They’re people like us, but with 10k followers or more. They’re making a living by posting about brands. And special agencies are now popping up to help them extend their reach
Samidha Singh quit her job as a financial analyst to become a fashion influencer on Instagram. You’d think the work would be easier, she says, but it’s almost as hard, with absolutely no days off.
The difference is that she enjoys what she does, “and I earn enough to ignore disapproving remarks from relatives, and put my parents’ fears to rest.”
She made the switch after clothing brands started offering her Rs2,000 for a single post. “This started after my follower count crossed 10,000,” she says.
That is essentially when she became a micro-influencer. Typically, a micro-influencer is someone who is active on social media, with a clear focus area (the most lucrative fields are fashion, technology, food, travel and music), at least 10,000 followers on a single platform, and the ability to craft posts that will get hits and create buzz for brands.
With Singh, her first offers were from small, local design houses. Over time, she graduated to bigger brands like Myntra, Aeropostale and Westside.
But she didn’t do that bit alone. She signed up with an influencer marketing platform. As the number of micro-influencers grows, agencies are cropping up to help organise this segment of digital advertising. They connect the influencer with the brand seeking mileage online; do background checks to make sure the influencer’s followers are real and not bots; help the brands craft their campaigns, and then make sure the eventual post is in line with that vision.
Singh signed up with an agency called TeraReach, set up in Delhi in 2015 and has since added offices in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Other such companies include Mumbai-based Chtrbox and GetEvangelized, founded in 2015; Chennai’s Influencer.in, founded in 2015; Gurugram’s Eleve Media, founded in 2012 and BuzzOne, based in Delhi and set up in 2010. They claim access to between 20,000 and 80,000 non-celebrity influencers each.
Clients include Flipkart, Bacardi, PepsiCo, Nissan, Panasonic, Motorola, Tinder and niche designers and smaller labels like Shaze, TrulyMadly and Swoo.
The most popular platforms are Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, in that order, with video the most-preferred medium. A good, 10-minute influencer ad film can fetch as much as Rs3 lakh.
Back to the hard part, Singh, 25, posts her first picture at 9.30 am sharp every day. Her make-up is perfect, every hair is in place, as she stands or leans or holds a tennis racquet against a picturesque background. But the real star is her outfit — the freshly unboxed everyday wear of a fashionista.
She’s usually still in bed at 9.30 am, she confesses. So the photograph is selected and captioned carefully the day before — no matter where in the world she is, or what she’s doing. A typical shoot takes about six hours, so she maintains a bank of 100 images to draw from.
“Most people scroll while commuting, so 9.30 to 11.30 a.m. is very busy,” she says. Singh has 1.94 lakh followers and the average post gets about 4,000 likes and 30 comments — about 50 per cent of which she responds to in real time.
Through the rest of the day, she posts up to three stories and maybe another photo — not too much, not too little. She earns from almost every post.
Micro-influencers offer the people-like-us advantage, says Karthik Srinivasan, former national lead for social at ad agency Ogilvy and now an independent communications consultant on social media marketing. “They are more real and relatable and have a more immediate connect with followers.”
The phenomenon grew massively with the availability of affordable Internet, fostering a rapidly multiplying follower base, adds Aditya Gurwara, servicing head at TeraReach. The penetration of Whatsapp has also helped in the last couple of years.
“With micro-celebs, the audience can realistically yearn for a similar lifestyle,” says Lavin Mirchandani, founder of GetEvangelized. “And they cost much less than a celebrity. That combination is what works for the brands.”
Battling Bots & Copy Cats
Because the aim is to ‘be like the target customer’, a micro-influencer can be anyone — a student, a mother, a corporate executive. Find someone with a big following, and a certain degree of reach is more or less guaranteed. “But there is a big difference between reach and influence,” Srinivasan points out.
“Reach comes from followers, and influence comes from consistent and credible attention earned over a period of time. Signing up a lot of smaller, online voices aggregates into better visibility online from people you relate to, but does not directly translate into quantifiable sales. Right now, in the evolving state of the influencer marketing industry, brands and companies are happy to stay on the reach level – they look at basic qualifying metrics like followers, engagement etc and rope in online voices accordingly, but that will change as the segment gets both more organised and more saturated.”
Add to that the issues of fake hits and bots. “Many influencers have their own network of ‘close’ followers who engage on auto-mode and act as echo-chambers, thus faking reach and engagement,” says Malhar Barai, head of marketing, HiTech Vertical, Tech Mahindra.
In a case of fighting fire with fire, many of the platforms have devised their own tech to counter it. TeraReach uses a deep analytics and artificial intelligence-led software called Qoruz to run a background check on every influencer they sign up. The software analyses over 80 data points to give each influencer a Qoruz score that aims to represent the true reach of the social media account.
Similarly, Chtrbox has a discovery engine that scans millions of posts on different social media sites to find real influencers. They’ve also used algorithms and machine learning to give each influencer a social media value, so it’s easier to track their reach and relevance. After that, it’s a question of matching client with influencer.
“The nature of the campaign, and the budget, determine which influencers we approach, how many we enlist, and the reach that we aim for,” says Gurwara of TeraReach.
A pencil brand might collaborate with a doodle artist. “An online shopping portal may pay up to Rs 5,000 just for adding a link to a sale in the caption to a regular picture,” says Singh.
“Once you are established as a micro-influencer, you can make around up to Rs 10,000 just for adding a link to your post,” adds tech micro-influencer Amit Bhawani, 35, from Hyderabad, a client with TerraReach.
Hundreds of micro-influencers may be roped in for an extended, big-budget push. Chtrbox says they used 750 influencers and 10,400 posts to reach lakhs of social media users during the Whisper #LikeAGirl campaign. In a more direct but low-key drive, they say they engaged with 28,200 users through 769 influencer posts causing the sale of 70 referral tickets for Spoken Fest 2017 in Mumbai.
The big downside for the micro-influencers, they say, is that you can never switch off. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” says Bhawani. “Even on holiday. You’ve got to squeeze work in too.”
Holidays, in fact, often become a place to churn out even more content than usual, because you’re in a new and picturesque location.
Bhawani says he plans trips with an eye on shooting good video content, something his family is less than thrilled about. Kolkata-based travel micro-influencer, Tanayesh Talukdar, says he once trekked almost 5 km in Santorini, Greece, with no hiking equipment, because he wanted to get the perfect picture from a vantage point. “But the result was worth the effort,” he adds.
Other big area of concern is loss of creativity — the fear that a post will never be just a post again, and that all posts will be dictated by external factors. And the influencers worry about loss of balance — many said it was like a tightrope walk, trying to not lose followers by over-posting while also making sure they kept their clients happy.
Hits and Misses
There are risks, of course, when working with what are essentially amateurs. “Several influencer marketing agencies have people who will peddle any product or service for a fee,” says Srinivasan. In many cases, too many influencers are approached for the same campaign, causing an overload of images, posts and video stories.
“That lack of focus can cause clutter, loss of credibility and, over the long term, dilute the impact of the influencer model.”
With the sector still growing, there is still need for organising and regulating this business model. “These are early days for the industry. Content creators are still not well aware of their IP rights. Brands often strike deals without being specific about usage, copyrights, medium and other rights. Licensing is likely to become an integral part of this process,” says Mirchandani of GetEvangelized. “With time, things will be organised and we will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
The emergence of regional influencers and churning of localised content is one of the things to look out for next. “There is a new wave of regional content creators and brands want them to create original content in local languages. The rise of micro influencers from across India is allowing brands to leverage storytelling in more authentic ways,” says Pranay Swarup, founder of Chtrbox.
LinkedIn could be the next big platform. “There is big opportunity for B2B influencer marketing here,” says Srinivasan.
For now, the influencers are enjoying their sudden shift into the spotlight. Hyderabadi boy Bhawani recently organised a fan meet-cum-tech talk for his followers in Delhi, and he still can’t get over the fact that 520 people turned up. “I was so surprised,” he says, grinning. “We actually had to have bodyguards at the site and everyone wanted to take selfies with me!”