The crowded pick-up zone outside Goa’s Dabolim Airport was buzzing with activity, that pleasant November afternoon. Chauffeurs holding name placards and over-enthusiastic touts welcomed the visibly excited crowd spilling out of the terminals wielding selfie sticks and cameras.
I too decided to whip out my phone and add another picture to my social media existence as I waited for my co-passengers.
Just as I managed to capture a decent shot for my Instagram account, I was introduced to someone whom I would be sharing a cab with. As he held out his hand to shake mine, he asked, “What’s your handle?” I stared back at him blankly. It took me a few seconds to grasp that he was referring to my username on Instagram. By the time I could get around to telling him what it was, we were joined by our third co-passenger, who turned out to be huge on Instagram too. Much of that cab ride was spent listening to them talk about handles, pictures, stories, and influencers.
Influencer. The first time I came across the word was at a nondescript parantha stall in the dusty Noida Film City almost a year ago. I had just been introduced to someone who ran a social media marketing agency and when I told him I was a journalist, he asked me if I knew any influencers. “What’s that?” I asked him, spreading a generous dollop of butter on my parantha. “Someone who commands a strong following on social media platforms,” he informed me. “We put them in touch with brands who want to market their products.”
The three days I spent in Goa last November, on those pristine beaches and colourful, bustling streets, gave me a first-hand glimpse into the flashy and snappy world of influencers on Instagram. I was there to cover the launch of a camera, and the company had invited influencers to create a buzz.
Not exactly subtle
“This kind of marketing is catching up a lot in India right now,” says Rohit Uttamchandani, Head of Performance and Content Marketing, Social Beat — a digital marketing agency that specialises in influencer-based marketing. “People trust influencers more than they trust brands, and having an influencer market a product builds credibility for the brand.” Social Beat is among the many digital marketing agencies that have mushroomed in the country recently. Their spartan office on Pantheon Road, in the heart of Chennai’s business district, is peppered with whiteboards flashing words like engagement, pulse, and reach — all part of the starter pack of social media marketing lingo.
It turns out Uttamchandani has a point. Most of the influencers I started following after my Goa trip frequently posted pictures promoting various products — and some of them weren’t exactly subtle. If it was watches one week, it was beard and moustache tonic the next. The basic template for the posts was a picture of the product with a short caption on how the influencer has benefited from its use. The brand behind the product was usually tagged and a few influencers even posted discount coupon codes named after them.
The idea that influencers are ordinary people like you and I is something that brands leverage. For example, I would be more likely to buy a phone if someone I know uses it and has good things to say about it. Many ordinary users seem to be entirely unaware that some of their favourite lifestyle, food, and travel bloggers or vloggers get paid to plug products through their posts. “What, really?”, a friend exclaimed in surprise when I told her about the way it works. “And here I was thinking that those products were just honest recommendations”. Naina Kapoor*, a Mumbai-based Instagram influencer for a host of products, says that people consume her posts as art because they are 70 per cent picture and 30 per cent short review through a caption, unlike a typical in-your-face advertisement.
A grey area
Brands seem to be capitalising on this notion, and since this is a relatively new phenomenon in India, there are no clear-cut guidelines. “In the west, influencers are supposed to disclose that they are getting incentivised by the brand for promoting a product,” Uttamchandani says. The United States of America’s Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines for influencer marketing. The relative ambiguity in India seems to be helping brands market products that are otherwise banned from being advertised. For example, Kingfisher recently started marketing their latest alcoholic beverage, KF Buzz, via Instagram influencers, something that Uttamchandani refused to comment on. “Beating mid-week blues with my girls drinking @kingfisherworld @kfbuzz,” says a post by one particular influencer, subtly sending the message home to her 58,000 followers.
The ‘personal’ touch is important for an influencer. “Engagement with their audience is essential,” Uttamchandani agrees. “Some influencers have entire teams who help them reply to mails, messages, and comments.” Indeed, followers love it when they get personal replies from such accounts. “It builds the trust factor and retains followers,” Uttamchandani says. The trust factor also extends to reviewing a product. “I’m not obliged to only talk about the positive aspects of the product. The negative comments are shared with the audience too,” Kapoor says. But this differs for different brands and marketing agencies. “I am not allowed to go public with the things I don’t like about the product. Most of the time, I have to follow a brief,” says Rahul Sharma*, a Delhi-based photographer and influencer.
However, even when one or more product shortcomings are mentioned, it still falls well short of being an unbiased review. Uttamchandani says that negative opinions, when posted in an influencer review, are very few and mostly drowned out by the positives. But influencers still need to strike a balance. Endorsing a lot of products and just singing praises about them can make followers lose trust. “I have turned down dozens of products. In some cases I felt they are not good ones, and some I felt would not resonate with my feed at all,” Sharma says.
Apart from money, companies also give out freebies and paid trips to influencers in exchange for plugs. But remuneration can get a little sticky at times. “That is where agencies like ours come in. We ensure that influencers get paid on time,” Uttamchandani says. Kapoor says it is a job with a lot of responsibility. “It is a huge responsibility on my part towards the brand, which has entrusted me to use its product, and towards the people who value my opinion on Instagram. Being an influencer is hard work.”
The constant need to achieve picture perfection can get stressful. The case of 18-year-old Essena O’Neill, an Australian Instagrammer with over five lakh followers who quit the platform in 2015, is the most famous example. She deleted over 2000 photos “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion” and edited the captions of her remaining pictures to describe the careful strategic setting-up that went into manufacturing each of them. O’Neill claimed that the job, which she described as “contrived perfection made to get attention,” had consumed her and left her constantly seeking virtual validation.
Sharma sees it differently. “That was an extreme case. There is pressure, as there should be. But it is not stressful.” It is also a way to build friendship and a network, according to Sharma. “Whenever I want a few ideas on shoot locations, I ask other influencers and they are happy to help.”
Not all of it is about marketing products, as I found out one November evening in Panjim. As dusk drew near, backpacks were strapped on and lenses and camera settings adjusted, as the Instagrammers prepared to chase the famed Goa sunset. I decided to tag along. A windswept ride later, as the horizon on Miramar beach erupted into a psychedelic riot of colours when the sun sank into the ocean, numerous camera flashes erupted around me in a burst of light. It was as if they were saying, “Welcome to our world, where we wear our hearts on our lenses.”
*Names changed on request.