There are celebrities - and then there are celebrities," is how JK Rowling differentiates Harry Potter from the rest of the wizard clan, in her latest story on Pottermore.com, the online home for the world of Harry Potter. We all know how the Potter series influenced political values and perspectives of the generation that came of age with these books. So, more than a celebrity wizard, Potter is an influential magician.
Likewise, social media has many wizards but only a few stand out as influencers. These 'social media influencers' are people who create and share interesting or valuable content with the niche audiences that follow them. They might be bloggers with a large readership or socially savvy consumers with loyal followers on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Pinterest. Influencers are trusted by their audiences and typically focus on a particular area like food, parenting, fitness, fashion, entertainment or technology.
Consumers are getting smarter by the day. Moreover, social media gives them a chance to keep tabs on what their peers are thinking and doing. Keeping this in mind, tapping into the reach of influencers along with the trust factor they hold becomes important. Web-savvy consumers now require greater engagement and information before making a purchase and they want opinions from people they trust. It is imperative for brands to be a part of the conversations that consumers are having online.
For a business, a social media influencer is someone who could help increase the business of the brand. Many brands in India now regularly engage with a social influencer to carry their message to a large group of loyal audiences across digital platforms. "An influencer is media and content rolled into one. They help brands reach out to an audience set (the role of media) and influence them with a combination of interesting content and their own credibility," says Saurabh Parmar, CEO, Brandlogist Communications.
Dabur Chyavanprash is a great example of a traditional Indian company adopting this modern method. A couple of creative engagements with bloggers helped Dabur increase awareness on the importance of immunity and also talk about its ideals of adopting traditional knowledge for natural growth. The brand claims that the visits to its site doubled within days of the engagement.
FMCG brands around beauty, fashion and lifestyle use social media influencers in a big way. Sports, entertainment and movie brands too use influencers. Names like Kissan, Dove, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Milaap.org, Borosil, Zee Entertainment and Asus have taken to this route with enthusiasm.
Been there, got talked about
Being part of different communities and participating in activities is vital to maintain brand presence. "Social influencers fill the much-needed gaps that a consumer demands in terms of product experience," says Anoop Johnson, director, marketing, IndiBlogger.in, a network of Indian bloggers. Alexa rates IndiBlogger.in among the 400 most popular sites in India. On Facebook, the community has 22,893 members and is followed by over 13,000 people on Twitter.
With word of mouth becoming the most trusted form of digital advertising, social influencers are becoming an integral part of any social campaign or contest for many brands. Like every trend, it has its first movers. "One of our earliest use of influencers was in 2011 for Ford when we ran the #Onetankfull campaign and sent eight influencers on a social drive with a tank full of fuel to experience their passion," says Rajiv Dingra, CEO, WATConsult, a digital marketing agency.
WATConsult conducted blogger engagement meets for Nikon via an offline meet workshop called #Throughthelens. Both B2C and B2B companies engage with the influencers. Obviously, the number of influencers is higher in the B2C segment with verticals like fashion, lifestyle, travel, hospitality, entertainment leading the pack. Allen Solly took the Influencer Marketing path with #ShootForSolly, a 'people-powered' photo shoot across India. Eleven professional photographers were asked to shoot people sporting the Chinos collection and spread the word.
ITC Hotels has an established programme to connect with various travel, food and hospitality bloggers from time to time. It invites bloggers for new property launches and various themes like Wine Wednesdays conducted at its restaurants. At Jafra Cosmetics, bloggers meet-ups are conducted at regular intervals and are called Pamper Parties. Experts from the company talk to fashion bloggers and get them to try out their various products.
The correct influencer
When it comes to consumer spending, online content and social conversations have a significant impact on how consumers choose what to buy. A survey of 20,000 consumers worldwide, by HubSpot, found that 71 per cent were more likely to make a purchase based on social media referrals. Hence, choosing the correct person to endorse a brand becomes imperative.
Social media influencers can help a brand put its message across in a convincing or engaging manner. "Since they are neutral and have built a relationship with their readers, they enjoy a higher level of credibility which the brand would seek for itself," says Nimesh Shah, head, Windchimes Communications, a social media marketing agency. Apart from looking at the influencer's online followers, the selection criterion is based on two aspects - the topic for which the influencer is known, how many followers they have and the reach of the latter.
Platforms like indiblogger.in can be used across verticals (there are over 35,000 bloggers registered on IndiBlogger.in), writing on topics ranging from computers, business, the nation, politics, science, social, lifestyle, entertainment and sports. Besides, there are individuals who are experts in their respective fields and are often contacted by brands to become their ambassadors online. For example, MissMalini.com is a big name in the fashion blogging world that promotes fashion brands and accessories to its audiences through blog posts.
According to Jain, the equity of a social media influencer is dependent on parameters like the size of the network, the quality of the network (quality refers to those who are not just potential buyers for a brand, but are further influencers themselves), the quality and relevance of posts, the quality and relevance of comments by the network and the ability of further cascading of the message in the network through sharing and re-tweeting.
Naina Redhu is a luxury and lifestyle photographer and a brand storyteller who connects with audiences on her website, Naina.co and her Twitter and Instagram feeds. Redhu says that she has been approached by various mobile phone companies, luxury brands, furniture, beauty brands, fashion designers, alcohol brands, real estate, travel and even vaginal whitening products, asking her to be their influencer online.
"I generally share my blog, Twitter and Facebook statistics with brands prior to getting into a professional engagement. Both the brand and the influencer should mutually decide on the number of social media updates and blog stories that will be published for an engagement before starting work. I always implement a contract," says Redhu.
In addition to their expertise, tools like Followerwonk.com and PeerIndex are also used, along with Klout, to analyse and gauge the influencing capability of a person on social media. In India, there are tools such as the Pinstorm India Influencers, which is a simple way to figure out how influential Indians are on social media. The lists indexes close to 5,000 Indian and India-related entities and classifies them into different buckets - residents of India, Indians outside India, brands, organisations, movements and - lately - politicians.
Deals and deliverables
One could argue that the line that separates a social media influencer and a celebrity endorser is thin in terms of what they are required to do. However, the impact that celebrities create for a brand is much higher than what the influencers might create. But the endorsement of a social media influencer comes across as more genuine. "When a celebrity endorses a brand on a TV show, we know it's marketing. When a guy who you have been following on Twitter for some time talks about restaurants and food, it seems normal," points out Parmar.
Besides, there is a huge difference in the way a social media influencer is signed up for a brand campaign vis-à-vis how celebrities are signed. Social media influencers are usually contacted by agencies handling a brand's campaign and are mostly asked to take the campaign further and inspire their followers to believe in the product. "A celeb gets brand endorsement projects by virtue of having an offline fan base because of professional work. A social media influencer is someone who has a huge following on social media by virtue of her being fairly active and regular and sharing relevant content and opinion," explains Ankita Gaba, co-founder, SocialSamosa.com, an Indian social media knowledge repository.
The task of a social media influencer is to convince readers about what the product stands for, through tweets, blog posts and online videos. And they get paid too although being an unorganized business, clients could end up paying different amounts for the same thing. Social media influencers can earn upwards of Rs 500 for one post. In many cases, influencers are fine with just goodie bags if the brand and the concept of participation is exciting.
The deliverables depend on factors like budgets earmarked for the activity, page-views, visitors, Twitter followers and Facebook fans of the influencer, the legwork and time involved in doing the activity and supporting tasks. The payment is usually less when the brand and influencer deal directly. "It can range from free to pretty much sky-is-the-limit," says Redhu, whose Twitter profile has 16,100 followers and blog, Naina.co, an estimated 30,000 visitors per month (as on August, 2014 according to SimilarWeb).
The fine print
The issue of ethics crops up whenever there is talk of social media influencers. Jain feels that there should be full disclosure so that the reader can differentiate between regular content and sponsored ones. "One can fool some of the customers some of the time - but they will see through it. When they do, you might as well shut shop," adds Jain.
Do influencers always carry these disclosures and if they do, does that content become less engaging? Johnson of Indiblogger thinks that ethics is not the issue. "People need information. Bloggers fill this void by writing blog posts that help people make informed decisions," he adds. For most bloggers, it's their language, communication skills, quality and frequency of information that define their success and how well they connect and inspire confidence among followers.
"One has to look at it like advertorials which are prevalent in mainline media as well. The ethics issue comes in where you promote a brand without mentioning that you are doing so. Most influencers openly run contests for brands and its obvious that it is a branded activity," says Dingra.
If someone is misinformed, the influencer needs to clarify and keep talking to understand customer needs - and work on addressing those. "If an influencer doesn't use or believe in that particular brand or product category in real life and still promotes it online, her credibility is under question," says Gaba. Redhu agrees. "This is the best way to create an authentic experience. If the product is terrible, I will say as much. Brands who are okay with that, win. 'OMG awesome product!' only works if it really is an awesome product regardless of whether someone is paying for it. And even then, it might be awesome for me but might not be for someone else," she adds.
Some countries mandate that a paid or sponsored promotion by an influencer should be labelled as such but not India. "We are still playing the volume rather than the connect game. Moreover, alcohol brands have recently started using influencers. Now is that ethical, since alcohol brands have advertising restrictions?" questions Parmar.
The Indian challenge
An influencer uses many platforms that are versatile, but experts rate Facebook and LinkedIn as the top platforms to engage with a brand. Pinterest and Instagram and blogs are some platforms where influencers have a good reach. There is also a growing set of YouTubers, which allow promoted content.
"Twitter makes news, but I don't think it's very effective. The advantage of Facebook and LinkedIn is that the network expands beyond the immediate circle of contacts and messages can go viral more easily. Instagram is gaining popularity and can be used to promote brand through images. The killer platform is WhatsApp, especially when someone is seeking opinions to make a purchase decision," states Jain.
Indian marketers now understand the role influencers play and do not expect free work, but they are not using such influencers intelligently. "Get creative and don't just send them product samples and expect them to write about it. Plan interesting activities around the brand essence that ties up well at the event," advises Shah.
Time is another key challenge here. Writing takes time and effort and hence professionalism - both on the part of the agencies and influencers - is a must. "One needs to realise that these are individuals and not corporates and even the influencers need to stand by their word so that there is no mismatch of expectation at the clients end. Agencies need to ensure that payments once committed are made to influencers," states Dingra.
According to Jain, everyone is shooting in the dark to justify fees and salaries. "Influencers need to understand they are quasi-journalists and their credibility is everything. So they need to choose better products for endorsements," he adds. "International brands are averse to working with social media influencers in India and local brands want to work but don't know how. There is a fantastic opportunity for both influencers and brands to create useful, meaningful and beneficial relationships but I am yet to see something that has blown my socks off," says Redhu.
Brands are comfortable working with celebs and they use similar mechanisms with journalists and media. Hence this space is not completely alien to them. "But, today, in India, brands are measuring the wrong metrics for success. The number of impressions got by an influencer activity might not be relevant or these impressions might not lead to any concrete action," informs Gaba. She also feels that the influencers are taking up project after project and becoming 'social media whores'. "I like influencers who say, 'we cannot endorse this brand because of xyz reason'," she adds.
Reach, numbers, Twitter trends, blog rolls and online memes may look good on paper but if an influencer does not have a genuine connect with the product, his followers will never connect and buy into a brand.
A Note From the Editor
I come from the old school of journalism. Here, editorial and sales have nothing to do with each other on a day-to-day basis. Obviously, the editorial direction is determined by the larger business imperative but trade-offs between sales and edit are taboo: we won't do an article on a brand simply because it advertises with us; conversely, we won't stop writing about a company because it doesn't spend on our site.
Many find this old fashioned. They can't understand why the reporters shouldn't write what is good for business. Don't they want salaries, increments? Then why not do what the advertiser wants?
There are good reasons why editorial and sales are kept apart in media companies. At an ethical level, readers have a right to know what is objective reporting and what has been paid for (and is, effectively, advertising masquerading as editorial). At a business level, a media brand gets its life-force from its credibility and that must be protected.
What has all this got to do with the new influencers, the subject of this cover story? The social media explosion has thrown many individuals as experts on the digital centre-stage. Each of them has a following because they know the subject they are writing about. Besides, they have credibility - their followers believe that what they are saying is being said in all honesty.
Now, brands want to influence the influencers. Just as they use celebrities to say nice things about their brands, they'd like these digital opinion makers to discuss their products. Do these influencers admit to their followers that they are being paid - in kind or cash - to discuss products or services? Generally not.
How would you react if you learnt that the movie or product reviewer you've revered has actually been paid every now and then to say the good stuff? Not very well, I imagine.
These are early days and there are no accepted standards of ethics. In any case, since these individuals are scattered and independent, getting a code of sorts in place will be hard. It is in the interest of both influencers and brands to arrive at some norms of transparent behaviour with digizens. Or else, sooner or later, I can promise that there will be backlash against both - the ones who buy influence as well as those who allow themselves to be bought.