How influential are you?

How influential are you?

They were once hailed as the new stars of web advertising. Companies vied with one another trying to capture online stars to promote their brand. But is the bargain paying off, asks Srivathsan Nadadhur

influential through social media

An 18-year-old Arii, who hails from Paris and proclaims to be a fashion influencer on Instagram with over 2.5 million followers to her credit, had failed to sell 36 tees of a reputed fashion brand earlier this year. She's just not any other fashion-enthusiast teenager, mind you; Arii has made a flourishing career out of her 'digital influencing' owing to a series of brand endorsements and partnerships with leading fashion brands for years now. Her posts are tagged to the brands, boast of extremely well-shot images, sharp write-ups that barely span a few words or even phrases sometimes (they don't even touch the double-digit figure). The engagement ratios to her posts are startling and the sun was indeed shining bright on her until all hell broke loose. But what exactly went wrong with her attempt to sell those t-shirts?

She was viciously trolled for her inability to cut across as a digital influencer and not impacting the sales. Digital marketing experts called this an influencing bubble that brands increasingly need to address. A note that Arii left in her Instagram account had also read, “Unfortunately, the company that I'm working with goes based on your first drop sales. For them to order and make my products (even to keep working with them) I have to sell at least 36 pieces (knowing I've become super irrelevant, I already knew it was gonna be hard) but I was getting such good feedback that people loved it and were gonna buy it. No one has kept their word so now the company won't be able to send out the orders to people who actually bought it and it breaks my heart.” (sic)

The guide to influencer trends 

Now, how far can she be blamed for this and is it the brand manager's fault to expect her posts to linearly work with a sales metric? What is digital influencing after all? In simplistic terms, it could translate into a person's ability to make the customer consider a particular brand's product/service (through creative wordage across digital media). With their range of followers, influencers can be anything from mega (1 million followers or more), micro (between 1,000 and 1 million followers) to nano (a minimum of 1,000 followers). Simplistically, they can also be subject matter experts (who have expertise in a particular area and also boast of decent follower numbers) or social media stars who boast of an enormous follower-base.

As the tag says, they can only 'influence' a customer and not necessarily convince them to take the end-product/service. For brands across western countries, where digital penetration is nearly 70-80% and 90% of the country's youth have a digital presence, digital influencing makes great sense. Influencers have such far-reaching impact and importance that they need to abide by firm regulations and even need to have a license (in Dubai). Brands in the West have nearly tried every trick in the book to reach out to their target base through influencers for several years that it has become a saturated avenue for them. There's no new ground to accomplish in the first place.

A cut different from the rest

Back home in India, things aren't quite the same for digital influencers, where barely 462 million of its 1.3 billion population are on social media (making it 35%). Brands and influencers aren't the biggest things on social media yet (at least in comparison to their Western counterparts). The target customer-base for most brands here are still the metro-crowds and the tier-2, tier-3 cities have been relatively left untapped.

What kind of products do digital influencers make an impact on in India generally? Bengaluru-based communication consultant Karthik Srinivas guides us, “Most products that require pre-purchase research from people are primed for the use of influencers. It can range from beauty products to a TV, laptop, car, or even a stay at a resort. They are expensive and you plan to use them for some time, also where Amazon and Flipkart reviews for them may be too basic to help. In these cases, you need feedback and additional information from third parties. The influencers come in handy with the decision-making process.”

To remind you, brands that commission influencers in India may not be as irrational as the aforementioned case of Arii. They are only trying to nudge their product through the influencers. Moreover, they even offer them better creative freedom, help them explore innovative ways to market the product through real-life experience. This works better than the influencer directing a post to a particular link to buy the product, where a customer may lose trust in the influencer and can easily sense a commercial transaction between them and the brand. “It's important for brands to find influencers who exhibit similar values and not be scattered in their approach of working with brands or else consumers can see through such collaborations. Authenticity is key to a brand's social media strategy, and without it, consumers will scroll past you to the next brand,” cautions Viral Chhajer, co-founder and CEO of StayAbode, a start-up based in Bengaluru that provides quality co-living experiences.

Among a few success stories that have emerged from digital influencing in the Indian sphere has been the fashion-brand Liva. “Today, in the digital age, people, who have a strong opinion, a distinct taste or unorthodox lifestyle are considered inspiring. Inspiring enough to influence the decision of consumers. I can say this convincingly because for a brand like Liva to place itself as a fashion authority was challenging. However, we could achieve this through influencer marketing and social media. We chose influencers who could set trends, influence decisions and have a strong perspective on fashion. We gave them full editorial right and the products to create content including fashion guides, style books or DIY videos. Their tribes found this interesting as it gave them a ready reference.”

The filmi twist

Another interesting dimension unique to the Indian influencers is with the entertainment industry. In a country like no other where watching films is a way of life and a viewer is often spoilt for choice, an influencer can be of great benefit. This, however, shouldn't be looked like a function of cost (for its easy affordability) but the time that a viewer invests in a movie. An influencer helps a viewer save the time a viewer may have invested in the wrong choice. A similar model works for the digital streaming space too, where influencers can lend discoverability to shows across platforms like Netflix, Zee5, and SunNXT. “Because there's a chance for the independent influencer to be bought by a film producer, a viewer may still prefer mainstream media to him/her for credibility,” an industry insider hints.

Also, the influencer-trend needn't be seen as something very contemporary or out-of-the-box across the globe. At best, it's a minimalistic extension of the blogging wave in the early 2000s where brands didn't mind paying the blogger community for a bare mention of the product in any of their posts. The liberated, personalised writing style in the blogs was a hit with readers then. Now, even as bloggers continue to thrive, the packaging has changed with the importance of precisely worded, image/video-driven storytelling in social media, particularly on Twitter, Vimeo, and Instagram. The challenge has, of course, become bigger for the influencers now, where smart, concise and catchy wording also becomes the key to sustain their follower-base.

 

Money matters

As surprising as it sounds, there isn't any sound basis for the payment that an influencer gets per post. While the price ranges from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,00,000 per post, it all boils down to the rate card you have and how you negotiate with a brand about it. Concurs Karthik, “With payment, there is no science to it. It's saying what you want. No matter how scientifically you look at it, it depends on the rate card that the influencer has, the value they bring to the brand.”

Credibility issues

Meanwhile, the downside for influencers has been the perception that they put up social media posts in exchange of the product i.e., like a barter system, which has become a bane in the arenas of food, beauty, and travel. Influencers, to their discredit in India and other parts of the world, have certainly misused their authority in demanding freebies for what they do. Sometimes, it has been the other way round where the brands have preferred to give the influencer their product rather than money. Joydeep, a travel influencer and a vlogger at The Moonchasers (a travel content platform), finds this exercise trivial.

“Barters are an overused tactic that needs to be discouraged. There is no reason for influencers to recommend products or services based on barter. Brands too, barely derive any real benefit through barters that do not resonate with an influencer’s content or social lifestyle. It is just so 2012 in terms of strategy. Sending 100 products to get a free shoutout doesn’t stick with the audience and generates much less value and visibility than a sustained, engaging campaign. The term ‘free’ has led to the state of influencer marketing in India as it is today. There are very few influencers who haven’t compromised their content, style, realness just to be in the brand’s good books and recommend things they genuinely use or believe in,” he feels.

Another recent instance that has brought disrepute to the work of influencers (in the US, but could happen here soon) was one where an ice-cream truck owner Joe Nicchi from Los-Angeles had put up a standee in front of his vehicle that read “Influencers pay double.” This was an after-effect of a series of requests that Nicchi had received from social media influencers for a free cone in exchange for being featured in an Instagram story or a social media post. And all of this for an ice cream that had only cost $4 per unit. “We’ve decided to make this thing official with signage. We truly don’t care if you’re an Influencer, or how many followers you have. We will never give you free ice cream in exchange for a post on your social media page. It’s literally a $4 item...well, now it’s $8 for you,” an angry Insta-post from the owner read.

The credibility of influencers has taken a hit also because of their fake followers (in the form of bots that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are consistently regulating), slow conversion rates and desperate brand managers who look at instantaneous results out of their digital campaigns. “Authenticity of content and reach has become all the more crucial for the influencer-marketing space. With brands being more prudent in their selection of influencers with organic reach, it is only a matter of time that the industry starts getting over the problem of fake following and influence,” Joydeep feels.

Brands somehow adopt a lenient strategy across traditional media (radio, television, and print in comparison to influencers) where they don't try or aspire for immediate change in customer habits or leads, but a gradual one. It's still not fair to point a finger at the influencer for slow results, a few brands feel. “Influencers put in a lot of hard work into building their reach and trust among people. The return of investment is much more long term, and brands should be patient with the same. There are several instant benefits if your product is unique and does not have leading competitors - like, our personal care range picked up relatively faster than our health care range (which would take much more time for our audience to understand). While working with influencers, keep in mind that they are good content creators with good engagement, rather than average content and an extremely good following,” reminds Stuti Ashok Gupta, CEO at Amrutam.co.in, a virtual marketplace of herbal, medicinal products.

The way forward

The reason why an influencer isn't written off in India yet is his/her ability to move beyond celebrities and generate personalised interactions. That 'impartial common-man' vibe has provided much higher engagement for brands, says Vishal Gupta from Momspresso, a content sharing platform for women. The former has also introduced a platform MyMoney on their app to bridge the gap between the micro-influencers and the brands recently. “We have had long-standing partnerships with over 75 leading brands including Nestle, Pampers, Dettol, Horlicks, FabIndia, J&J, Mother Dairy among others, and over 10,000 women bloggers on our platform. This has helped brands reap the benefits of large-scale micro-influencer marketing and reach out to the right target audience,” he adds.

India may be a chaotic market for brands and influencers but with its density and multiplicity, it is also a country of immense opportunity. It's time that the influencer-brand association is further streamlined and brands make thoroughly informed choices with their influencer groups. While discussing the ethical side of the influencers, it's a tough bargain between personal accountability and a firm set of regulations that govern their operations. Which side are you on?

 

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