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NEW DELHI : As Indians spent more time consuming content on their devices during the country’s protracted lockdown, a fundamental shift has been triggered in the influencer marketing space with big brands deepening their engagement with a variety of influencers as consumers turned to YouTube videos and Instagram reels for everything from cooking to home and beauty tips in the last six months.

Across product categories, brands such as PepsiCo, Mondelez, Amazon and Biba, among others, have extended their work with chefs, designers, comedians and other content-creators. A range of new social media influencers including nano-influencers have been appointed to scale up engagement. The outcomes of the deeper engagement were seen during India’s recent festive season—where digital marketing experts estimate a 20% jump in influencer marketing campaigns.

"In the past the influencer or blogger world was restricted to mostly women focusing on fashion and lifestyle but as digital penetration increased, influencer marketing leap frogged to different categories of content which targets a wide variety of customer base. This attracted brands to look at influencer marketing more seriously as it started offering deeper engagement and organic growth for brands," said Shradha Agarwal, strategy head and COO, Grapes Digital, an integrated communications agency.

Once dubbed as an additional leg to a brand's campaign to push engagement on social media, influencer marketing is now driving the communication strategy for many brands. And it doesn't come cheap. Cost of campaigns featuring influencers ranges from 1.5 lakh to 35 lakh depending on scale, time period, volume and popularity of the influencers.

"Honestly, buying media is way cheaper than influencer marketing. The way we measure influencer activity has also evolved," Agarwal said. Earlier, influencers were selected simply on their follower count but now the formula is the weighted average of the number of followers and the engagement rate of an influencer on a particular platform, Agarwal explained. “While an influencer can have huge number of followers, it won’t work until they provide a certain kind of engagement or cost per view on a video post. Brands are asking for ROI, cost per view and demographic of an influencer which shows that this space is maturing," Agarwal added.

Experts believe that pandemic has accelerated the growth of influencers marketing. During peak lockdown users, stuck at home, turned to cooking, gardening, and DIY videos online increasing their own engagement with various social media channels. The period was also marked by an absence of traditional television programming prompting higher content consumption online.

Pre-covid, Indians spent roughly 3 hours and 22 minutes on their smartphones per day which increased to 3 hours 54 minutes in the phase two of the lockdown, that is, mid-April to early May, according to the findings of a July report by television viewership monitoring agency BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) and data measurement firm Nielsen that tracked TV viewership and smartphone usage during the various phases of India’s lockdown.

Though it cooled off to 3 hours 37 minutes closer to phase two of the country’s unlock, data consumption moved up from 1.08 gb per day per user between the week of the first lockdown to 1.12 GB in end June. Users spent time on social networking, gaming and viewing OTT content. Social networking and gaming peaked during the lockdown with weekly time spent on social networking websites at 4 hours 46 minutes in the week of 25th April. This, however, dropped when India moved towards easing up of the lockdown and mobility picked up.

But increased time spent online prompted brands to work more with content creators and influencers as engagement on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube jumped. Anjali Krishnan, head of media, Mondelez India said that they have seen a deeper engagement with Influencers, especially with content creators in the space of recipes, gaming and do-it-yourself (DIY) arts and crafts. "We are engaging with influencers a little more than we normally do, as that is where the audience shift is happening as of now. Our constant endeavour is to always be close to the pulse of our consumers." Krishnan said the company has collaborated with influencers (such as chef Pooja Dhingra and comedian Rohan Joshi), mostly in the recipe space as its portfolio of brands have a natural fit. “Our partnerships with prominent content creators for Cocoa Powder, Cadbury Celebrations and Oreo are a testimony to that," she added.

With influencers becoming the opinion makers who can slip a brand into a consumer’s consideration set, influencer marketing is gradually increasing its share in a company's digital ad spends. According to Ashutosh Harbola, founder of influencer marketing company Buzzoka the share of influencer marketing went up from 3% in 2017 to 10% this year growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 300%.

Brands are also becoming cautious about ad frauds and fake followers which has given rise to macro and micro influencers who offer authentic engagement.

"Increasingly brands are also looking for partnerships that deliver business results – and hence evaluating influencers not just based on their follower base but what they can do to help brands build long-term exclusive association that drives ROI," Krishnan said.

PepsiCo India, which retails snack brands Kurkure and LAY's, said their internal assessment shows their brands' target audience has been engaging with influencers a lot in the recent past resulting in increased digital spends on influencer programmes. "A growing trend in the space is linked to engaging with nano influencers. As building brand salience and establishing deeper consumer connect is a journey, we believe that nano influencers act as ‘amplifiers’ of engaging and relatable content. For the brands in our foods category, we have been engaging with micro and nano influencers organically by providing them ‘delightful, money-can’t-buy’ experiences," said Dilen Gandhi, senior director and category head – foods, PepsiCo India.

The company claimed that it has so far engaged with around 2,500 micro influencers for the LAY’S Khol campaign which has resulted in an engagement with 10 million people. Its recent Diwali special limited-edition Kurkure and Masaba hampers resulted in an engagement of over 1.2 million in three days.

According to digital marketing agency AdLift, India’s influencer market is estimated at $75-150 million a year, as compared to the global market of $1.75 billion. From an online marketing perspective, this is a sizeable amount, and the number is expected to go up as more Indians go online with cheap data and affordable smartphones.

As its popularity has soared, influencer marketing has also come under the scanner of advertising industry watchdog Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) which is currently working on creating social media advertising guidelines. While platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have in-built features to disclose if an influencer is posting content which is sponsored multiple creators still get away by not revealing a paid activity. There have also been multiple complaints about influencers posting content around products such as alcohol which are prohibited to be advertised.

“Definitely, these guidelines are the need of the hour to protect consumers, brands and advertising ecosystem at large. Today, there is a tonne of influencer marketing happening, where nobody is calling it as an ad," said Prashant Puri, co-founder and chief executive of AdLift.

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