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Social media influencers have evolved: they could be 21 and living in Bathinda

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Razia Khatoon, 24, used to be a national-level archer, and has an M.Sc in Physics. In 2016, just for a lark, she posted a few videos of dishes she had cooked. Today, Cook with Razia has over 5 lakh followers on YouTube and over 5.4 lakh followers on TikTok.

“I had never entered a kitchen,” she says in Hindi over the phone. “There was a function at home, and my dadi helped me make rasmalai,” she says. “I got so much praise that I decided to put it online.” Khatoon’s content is in Hindi and has a certain honesty — there’s no posturing or foreign locales. She gets comments from around the world. And using this platform, Khatoon has expanded her business model to include cooking classes and making baked goods on order. She collaborates with brands such as Snapdeal, Infinix mobile and Meesho.

Razia Khatoon

Razia Khatoon  

Social media influencers or SMIs like Khatoon are plenty, but the interesting thing is that Khatoon lives in Jamshedpur. And engineering diploma holder Mohit Sukhija, 22, lives in Bathinda.

While looking for a job, Sukhija began to post his mother’s embroidery on ShareChat, where he now has 20,000 followers. Using social media to help his mother’s business grow became his best idea yet. Today, the family gets orders from as far as the U.S.

According to Shubho Sengupta, Delhi-based digital marketing specialist, content is heading out of the cities. “Look at the Skill India account on TikTok,” says Sengupta. The most popular videos are of the underdog achieving greatness: for instance, welder Sachin Narale who went from a poor family in Soradi, Maharashtra, to the international stage; or Rohim Momin, a bricklayer from Khaltipur, Bengal, who won international awards. ShareChat, in fact, is not available in English at all, but has 15 Indian languages to choose from.

Younger the better

Not only are SMIs now emerging from small-town India, but they are also getting younger by the day. All of 24, Sejal Kumar has 1.1 million YouTube subscribers and over six lakh followers on Instagram. When I call her, she first wants to know what the story is about, how long it will be, and whether her picture will be used. To the pre-social-media generation, this might sound narcissistic, but for Kumar, it’s just business.

Sejal Kumar

Sejal Kumar  

The fashion and lifestyle SMI juggles time ideating, creating content, talking to fans, and negotiating with brands. She employs a team of four, and recently moved from Delhi to Mumbai. “We’re the new-age stars,” she says, seeing herself on a par with Bollywood celebrities a few years on. Sure enough, the economics graduate won 2019 Instagrammer of the Year (for fashion) along with Priyanka Chopra and Virat Kohli.

These 20-something SMIs are bagging the biggest brands, ranging from Pizza Hut and Dairy Milk to BMW and Myntra. For Shivesh Bhatia, 23, with 1.8 lakh followers on Instagram, or Ranveer Allahbadia, 26, with 2.2 million followers on YouTube, their very first profession has been that of ‘influencer’. They are unfazed by social media’s rapidly evolving landscape — from blogs to Facebook to YouTube to Instagram to TikTok and ShareChat. SMIs keep up, simply shrinking the size of their content accordingly.

Faisal Khan, 31, who has over 7 lakh subscribers on his YouTube channel MotorBeam, and has worked with Apollo Tyres, Tommy Hilfiger, ICICI Bank, OnePlus, and more, gives the example of a 15-second video he shot for TikTok that had him opening the door of a Volvo and sitting in the driver’s seat, followed by a shot of the car refrigerator and a couple of champagne flutes. “It has crossed 5.5 million views,” he says.

Faisal Khan

Faisal Khan  

Opinion makers

This cocky young breed is replacing traditional marketing channels to an extent where phone brand Oppo India’s vice-president of product and marketing, Sumit Walia, calls them ‘key opinion leaders’. In fact, when Jo Malone, a U.K.-based luxury brand, invited people for a meet and greet in the capital, the smattering of traditional journalists had to wait for over an hour-and-a-half because the all-important SMIs had not arrived.

Just as cheap smartphones and Jio’s launch in 2016 created a generation of WhatsApp university graduates, it has also created a kind of young influencer who bargains for freebies, turns up late, and is often clueless about the products they work with.

Akanksha Redhu

Akanksha Redhu  

As Saumyaa Vohra, lifestyle editor at GQ, says, only a few have knowledge and experience. “If they have a fashion vlog, it only works if they have studied fashion or worked in a fashion magazine for some years. It’s not just about putting up pretty pics and chasing likes and followers.” Many new young SMIs, she says, “are exhausting”. Manjira Dutta, co-founder of Don’t Be Content, a content company, agrees. “Barring a few, most of them don’t understand much,” says Dutta. “We write the copy, we check the copy, and we tell them how and when to post.”

Monetising views

None of which is impacting the SMI’s earnings. A single Instagram post could fetch up to ₹1.2 lakh, while a YouTube video earns up to ₹10 lakh.

With YouTube demanding TV-like quality, most influencers on this platform have a team that can be up to 30 people. Instagrammers employ freelance photographers and videographers. All of this is done to ensure followers because that’s what attracts the big brands. Platforms like YouTube monetise views to run content-specific ads on the channel, so more views, more money. Even on platforms that are not led by revenue-per-click, brands still pick SMIs based on the number of followers.

The frenzy for followers leads to fraud. Swedish e-commerce firm A Good Company and data analytics company HypeAuditor studied millions of Instagram accounts across 82 countries and found that India is No. 3 in the number of fake SMIs (the U.S. and Brazil are No. 1 and 2). This means fake or bot followers.

Growing pangs

This, however, doesn’t bother Priyanka Gill, who heads Plixxo, a company that brings brands and SMIs together. She says it is part of how the industry is developing. According to her, this is a nascent stage, and brand managers allow for ‘discrepancies’ when they sign deals. Plixxo, for example, divides SMIs into Superstars, Super Bloggers, Bloggers, and Campus Ambassadors, with further sub-divisions according to platform. This helps brands pick the influencers they want.

Brands are also becoming wiser in the way they’re using SMIs, says Gill, often engaging with them in ways other than just pushing products. For instance, an experienced influencer like Vasudha Rai (over 1.6 lakh followers on Instagram), the former beauty editor for Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, is sought after for talks and workshops, often ticketed. And Khan helps automobile companies with confidential brand research projects.

Aneesh Bhasin

Aneesh Bhasin  

While stars, comedians, and cricketers are still the biggest SMIs, the democratisation of platforms has made the girl or guy next door, whether from big city or small town, brand ambassadors too. “Social media has opened up a space where everybody has the right to have a voice,” says Vohra.

Thus far, brands might have seen a jump in their social media following or a spike in sales immediately after an SMI, say, wears a particular dress. But there’s no tool to measure their exact impact on return of investment or their long-term effectiveness. What is clear, however, is that they are far less expensive than celebrities. Plus, there’s the ‘accessibility’ factor. As Sengupta says, “When Shah Rukh Khan endorses an i10, we all know he’s not driving it,” but an SMI who endorses it could well be driving the car.



More important, the way an SMI plugs the product doesn’t seem transactional. They seem genuinely interested in the product and are seen to be having fun with it. Thus, when Oppo recently launched model Reno 2, it collaborated with Instagram for a campaign where users had to take creative pictures with the phone while making it seem entirely authentic. This is one reason why no SMI is ‘perfect’ — their skin has blemishes; their hair is not always perfectly set; they’re comfortable wearing bikinis even if it means showing cellulite. In short, they can pretend to be a ‘real’ customer and brands cash in on this relatability.

SMIs like Anupriya Kapur, Akanksha Redhu and Kalyan Karmakar, who have been doing this for a while now, know that their reach with brands is mainly due to their loyal followers, so 50-80% of the content they put out is non-branded.

Mohit Sukhija

Mohit Sukhija  

Sometimes, brands don’t even have to pay for endorsements. Celebrities are encouraged to just pose with products they like. Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of the Svami line of beverages and an SMI himself, talks of Google Pixel, a phone he endorses. “They give you the phone and pamper you, but they don’t pay you,” he says. In the same way, Bhasin sends across a case of Svami products to celebs. “If they post a picture, great. If they don’t, they may serve it to guests, and that’s still good for me.”

It sounds like everyone knows what they are in for, but the real underbelly of social media influencing might just be emerging. Doctors, for instance, are getting on board with large fan followings. While the average SMI is quite obviously pushing a product, it is much harder to tell when doctors are simply doling out friendly advice or when they’re plugging a ‘friendly’ brand.

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Printable version | May 3, 2021 11:32:15 PM |

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