sees me as one of those positive people and it definitely helped that I’ve been consistent. Where clients are concerned, the desire to learn all the time is a big plus and they feel that I am good to work with,” smiles the 56-year-old who quit her corporate career in her 30s and while at home discovered blogging. “My motivation for blogging is basically to donate all the money I earn from it to charity. I set a personal target every year,” says Vidya who has a 15k collective social media following. Maintaining six blogs keeps her on her toes. “I mostly focus on mindful living. We need to slow down and smell the roses,” asserts Vidya, who makes Rs 50,000 per month from her blogging venture. “It is fun as I don’t depend on it for my livelihood. But a good many friendships have stemmed from it,” she adds.
Actor-comedian-dancer and singer Eddie Cantor famously said that it takes 20 years to make an overnight success. But in the digital world, where each passing hour equals a lifetime, no one has 20 years. Little wonder that more and more influencers today are young and fresh out of college.
It helps that they are willing to stick their neck out and try something new. Atul Maharaj, who writes about food, tech and travel, started blogging while still in college as part of a college team project. He loved the exercise so much that he created his own blog, Social Maharaj. With six years of blogging under his belt and being invited to cover restaurants and vehicle launches, Atul has some valuable advice for newbies, “If you have to run at all, run after content, money will willy-nilly come after you.”
For this polyglot, it’s all about giving back to the internet. When he locates a particular hotel or a restaurant and writes about it, it is his way of giving back—a lesson that remained stuck in his mind since school when his computer science teacher aired the thought that we take so much for free from the internet and hence should give back as well. Also, he stresses that one needs to be honest. “If I were to give a restaurant a high rating on their insistence and keep doing it, my followers might part ways thinking that this is not what we followed him for.” One of his biggest collaborations has been with Tata Motors where he reviewed a couple of their vehicles. This 28-year-old techie who won the Best Blogger Award from Telangana at the 2017 Indiblogger Annual Awards has been keeping his flock happy with “two fresh posts every week”.
Like Atul, fashion blogger and stylist Kavya D’Souza too started early, when in college. A decade-old in the business, the 29-year-old scoffs at the term: ‘influencer’. But maybe that’s because she belongs to the old tribe of bloggers who painstakingly shot pictures on SLR, uploaded a few and had a complete write-up to go with it. “There were no blogs on fashion then. I stumbled on a few international blogs and loved how you could have a space of your own. Writing was my calling and being passionate about fashion, blogging was the perfect platform to fuse both my talents,” says this student of literature.
When a brand approached her for the first time, she was stunned at how powerful the platform could be.
She says that it’s only in the last few years that brands have begun to understand the marketing potential of bloggers. So, what’s in it for her?
“For many years now, my blog which goes by the name of Streakhuefall has been my primary source of income. A few years ago, I opened a salon in Mumbai with the same name. Clients who knew me as a blogger have been coming to this place. I think that’s the best thing to have come out of it. It’s just word-of-mouth publicity and I don’t think there could have been a better organic marketing strategy. When people have been following you for years, they trust you,” says Kavya.
Video killed the radio star and Instagram, blogging. Well, not really. But it did leave the bloggers far behind as Instagrammers had no need of the written word. It is the Holy Grail of social influencers today. It attracts more content and naturally more investors than its various counterparts—Facebook and YouTube. Short, pithy captions and emojis accompanied by pictures became the stars and suddenly Instagrammers were the ones to watch out for.
Twenty-eight-year-old Janani Asokan, who has flown as cabin crew for a couple of years, attests to the power of the new entrant. “I always knew I’m not the nine-to-five kind of girl. So I decided to combine my love for travelling and creating beautiful content and started posting pictures and blogs from my travels on Instagram and YouTube. I knew I was doing something right when I reached 70k followers and got my first ever brand deal from a hotel in Greece,” says the Chennai girl who now lives in the UK. Her sphere of influence has now spread to 2,30,000 followers with whom she interacts regularly. “At the end of the day, it’s your followers and fans that make you an influencer,” she says. Big names such as Four Seasons, Charlotte Tilbury, Uber and Tata Harper have tied up with her, besides several luxury hotels in Greece, Paris, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
Just like every other field, digital superstars have been acing entertainment too.
They serve fresh content which is eagerly lapped up by the users making it a happy hunting ground for marketers. Niharicka Singh aka Captain Nick with her funny enactments of a number of characters attracts lakhs of followers as also television star Chhavi Mittal whose life unfolds on SIT (Shitty Ideas Trending), including a real pregnancy. It also helps that newer platforms such as TikTok are stealing the show from their established counterparts producing fresh content and creating stars in the process. Experts believe that TikTok could even overtake Instagram in terms of ad spends by next year. Pune-based Umang Athwani never expected that the show, Super Sindhi, he stars in with his parents and older brother would fetch him such a vast legion of followers and admirers.
“People have loved and appreciated our work. We are what we are because of them. We are in a very small way responsible to entertain or sometimes educate people and connect them to their family and friends. That’s our main job and we have to make sure we do that well. All that happens apart from this is secondary,” says Umang. He draws from everyday experiences to connect to the viewers. In fact, some of his videos have gone viral on WhatsApp too with viewers in different parts of the world such as the US, Dubai and Indonesia hooked on to it. The 25-year-old started Super Sindhi two years ago when he felt stuck making online videos for a website in Mumbai and returned home to Pune. “I love entertaining people and when I got back from Mumbai I felt restless with the free time I had. I decided to create content and was utterly pleased when my page took off,” he smiles. Today he has fans across Facebook (more than six lakh), YouTube (51,858) and Instagram (25,000 plus). No wonder that brands such as Tinder, Amazon, Phoenix Marketcity and CredR are keen on collaborating with Umang.
Celebrities are A-grade influencers but it is the micro-influencers (with a few thousand followers) that people such as Natasha prefer to engage with as they are the ones who are getting more popular now. “While influencer marketing has gained ground in all the tier-1 cities, brands whose target audience lies in tier-2 and tier-3 cities are leveraging TikTok to attract the latter,” says Natasha.
In fact, influencers are graded not only on the number of followers they have but their engagement rate, the number of people their post reaches out to and the amount of likes/shares they get, she says, adding that 'moz ranking' (10 point measurement of popularity of a given web page and domain authority—how well a website will rank on search engine result pages) are also pointers to discover a blogger’s reach and popularity. Explains Kavya, “If I am trying out a lipstick and if you ask me how it is, chances are that I am going to reply to you more than someone else who is the face of the brand. It’s two-way communication.”
In May this year, 36-year-old mom Anupama Dalmia won the Influencer of the Year Award at the Inspire Beyond Motherhood Awards, 2019, in Mumbai. It was a turning point for her. She was soon approached by Amazon to play an influencer role as well as Sheroes (largest women-only platform in India) approached her to be their champion. “I left Infosys where I worked for almost six years as I felt something was lacking,” says Anupama, who got into blogging only after her daughter was born.
The first blog she wrote was chosen as one of the top blogs on a large parenting platform. “Parenting, for me, is a big influence area. And I am very picky about what I promote because my followers trust me and I would hate to mislead them. For instance, I was happy to post about the company Accenture encouraging women to work. Ditto about promoting brands such as Dettol and Savlon. You cannot slot the influencer role into a different box. Ultimately, it has to emerge as one persona,” says Anupama, who has also authored a couple of books while with ‘Beyond the Box’ she conducts creative writing classes for school children and in offices too. She also helped bring her mother’s dream to fruition with the cookery website, Tingle Your Taste Buds, a venture that is co-owned today by the mother-daughter duo.
These days, blogger outreach works far better than actually spending on advertising. Also, there are so many different social media platforms that influencers can use. With conventional advertising, brands have no way of knowing the kind of effect it has had on consumers, counters Vidya. “Brands in the US such as Fashion Nova, Fitti as well as Nykaa in India are built solely on influencer marketing,” adds Natasha. There was trouble in paradise when it was discovered that influencers would furnish inflated figures to attract brands, casting the latter in a poor light and ultimately the business. “Technology helps with lots of tools and bots to inflate figures,” adds Nasik-based Amol Wagh. But brands, says Vidya, have ways of finding out the statistics, like some who ask for Google analytical shots of the last six months.
Amol started a digital platform—digitalconqurer.com—and it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For today, if not exactly a conqueror, he is the first to be in the know of new technology that floods the market, justifying the title of tech influencer as he shapes and moulds the buying decisions of lakhs of people who visit his website. One reason for his success is that he shifted his focus regularly, hence evolving with the times. “Initially, I used to blog about security, but then Google barred us from writing about it saying hacking is illegal and so I shifted focus to writing three-four other blogs and the technology-related one stuck,” says the 31-year-old. Another reason why people engage with his site is that having worked with different brands he knows the pulse of the audience, what they expect and tailors the content accordingly. With a team of three persons that includes him, Amol also outsources writing work which eats into 10 per cent of his income. But he is not complaining as on an average tech bloggers make anywhere between $1,000-2,000 a month. “Today, brands are queuing up to have their products reviewed,” says the passionate techie who has collaborated with all the major gaming brands in India. For a person who had no idea about marketing and technology, Amol today runs his own digital marketing agency.
Influencer marketing, that started in the West, is still at a largely nascent stage in India. Says Amol, “In the western world, Instagram was launched roughly eight years ago whereas in India it came only a couple of years back. Jio’s entry has meant cheap internet, increasing the general traffic by 10 per cent.” Also, there are many first-time internet users which means that the market has a long way to go. “Earlier, there was a dependency on celebrities, now thanks to blogging; everybody is creating content which can be made visible everywhere,” says Atul. Companies have just to find new ways to leverage an influencer’s effect in the market.
However, there are two things influencers swear by: integrity and honesty. To them it is simple mechanics: their word might not exactly be law, but definitely inspires an abundance of trust, and they have to maintain that trust. But they also acknowledge that in the end everybody and everything has a shelf life. “It’s like sport, no sportsman can play throughout his lifetime,” Umang says. But for now, influencers are playing a winning game and quietly laughing all the way to the bank.
The global picture
Despite what naysayers might tell you, influencer marketing industry is still expanding globally. The industry, which was worth about $700 million in 2016, is said to top $10 billion by 2020.
Instagram reached one billion monthly active users in 2018 and is on its way to the second billion. Do the simple math: Those users post 95 million photos and videos per day, along with uploading 400 million Instagram stories resulting in Instagram users ‘liking’ 4.2 billion posts daily. Globally influencer marketing on Instagram is expected to grow from $1.3 billion in 2018 to nearly twice that by 2020. Naturally, the number of brand-sponsored influencer posts is also expected to double, surpassing six billion in 2020. Despite these happy figures, investors are cautious and stakeholders are feeling a need for regulations.
The UK Advertising Standards Agency and Competition and Markets Authority has created an Influencer’s Guide to regulate social media advertising. Likewise, the US Federal Trade Commission has started bringing legal action against some brands and paid influencers for not disclosing sponsorships.
Countries such as the UAE are even introducing regulations requiring an influencer to procure a licence. Back home, the Advertising Standards Council of India is working on disclosure norms for social media influencers.