National Chronicle

Does the social media influencer need a coming of age?

New Delhi,   With the COVID-19 crisis forcing a brutal shutdown of life as we knew it, independent creators on social media are finding themselves in a dilemma — stranded at home, starved of novel engagement ideas, lavish production crews, and most of all, branded content opportunities that drive in the dollars.

To begin with, who is an ‘influencer’, exactly?

“ today’s digital world, the word ‘influencer’ is most commonly ascribed to someone who has clout through her/his digital channels, or as some like to call it, ‘social currency’. Whether she/he has a lot of followers or really high engagement, when she/he speaks, their audience listens, they act, and – most importantly to brands – they buy,” writes Brittany Hennessey in her book ‘Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media’.

Behind the glitzy, aspirational world of social media influencers, was the monetary power of brands – which was not lost on younger audiences, who got drawn in awe and even the desire to replicate those breezy travel photographs, latest fashion trends, and flamboyant makeup videos they saw.

“In many ways fashion influencers are all about “showing off” they are driven by encouraging consumption—so this pandemic has thrown their industry a real curveball,” states author and journalist Sujata Assomull, adding, “Some of it has seemed insensitive and has exposed how banal and transactional the business of fashion influencing is.”

Privileged social media influencers (read celebrities) who are used to capitalising their status and wealth, flaunting and at times even posturing a jet setting lifestyle (usually paid for by brand partnerships), are stuck at home today with little else to upload than Tik-Tok videos. With the paid frills on hold the lack of creativity screams out.

Assomull, author of ‘100 Iconic Costumes of Bollywood’ emphasises, “Of course there are exceptions, who have used their network and reel of “influence” positively. Italian influencer Chiara Ferragni set the tone for this back in early March when she used her platform to raise funds for a Milan based hospital—and has donated millions of Euros by using her influencer status smartly… Closer to home, Scherezade Shroff Talwar (@sherryshroff) has co-founded Qurancharity with marketing consultant Pri Shewakramani. It is a platform which offers webinars for a small fee on a variety of topics from art, wine-tasting, fashion, to social media led by some of India’s best, be it Manish Malhotra, Saffronart’s Minal Vazirani or Instagram’s Niharika Pande. The money raised goes to NGOs such as Goonj, who are doing a lot of on ground work with migrant workers.”

From high-profile business meetings, workout sessions, professional photoshoots, and travel photographs to make one green with envy, the social media handles of A-list celebrities like Karan Johar, Shilpa Shetty and Malaika Arora are being populated with visuals of their pets, children and often, just themselves, captured in home settings. While there’s a slim chance that they lose their following, now might be a good time for them to channel their following into more ‘positive’ pursuits focusing on slow fashion, mental health, sustainability initiatives, carbon footprints, support groups, donations or any cause close to their core.

Witnessing a paradigm shift in influencer marketing, Malini Agarwal, Founder and Creative Director of MissMalini, thinks we’re currently in the first phase of an economic shock. “In this phase there are some categories that are benefitting from the lockdown, and we’ve seen an increase in spends from them (like insurance, personal care/hygiene, pharmaceuticals). However, the large majority of brands have been forced to put a hold on most marketing activations, either because demand has crashed or because of supply chain and logistics issues,” she told IANSlife.

Agarwal believes, “Once we move into phase two and beyond – when we’ll have a better idea of the long-term consequences of the lockdown – you can expect brands to re-assess their spends again to match market outlook. It’s too early to tell what the world will look like, and in what manner we will emerge from social distancing, but I tend to agree with the experts who are forecasting a drop in advertising in the 30-40 percent range this year.”

But with people stuck indoors in self-isolation, screen time is bound to have increased. The most visible way creators have overcome the confines of their homes is through live video streaming. Open Instagram and you’re bound to see dozens of lives going on at any time, often in the form of interviews or group chats.

Kylie Jenner on Instagram, dated March 28

In a statement to IANSlife, social media platform Instagram stated, “Instagram is the home of creativity and expression and at a time when social distancing is the new normal, we’re seeing this in a more prominent way than before. Culture, is clearly going virtual and the increase of Instagram Live views by 60 percent* is a clear indication of that. We’re also seeing interactivity spur with new public figures like Kareena Kapoor joining the platform, release of new tools and features like the ‘Stay Home’ sticker and ‘Stay Home’ AR collection effects which includes the much popular ‘Guess the gibberish’ effect and more real and authentic content from creators.”

On asking the social media giant what this meant for brands? “For brands, this means that while they continue to be empathetic and responsible in their communication, engaging with influencers on branded content continues to be a good way to highlight their utility in a personal way. We’re already seeing brands take this route and we expect to see more of this, as economic activity begins, but social distancing norms continue,” stated Instagram with a positive outlook for the coming months.

To that end Assomull points out, “I would like to say that the Indian fashion media has mostly risen to the occasion be it ‘Vogue India’ and ‘Grazia’ India who immediately made their April digital magazine free. I have really enjoyed the ‘Vogue Warrior’ series which highlights the work of women who are at the frontline of this crisis, such as Dr Minal Dakhave Bhosale, Shefali Desai, and Mitali Patil the women behind India’s first Covid-19 testing kits. Vogue’s May cover – which is a type and audio cover with words and voiceover done by Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, literally gives you goosebumps.”

Agarwal reveals, “We’re also loving the live performances from comedians, musicians and author sessions and industry webinars on platforms like Zoom. Creators are also using this opportunity to collaborate with other creators stuck at home, including challenges like ‘pass the brush’ where each creator films their part at home and everything gets spliced together to form one larger video.”

The other point to keep in mind is that both International and domestic travel is at a standstill, and is the supplies of non-essential e-commerce items and by extension brand partnerships; thus causing product delivered high-quality visual content to take a hit.

“We’ve been working from home for years now, and this is not too different. Of course, there are no big shoots with videographers, a full team and production crew are obviously not happening but this is a good time to go back to how we started and explore creative things that we can do with no one to help us. I feel that creativity comes out when there are less means or in times of difficulty so I’m actually happy,” Sejal Kumar, who has 760 thousand followers on Instagram, told IANSlife.

With 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube, popular vlogger Gaurav Taneja finds it a good time for a different category of creators. “There are creators like vloggers, singers, vine-makers — they have a lot of time and audience but the constraint is that there are no ideas. Sitting at home, how many ideas can you get? It’s challenging to find new and engaging content after a while. People who are really creative are making good use of this lockdown,” he says.

Since most content creators are also entrepreneurs, driving their own project-based income by either reaching out or getting reached out to, money is a tap slowly running dry. As per Taneja, payments for posts or videos done before the lockdown is “stuck”, as is the case with many small businesses.

Taking a different route, comedians like Amit Tandon, are also diversifying their revenue streams by taking on writing roles. Many, with canceled comedy tours and no live gigs, are resorting to posting old content to keep the engagement flowing.

How to manage the situation, then? “Be aware of the current situation and how it may be affecting your audience. Interact and stay in touch with your fans to understand what kind of content they want from you under these circumstances. Every creator will have a different plan depending on their domain expertise, their audience demographics, and even what’s physically possible at the moment. Are your fans just looking for a laugh, or do they want more serious content related to Coronavirus? Look into your analytics – which of your content is doing better currently?” said Malini Agarwal.

Assomull believes, “Pre-Covid brands looked to influencers to connect with consumers, through this lockdown building a sense of community through engaging content has been very important… Storytelling has never been of more importance, and I think it will be about the survival of the fittest.”

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