Who killed the influencer?

  • The rise of digital influencers marked one of the new millennium’s biggest cultural shifts but their popularity has waned over the decade 
  • As global media declares the death of the influencer, Lounge explores the future of the community in India 

Bollywood showstoppers are commonplace on Indian runways. But the latest edition of Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW: 29 January–3 February) in Mumbai saw Kayaan Contractor, a fashion influencer, turn showstopper for the label Eka, while celebrity blogger, entrepreneur and author Malini Agarwal, or Miss Malini, walked the runway for Narendra Kumar Ahmed’s collaborative show with Alcis Sports. And a month later, when Ralph Lauren launched its first luxury boutique in Delhi, influencers like Shereen Sikka, Urvashi K. Bali and Rasna Bhasin were among the guests, wearing clothing and accessories from the luxury house.

The significance of their presence became clearer a few days later, through their Instagram feeds—Sikka’s photographs from the event, including one with the guest of honour, actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas, fetched close to 8,000 likes, while Bali’s solo post got over 19,000 users double tapping. Bhasin posted an image of herself from the event with the cryptic caption: “First rule about being an influencer; you don’t talk about being an influencer."

Bhasin, 26, started her blog in 2013, when she was a student at Mumbai’s Pearl Academy. Her first post was a love letter to designer Marc Jacobs. “I always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t getting many writing gigs." She reached out to luxury houses such as Dior and Gucci for stories and treated her website like a portfolio for her writing. “I was advised to add visuals to the blog and that’s how I began doing photos. I have probably not done more than 10 proper photo shoots over the years though," she says.

Over the years, she has managed marketing for emerging brands like Kronokare and now heads digital media for the wedding magazine Brides Today. Additionally, she often collaborates with brands for curated events, such as intimate experiential gatherings for brands like Jo Malone, Longchamp, Smashbox, Ted Baker and Forest Essentials. In November, she hosted a party for H&M to mark the fast fashion brand’s design collaboration with Moschino. She is evidently influential, but Bhasin’s Instagram page describes her as a digital media and brand consultant. “I think it’s a little weird to call yourself an influencer—it’s such a subconscious thing," she says.

When did “influencer" become a bad word? Bhasin might shrug off the term but it is the lexical equivalent of what is pegged as a billion-dollar industry. According to the 2018 “Influencer Marketing" report by Business Insider Intelligence, influencer marketing is estimated to reach between $5 billion (around 34,400 crore) and $10 billion by 2022. Influencer marketing agency Mediakix, which has been publishing the industry’s global marketing spend since 2015, reports that the spends on Instagram alone, ranked top among social media channels for marketing, was $1.3 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow up to $2.3 billion by 2020.

Starting with the staggering popularity of Kim Kardashian, who was hailed by online publication The Business Of Fashion as the ne plus ultra of the community in 2017, influencers captured popular imagination across the globe and marked one of the early 21st century’s biggest cultural and professional shifts. Search for the hashtag #influencer on Instagram and you will find more than 12 million posts. But in less than a decade since its inception, the hype around influencers has already begun to die, around the world. “Social media influencers are so last season," a September 2018 headline in Financial Times declared, suggesting that old-fashioned skills and talent are making a comeback.

This is not entirely true for India, where the influencer community still has significant scope for growth, and isn’t limited to bloggers or amateur fashion and lifestyle content creators. Experienced professionals from different industries command high social media value. For instance, fashion stylist and consultant Allia Al Rufai and pastry chef Pooja Dhingra, who have over 161,000 and 2.1 million followers on Instagram, respectively.

In tandem, brands are actively collaborating with influencers for marketing and promotion campaigns, targeting consumers who spend considerable time online. “This phenomenon is driving major brand outreaches catering specifically to the millennials or the new-affluence class," says Dinaz Madhukar, head of luxury at DLF.

Social media fuels the influencer economy but many are uncomfortable with the term. “What does it even mean to be an influencer?" asks Naina Redhu. The Delhi-based photographer has been blogging since 2004, and has an Instagram account with over 54,000 followers. “I did use ‘influencer’ in my (Instagram) bio for a while because everyone was doing it. But it’s not really who I am—I am a photographer and the blog and Instagram are the means to an end."

The influencer community’s new identity crisis is at the heart of an ecosystem that is plagued with other concerns. First, the market is saturated. A number of third-party organizations have emerged across the world that offer bots for influencers to feature as followers on their social media handles. A blogger with a large number of followers is no sign of authenticity, and brands are turning to new parameters to identify potential brand ambassadors. Redhu confirms that the last couple of years has witnessed a slump. “I honestly don’t know the reason but there has been a massive slowdown—there’s absolutely no work," she says. “I think because of (this slump) all the shit has come out into the open."


NO CHILD’S PLAY

The influencer community has its roots in blogging, which emerged in the late 1990s. Lifestyle blogging was the last thing on Redhu’s mind, but in 2009, she won a “mystery shampoo" contest organized by Pantene. “I set up a separate Tumblr blog to participate, and I won," she says, over a meeting at a café in Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall. “There was a press conference in Mumbai and they got Katrina (Kaif) to put a crown on my head." Browse far enough on Redhu’s blog and you will find a post and pictures from the event.

Redhu had started her blog during her first job as a management trainee, and used it to compile research from international websites. When she quit the job to pursue photography, she showcased her portfolio on her blog.

Market researcher Kalyan Karmakar started his food blog Finely Chopped as a hobby in 2007, chronicling his kitchen experiments, restaurant outings and adventures with his truant cook nicknamed #bunkinbanu. “It was a sort of vent-blog, where I would write about what I thought was wrong with food, like, say, airline food," he says. “After a while, it became a diary of my life with food as the anchor."

Early bloggers knew of few ways to monetize their content or the potential of brand collaborations. Redhu remembers being surprised when she got her first big lifestyle collaboration in 2009. “The shoe brand Woods asked if they could send me some shoes," she says. “I was like, what do you mean—do you want a logo or something? They said, just put it on your blog."

Soon after the turn of the century, blogging took off in the US, triggering a trend worldwide. Consider this: American street-style photographer Scott Schuman left his fashion sales job in 2005 to start taking pictures for his blog The Sartorialist. In 2010, Iranian-American make-up artist Huda Kattan launched her blog Huda Beauty, offering make-up tips and tutorials, and another American blogger, Leandra Medine Cohen, launched her fashion blog Man Repeller. Closer home in 2007, High Heel Confidential, a fashion blog by Payal Parija and Priyanka Prasad, started as a commentary on what Bollywood stars and Indian socialites were wearing. In 2009, Malini Agarwal started her blog, inspired by American celebrity gossip website Perez Hilton. Today, the website has grown into a huge digital business that raised 10.4 crore in funding in 2018 and Agarwal is a bona-fide influencer, with front-row seating at fashion shows and insider access to A-list celebrity events—her own wedding in 2011 was a digital media spectacle, with sponsored events and deals.

Fuelled by digital expansion and the ubiquity of smartphones, the last five years have seen an explosion of new players in India. Journalist and digital media professional Devyani Kapoor quit her job in 2014 to start her blog Breviloquent. Smriti Shankar took a sabbatical from her job as a behavioural trainer in the same year to travel and later start Travelling Boots, a solo woman blog, when she returned.

While bloggers are still around, the scope of the community has expanded to include new mediums. With the popularity of video platforms like YouTube, Snapchat and Vimeo, a new breed of video bloggers—vloggers—has now emerged, like Mumbai-based Scherezade Shroff, who has 273,954 subscribers on her YouTube channel, and Delhi-based Sejal Kumar, whose subscriber count is at 1,019,049.

But influencers today are primarily Instagrammers. The platform with over one billion users has spawned its own army of influencers, negating the need for a blog or vlog. It has also brought niche interests into the spotlight. There are hashtags and handles dealing with every micro interest, from interiors and cake-decorating to embroidery and fitness. Reading too is now a chic Insta-trend, thanks to hashtags like #bookstagram, which people use to share photographs of books artfully arranged with bookish props, along with reviews and reading lists. “Social media has done a lot to change the perception of reading," says author Shubhangi Swarup, who discovered a new readership for her debut novel, Latitudes Of Longing, via the Bookstagram community as well as platforms like Twitter and Goodreads. “It’s helping me engage with my current readership in the country, even beyond metros, from places like Raipur, Itanagar and Silchar."

While the ethical dimensions of this are hotly contested, babies too can become Instagram influencers, with a little help from their parents. The most famous example is Baby Chanco, a Japanese toddler with 400,000 followers, whose glorious head of hair earned her a shampoo endorsement in January.

There is much more to the influencer of today than there was to the blogger of the past. Influencers work on different mediums, and sometimes exclusively on social media platforms. Bloggers remain an integral part of the community, but they have diversified and now have multiple social media handles, each being operated independently. Rooted in an informal origin story, influencing has consistently been an open-to-all, unregulated practice—while it has enabled the community in its early days, it is perhaps also the dominant factor behind the present flux that influencers find themselves in.


ON THE PAYROLL

As the influencer community raised the bar on content quality, big brands turned their attention to this burgeoning community. In 2012, when British luxury house Burberry commissioned an Indian take on the Art of Trench—a website launched in 2009 that showed everyday people wearing the brand’s iconic trench coats—it commissioned Manou, a street-style photographer who had gained a loyal following among fashion insiders with his blog Wearabout. An early instance of a major blogger-brand collaboration in India, these alliances have become routine marketing and promotion strategies today.

Working with influencers offers brands a means of engaging more personally with customers. Hidesign has collaborated with Indian fashion bloggers like Manvi Gandotra (2015) and Mawi’s Vintage (2017) for its Art of Reuse campaign, an engagement programme for using upcycled goods.

Kenyan blogger Joy Kendi actively contributed to a 2017 collection of the brand inspired by the Masaai tribe. “Our collaboration was a beautiful way to reach out to a whole culture and continent we normally ignore," says Dilip Kapur, chairperson of the brand. “She inspired and helped us reach out to a whole new world in Africa, (and) made me personally create one of our most unique and original collections that has done very well in India."

The brand considers its ongoing collaboration with actor Kalki Koechlin as part of its influencer collaboration. “We have never viewed our work with Kalki as one of brand endorsement," Kapur adds. “The relationship is much deeper, based on our common backgrounds and social consciousness."

Other brands too seek shared values in their collaborations with influencers. The Body Shop has engaged with Indian beauty bloggers for over half a decade. “Our products are our brand ambassadors. However, with the large influx of brands and too many things happening on the beauty front, the landscape has become very confusing for an average beauty seeker," says Aradhika Mehta, the brand’s head of marketing in India. “The whole movement towards bloggers and influencers really has taken shape internationally because of the deluge of brands, products and the supposed wisdom." The brand hosts experiential events for influencers, as well as visits to regions from where its ingredients are sourced.

Brands are constantly looking for new voices to tap. Influencer marketing agency Greenroom surveyed over 100 professional marketers, of which 42% said they would increase their budget for influencer marketing this year, a Mint column reported in February.

Shankar says her first brand engagement came immediately after her first trips to the US and South Africa. “I’d stayed a lot in Airbnb (properties) during that year and the brand invited me to one of their events," she recalls. “I met their co-founder and told him about what I was planning to do." When Shankar planned her Europe trip, the travel start-up sponsored her stay for 45 days. Shankar has collaborated with a number of tourism boards and hospitality brands since, the latest being a trip to Coimbatore in association with Le Meridien earlier this month.

As the influencer community grows, brands are probing harder, focusing on the engagement level of influencers with their followers. Kapur highlights the stringent checks his team undertakes before collaborations. “We check their content curation, engagement with their followers, their personal style—it’s not so much about their number of followers (although we prefer organic growth) but about how well they connect with the brand’s aesthetic, DNA and value."


Instant economy

Bhasin charges 35,000 for an Instagram post and a few Insta stories. Kapoor, whose 33,000 Instagram followers make her a micro influencer (see box), maintains fixed commissioning rates for her content on the blog and social media, changing it periodically to reflect her increasing followers. For her verified Facebook page with 75,000 followers, she charges 15,000 per post; a blog post can start from around 40,000 and go up to 2.5 lakh based on the amount of work involved.

With countless brand and social media engagements, the idea that the influencer community may be in a financial crisis is difficult to fathom. But there is increasingly a serious disconnect between brands and influencers, with little credible information, if at all, on the efficacy of influencer content and the marketing budgets allocated by brands specifically for this category. While the brands interviewed for the story shared general details of their influencer collaborations, their marketing budgets and profits were not made available. “Nobody knows what the brand is spending money on, and what the results are," Redhu says. “Brands don’t seem to know what they want, and influencers take up anything that pays. There’s money on the table and no one wants to leave it, but no one knows what’s coming of it."

Monetary compensation is hard to come by, with a bulk of brands securing promotional content in barter deals, a common concern among influencers across the world. “A lot of luxury brands have an international policy of not paying," says Redhu. “A brand once offered me a bag priced at 25 lakh instead of money, but what am I supposed to do with it?" Karmakar says the term collaboration worries him. “When someone says collaborate, they usually mean they will give a product and no money." While influencers worldwide face the barter conundrum, influencers in India also complain of the challenges in negotiating monetary transactions and receiving timely payments.

Would regulated payment structures help? Not quite, says Shankar, giving an example from Dubai, where she lived for a few years, “Blogging in Dubai is different because you need a licence there, which costs about 30,000 dirhams (around 5.6 lakh)." The set-up facilitates a supportive professional environment, but there are cons too. “I may collaborate with a hotel today but if my stay hasn’t been great, I will not blog about it because I don’t want to mislead my followers," she says. “But if you are paying 30,000 dirhams for a licence, you also charge large amounts of money to write about a brand and then you are kind of obligated to cover them."

While experienced professionals like Redhu and Kapoor avoid barter deals and also demand payment upfront, freebies are sufficient for others. Karmakar concedes that it’s a major attraction. “There’s no denying that a lot of people see writing blogs and social media posts as avenues to get those services, be it a free meal, hotel stays, spa treatment or free clothes," he says. “They see nothing wrong in it, and honestly, if I was in college, I would have done that as well." On the flip side, Karmakar also reports hearing from restauranteurs of bloggers who threaten bad reviews unless they get free services.


When influencer is a bad word

Attracted by the glamorous possibilities, more people are turning into self-proclaimed influencers, including young digital users who have no professional experience and little by way of expertise. “People buy (fake) followers left, right and centre. One fine morning you wake up and someone’s followers have gone up from 5,000 to 200,000—it doesn’t add up," says Kapoor. “Then there are PR (professionals) who are best friends with bloggers, so the work only goes to them. All of these things dirty the market."

Many bloggers have set up their own standards to counter these discrepancies. The blog of beauty expert and former beauty director of Harper’s Bazaar India and Cosmopolitan India, Vasudha Rai, explicitly mentions that while some affiliate links generate a small commission for her, all products featured on the website are based on her personal recommendation. Bhasin corroborates the view, saying, “I don’t refuse money, but I also don’t work with every brand. I feature brands that I use and like."

Having a small base of followers isn’t a deterrent, as micro and nano-influencers come into the spotlight. Mehta says the brand is now focusing on a new category of lesser-known names like Kolkata-based Poorna Banerjee or Rakshanda Rizvi, a blogger and influencer from Chandigarh. “They have small but actively engaged communities, and are connected with the mindset of their followers," she says. In a November article, The New York Times writer Sapna Maheshwari highlighted a niche category of nano influencers like Alexis Baker and Haley Stutzman, whose followers range within a few thousands.


Meanwhile, social media platforms are taking charge to address the issue of fake followers. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it had filed a lawsuit in the US federal court against four companies and three people in China for promoting the sale of fake accounts, likes and followers. Instagram has created specific tools to facilitate brand-influencer engagement. “We are now expanding the access of our Instagram Branded Content tool to more of our creators (celebrities, influencers, public figures, publishers) and business partners," the company wrote in an email statement to Lounge. “We are also expanding access to Insight (a native analytics tool) to brands with an existing business page. Additionally, we are launching Partner Approvals. This is intended for brand safety and will provide our business partners with the option to approve their creator partners in advance before they tag them in a post."

In light of the increased scrutiny of their work and livelihood, what is the future of influencers? Not unlike their Western counterparts, Indian influencers are building new offline opportunities for themselves. Kapoor has founded an online fashion label, Blacksheep Clothing, and Shuffling Suitcases, a pop-up showcase of slow fashion brands has travelled to seven Indian cities and hosted its first event in Singapore (20-22 March). Redhu works as a full-time photographer, with brands like Google and Amazon among her clientele. Karmakar writes food columns, has authored a book, The Travelling Belly (Hachette), conducts specialized food walks and is a familiar face on food shows.

Does India have its own Huda Kattan, who leveraged her beauty blog to start a global beauty brand worth $550 million? Or a Chiara Ferragni, who ranked No.1 on the Forbes list of most influential fashion bloggers in 2017, owns her own footwear label and whose blog The Blonde Salad is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study? Not yet, but an engaged community of digital content creators are building the ecosystem, giving precedence to the quality and authenticity of their work over numbers.

As Contractor, commenting on her appearance as a showstopper for Eka at LFW, says, “I might be influencing a lot of young people, but the essence of what I do is essentially fashion storytelling." Contractor’s collaborators include home-grown designers like Rina Singh and Urvashi Kaur, and international labels such as Gucci and Dior, but she isn’t concerned about gathering followers. “I don’t get a lot of likes, you know, and I actively filter people (followers), because this is not about likes."

If the Indian community learns from the pitfalls faced by influencers globally, the age of influence can continue. Global examples indicate that the community is poised for an evolution. The digital ecosystem is setting new codes of operation in motion for the best to survive. To quote Darwin in an environment he perhaps never anticipated, it is about the “survival of the form that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations". May the best storyteller survive.

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Influencer lexicon 101

Micro influencer: A social media influencer within a smaller audience. Figures vary, but the average follower count is likely between 10,000 and 50,000.

Nano influencer: The new category of influencer to take note of, nano influencers have followers in the range of a few thousands.

Organic reach: The followers of an influencer, or likes on a post naturally received without the intervention of a paid marketing tool.

Contra strategy: A strategy used by brands to secure promotional content by offering them gifts or complimentary services.

Affiliate marketing: A marketing strategy whereby referrals can generate a commission for content creators when they recommend products to their audience with links.

(YouTube figures as on 20 March)

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