In this edition of Spotlight India, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das looks at the evolution of influencer marketing in India and, given its tremendous potential, how marketers can get it right by addressing the concerns about it.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how marketers can optimise influencer marketing strategies in India. Read more

Back in simpler times, when social media wasn’t the beast we know it to be now, a prospective employer asked me if I had 100 followers on Twitter. When I replied I had a few more, he was impressed enough to hand me a social media mandate. Cut to 2021, and a situation like that would be laughed at. For good reason. These days, when it comes to follower count, one needs a lot more than a hundred to impress. It is the age of blue ticks and millions of followers, it is the time of the “influencer”.

It was but a matter of time before marketers noticed what a word of approval from someone with a decent follower count could mean for brands, and before you know it, “influencer marketing” became popular parlance and practice in the marketing world.

Influencers became the new brand ambassadors although there exists a fair line of distinction between both, and the same has been explained in this Spotlight India edition. Consumers too found a level of relatability when brand testimonials came from one of their own, from someone who they could believe had actually used a product or service they endorsed. Over time, influencers became celebrities in their own right and there were always the celebrities who continued to have an influencing opinion on social media.

Add to it the advent of technology, newer social media platforms, and the introduction of more interactive functions by the existing ones, content creation became all the more democratic. “Viral content” is now what every brand wants and the influencers more often than not are able to provide that.

Becoming an “influencer” is now a legitimate career choice and there are examples of institutions that claim to train a youngster to become one too. It is understandable, given the easy fame and money that come with it.

Rising concerns

As the discipline grew popular, there were the concerns around it. Influencer fraud became commonplace. A study by HypeAuditor found how over 55% of Instagram influencers were involved in social media fraud and fakery in 2020, and 45% of Instagram accounts were fake. With such statistics, the lack of trust in an influencer’s word is obvious.

Also, when it became a numbers game, you found brands chasing high follower count with little concern about the quality of content or engagement. Influencers too lay more emphasis on building follower count – an easy way of doing that is “buying” bots as followers. It was soon seen how a large number of followers did not always translate into quality engagement. This also further hampered the legitimacy of influencer marketing.

The COVID-19 induced lockdown in India only fuelled the rise of influencer marketing with more individuals creating content at home and the extensive use of social media.

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory voluntary organisation of the advertising industry in the country, took notice and recently issued a set of guidelines to address the concerns. While it is a step in the right direction and it might even help to a large extent to bring back some semblance of trust in influencer marketing, it remains to be seen how much of a difference it makes, and how offenders are taken to task.

On the right path of influence

Contributors to this edition of Spotlight India agree that the ASCI guidelines were indeed the need of the hour and an indication that influencer marketing must be taken a lot more seriously. They further shared their opinions on how both marketers and influencers would do well to give this marketing tool a relook and rejig strategies.

  • ASCI guidelines: All eyes are on the recently issued guidelines and how they will play out. To Ashutosh Munshi, Executive Vice-president, Head of Brand Practice - Asia Pacific, Edelman, the move appears to have come at the right time and one that holds promise.

He says, “ASCI’s issue of the recent guidelines marks the foray of influencer marketing into mainstream advertising, depicting how influencer marketing has evolved. This offers a wealth of growth opportunities for influencers, influencer marketing platforms and agencies, as well as brands looking to benefit from the fast-growing industry.”

Blink Digital’s Felix Joy also thinks the guidelines could lead to influencer marketing becoming a lot more disciplined in approach.

“The impact of ASCI’s new guidelines, from a cursory glance, tends to seem merely procedural, a matter of adding a simple #ad to the post. Much like disclaimers on TV shows, it seems mundane enough to be almost unnoticed by the average viewer. But that would be a myopic view of things. Given that social media influencers have authenticity at the core of their engagement, an extra #ad or #sponsored directly impacts their credibility and subsequently, their following and effectiveness, particularly if done one too many times,” he explains.

“Brands need to be more careful when choosing an influencer. Indicators like follower count and likes have lost meaning. They are automatic valueless behaviours users perform without thinking and don’t indicate true buying signals,” he notes.

  • Focus on micro and nano influencers: With the rise in the number of content creators, influencers tagged as micro and nano (less than 100,000 and 5,000 followers, respectively) are gaining ground. These are influencers with reasonable expertise in their respective domains and can work wonders for brands.

“The strength of micro influencers lies in their expertise. A mommy blogger, an Instagram fashionista, an intrepid foodie – they all can bring in engaged networks who listen to them, and they create amazing content if the brief is right,” writes Saurabh Kanwar, Co-founder,

“Most also have a strong sense of professionalism and ‘brand’ for themselves, so they can almost instinctively stay on-message. Instead of working with one giant celeb influencer, perhaps being pushed around by their management, a brand can work with four to five micro influencers with similar or more impact in terms of shareable content, tight execution and a warm connect.”

  • Rethink to make it effective: Mirum India’s Samiksha Saxena and Simran Arora believe a serious rethinking is required on the part of strategists to make influencer marketing a lot more effective in current times.

“Most brands focus on adding influencer marketing to their media mix as a tool to build reach even though the focus could vary. When we look back at some popular influencer campaigns over the past few years, we realise the word ‘influencer’ is losing its effectiveness. Therefore, it becomes crucial for brand marketers to understand how to fit influencer marketing into a customer journey,” they say.

“As brands are finding it tough to sell their products or services through push advertising during this sensitive period, influencer marketing becomes more valuable for not just storytelling but also driving relevance, relatability and putting the brand as a human element in their lives.”

  • Build long-term associations: One of the key things to consider for brands after having identified the right influencers is to build a long-term relationship to keep the messaging consistent and establish trust. Naresh Gupta from Bang in the Middle advocates a method to the madness.

Gupta says, “Brands should involve influencers in marketing plans and activities systemically. Some of the e-com players have launched formal influencer programmes and that is a good starting point. However, that isn’t the only way to loop in influencers. What was earlier word of mouth is now is word of mouse and needs to be harnessed. This will mean a long-term, continuous effort and not a case-by-case basis as it is today.”

It is a point also raised by Shrutika Nagpal, Strategy & Creative Director, Scatter Content.

“Brands rarely get the leverage they want when they associate with influencers on a one-off basis because influencer marketing is not a touch-and-go strategy. It is built on lasting relationships between the brand and its ardent promoters,” she says.

“Often, while scouting for influencers, brands are left conflicted on the type of data and its reliability. This is where the use of influencer marketing platforms comes in. We are seeing some winning strategies from brands in influencer marketing. These are brands that are constantly tracking and reiterating influencer marketing efforts, identifying new influencers and turning them into brand ambassadors, building long-term and trusted relationships between influencers and their followers, and mapping influencer marketing activities to business results,” Odhekar writes.

  • The rural action: The rise of short video social platforms, deeper mobile penetration and cheap data have put the focus on Tier 3 cities of the country where content creators are getting excited about bringing their wares to the market. VMLY&R’s Amandeep Singh brings up an important point as he urges marketers to look beyond the metros.

Singh says, “The potential is huge, and the ecosystem is ripe for brands keen to tap into this enormous market via a plethora of exciting new social platforms and a surge in would-be influencers vying for attention.”

Influencer marketing is now mainstream! A little polishing of the edges, some attention to detail, and this tool could prove to be among the most potent ones in a marketer’s arsenal. The world has indeed come a long way since my hundred-something followers on social media seemed impressive, not that the count has grown much since then.