Ashutosh Munshi says that with influencer marketing gaining popularity, brands have ways to ensure influencers’ voices are authentic, even as advertising guidelines help to spur more honest communication in brand marketing.
- Influencers delivering quality and relatable content have the power to positively impact all stages of the path to purchase.
- Seven in 10 people relate to influencers more than celebrities and further improved if content is in a language they understand.
- India has the third highest number of bought followers in the world, with bots, fake followers and fake engagement
Why it matters
Influencer marketing has become mainstream marketing and brands must prioritise authenticity and trust as they leverage the influencer’s popularity and success as part of the marketing mix.
- One question that plagues influencer marketing in India is: How authentic are these voices?
- One solution is to clean up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement.
- Another is to make brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices.
Back in 2010, “blogger” was the buzzword for influence. Fast forward to today, where influencer marketing has entered a new era as the career choice for Gen Z, a side hustle for many and a marketing engine for brands, looking to expand their reach, awareness, preference and even drive conversions. Where brands are missing out is leveraging authentic voices to earn the right attention and build trust that drives growth. The influencer marketing industry in India is estimated at US$75-150 million a year. Influencers’ consistent fervour in delivering great quality, relatable and diverse content has earned them high levels of trust from their audiences, with the power to positively impact all stages of the path to purchase. A single post by a trusted influencer can lead to a product being sold out in a matter of minutes; it can also devalue a company’s worth by billions. Remember Kylie Jenner’s tweet that cost Snapchat US$1.3 billion?
Like it or not, we are influenced by these voices in our everyday choices, consciously or otherwise.
The influencer’s many faces
The role of the influencer has gone beyond the realm of social media content creator to becoming actor, fashion house editor, red carpet representative, brand campaign star, co-creator of products, catalyst for social change, and more. In India, we saw Kusha Kapila and Masoom Minawala walk the red carpet at Cannes 2019. There are compelling reasons why influencer marketing is critical. Some stats provide a better perspective:
- 38% brand custodians feel influencer marketing is becoming more important with each passing year due to better reach and engagement
- According to 72% marketers, influencer marketing is the fastest growing online customer acquisition method
- 76% brands are looking to increase their budget this year compared to 62% last year
But then, influence is not restricted to just celebrities and social media stars. Journalists and bloggers are also influencers from the earned-media space. And brands need to treat them as they do the stars. After all, credibility comes from unpaid third party endorsement.
Equally so, subject matter experts – doctors, academia, marketing experts, artists, chefs, professors and others – are also influencers. Brands must remain cautious of their influencer mix, as they build out campaign plans. With the climate of social media shifting, influencer marketing is becoming a more powerful force by innovating constantly to firm its position and foster growth.
Influencer commerce, influencer incubation, virtual influencers, influencer community, social search optimisation, creator-first studios are some of the influencer marketing trends that are on the rise, in India and across the globe. These trends have been adopted by evolved brands who have moved ahead in the influencer ecosystem and are now looking at influencers beyond the lens of awareness propellers.
Influencer marketing is gaining popularity in India by virtue of regional influencers prevalent across platforms. We currently have 234 million Indian language users online, compared to 175 million English users.
According to research, seven in 10 people relate to influencers more than celebrities, and this is further improved if consumers read or watch content in a language that they understand – it connects with them and motivates them to take action.
How authentic are these voices?
While there are several advantages dovetailed with influencer marketing, the one question that has plagued the industry for a while is: How authentic are these voices?
Following the US and Brazil, India has the third highest number of bought followers in the world. From bots to fake followers and fake engagement in the form of comments, fraudulent actors are working hard to stay one step ahead of platform algorithms, and brand reputation is at stake.
When it comes to bots, low-quality followers can be bought at INR 2,500 for 10,000 followers; the same number of mid-quality and high-quality followers are priced at INR 3,500 and Rs 4,500 respectively.
It’s no longer about a mega influencer having a large fan following to secure brand promotions; even micro influencers today can secure paid or better brand promotions on account of their following.
Keith Weed, former Global CMCO, Unilever said the key to improving the situation is three-fold:
- Cleaning up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement
- Making brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices
- Improving transparency from social platforms to help brands measure impact
Apart from vanity metrics, brands and their partner agencies need to look at psychological and contextual layers to form a more accurate portrait of influencers and their followers. For fraudulent activity, one can rely on online tools to sniff out counterfeit or fraudulent accounts and influencers who profit from them.
The following parameters must be considered while shortlisting influencers:
- Authenticity score
- Engagement rate
- Topics covered by the influencer (should be in context to the requirements)
- Geography (his/her audience base; both location and age group must match with our target audience for the respective brand)
- Best-performing relevant posts/content (so one can align the right content with the right influencer)
- History of influencer work (gives an idea of influencer’s brand exposure)
- Any red flags or warning signs – offensive content in the past
- Non-social influence platforms like books, webinars, podcasts (helps understand the overall clout) Positive media coverage (increases credibility)
- Trust Score (exclusive to Edelman)
With influencer marketing becoming mainstream in India, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) launched the Influencer Marketing Guidelines, making it mandatory for influencers to label all kinds of branded content to balance the interests of consumers, influencers, agencies, advertisers and all other stakeholders.
ASCI pointed out that consumers have a right to know what content has been paid for by brands and the guidelines intend to bring transparency and accountability to influencer marketing.
These guidelines will spur more honest communication within the realm of brand marketing and impact brands in several different ways:
1. Upfront Ad disclosure labels, wide list of material association (free products, vouchers, experiences etc) beyond monetary compensation, increased focus on research-driven content and claim substantiation – these guidelines have been designed to uphold a longstanding commitment to truth in advertising and will create an environment for greater trust by consumers in advertisers.
2. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report 2019, 63% people trust what influencers say about a brand much more than what brands say about themselves in their advertising, hence engagement with influencers will continue to rise, especially when consumers will clearly be informed about sponsored and non-sponsored content. The ad transparency tags will create even more positive impact on the influencer-consumer-brand relationship.
3. Content creativity, quality and authenticity will now take front seats. Brands and their partner agencies will need to adopt an always interesting approach to co-create culture and insight-driven content that seamlessly fits into the influencer’s niche, across formats and channels to boost brand mentions and foster fan communities.
4. Misleading content will get filtered out – with the new guidelines, influencers will increasingly take part in research and study every possible detail about the brand/product/service they are going to promote, hence making their content more responsible, authentic and thus reducing efforts towards constant content monitoring and thereby promoting responsible advertising.
5. Regulation would be required by brands and their partner agencies to ensure that campaigns are executed in a compliant manner, following all the guidelines.
6. Brands will need to foster long-term, meaningful relationships with influencers as influencers will now have a higher base of loyal fans, resulting in lifetime value for brands.
7. An increasing need to investigate influencers’ online activity and identify potentially sensitive issues along with basic performance benchmarking will become the new norm, increasing reliability on partner agencies with in-house and subscribed social listening and campaign measurement tools.
These guidelines will engender responsible communications, making creators and brands equally accountable for all types of influencer-led content in the digital ecosystem. These regulations could not have come sooner, given the exponential growth and mainstream stature that influencer marketing has attained so rapidly in India.
Built on the foundation of trust, the ASCI guidelines reiterate our longstanding commitment to authenticity and credibility. As per our Edelman Brand Trust Report 2021, there is a bigger need for trust today than ever before. This trust in brands cannot be bought, it has to be earned with action by creating experiences with products/services or through earned media or peer conversations and other trusted channels. Influence, too, is far higher when trust levels are high. It is built when influencers have a personal connection or expertise related to a topic or issue and when they promote brands with utmost transparency.
Riding on the back of this reality is Edelman’s Influencer Marketing offer called Trusted Influence. We create campaigns for brands using insight-driven, earned-centric creative thinking, amplified through credible influencers that deliver true impact and return on investment. Check out some of our award-winning incredible work, a testament to our commitment to trust.
For a business to flourish, it needs to reach its consumers in a way that inspires trust and influencers are instrumental in building that trust because people are more likely to trust the words of commoners who speak from their personal experience rather than an advertisement.
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.
With influencer marketing at the cusp of transformation and on track to become a US$15 billion industry by 2022, brands and corporations must prioritise authenticity and trust as they look to leverage the popularity and success of influencers as a part of the marketing mix.
This article originally appeared on WARC as part of a Spotlight series on how marketers can optimise influencer marketing strategies in India.