This article originally appeared on VICE IN.
The English dictionary may have included the word ‘influencer’ only in May 2019, but people have been telling other people what to do, wear, eat, drink, and think since forever. But sometime around 2011, the Instagram influencer emerged as a formidable contender to celebrities and models, with seemingly ordinary people gaining complete authority over content.
Whether they were serving looks, food flat lays or total bullshit, the instant gratification game exploded because people "just like us" were making it happen. Soon, being an influencer became an aspiration, mostly because we were seduced by its jet-set lifestyle and glamorous gifts.
Over time, influencer marketing (basically, people with social clout endorsing everything from overpriced hotel rooms to decadent face creams) emerged as a major percentage of the money spent by a brand to promote its products in India. Ninety-four percent of marketing strategists acknowledge its effectiveness and 72 percent of them are willing to make larger budget allocations for it. But, the billion-dollar business’ upward crawl may just be now inching downwards.
While a study by data analyst firm InfluencerDB and another by Hypebeast suggest that influencer engagement is at an all-time low, others reveal that many of them have millions of fake followers. All this at a time when Instagram is considering ‘hiding’ its likes so that the focus shifts away from public displays of validation to putting your best stuff out there. Alongside, content fatigue appears to be setting in and you’re probably guilty of letting a yawn or two escape as you scroll through a feed filled with the same old stuff over and over again, whether it’s done-to-death makeup tutorials or underwater footage from the Maldives.
But what does this mean for the future of the industry? Is the blogger bubble about to burst? We spoke to some Indian influencers to understand.
Combatting all-time low engagement
“The dip in engagement is not new, it’s been happening for about a year and a half now and it’s mainly because Instagram changed its algorithm, making it harder for posts to get the same reach they used to,” says Natasha Luthra, a Mumbai-based fashion, lifestyle and luxury blogger who has been creating content on Instagram for more than four years, and has amassed an enviable 117k followers doing that.
Luthra already had a lucrative career in finance when she decided to give up her full-time job because the pictures she was posting “for fun” on Instagram captured the attention of brands who offered to pay her big money to pose with their products. But while Luthra loves creating content for designers and beauty products and enjoys the exclusivity of it all, she is quick to point out that her growth to over a hundred thousand followers happened gradually over several years.
“There’s too much competition now and not all of it is real,” Luthra admits, talking about the importance of picking campaigns that align with one’s ideology. “Earlier brands were only looking at the number of followers, but now they are figuring out how to sift through the nonsense, and looking for quality over quantity. They also want to make sure they’re collaborating with influencers who have worked with well-established brands before.”
Luthra may have bloomed into a blogger by chance, but others like Scherezade ‘Sherry’ Shroff have been in the game since the beginning. “I was one of the first few people in the blogging and Instagram scene, but when I started out the industry was less focused on likes,” Shroff tells VICE.
One of the most popular YouTubers in India, she is known for her fashion and beauty videos, but also collaborates with brands on Instagram campaigns. When asked about how she keeps her 205,000 followers interested, she notes that people like a little bit of reality and relatability with their influencers.
Even though she’s achieved this by favouring a free-flowing feed with minimal filters instead of colour-coding it or posting in a pattern, Shroff does acknowledge that engagement is dwindling because people are growing tired of seeing so many paid promotions.
“Unlike YouTube, where people can see the title and then decide whether the video interests them, Instagram is random and not search-related, and people see whatever is on their feed without much of a choice. So if every post is a branded collaboration, they are bound to get irritated.”
Hidden likes cover up any hidden agenda
When asked about how they feel about hidden likes, both Luthra and Sherry said they were supportive of it. “I think the industry is going to become more streamlined and so much stuff being promoted will phase out”, says Shroff, while Luthra believes that other people not knowing how many likes a post gets will shift the focus to the comments section and truly show the kind of conversation a certain influencer can drive.
“Brands are realising that they have to do more than just see their engagement rate and expect a lot more data,” says Aananya Banaik, an influencer executive at an influencer-driven digital agency called Aer Media, whose primary job it is to connect a brand with a content creator based on the kind of output they expect from a campaign.
“Brands want to see how many active followers they (influencers) have, what the male-to-female ratio is, how many of these followers are in India, and are generally more concerned about the quality of followers.”
But not everyone’s happy about this potential policy change. “Instagram is all about the likes and it’s shitty for them to remove them”, says Loka, a rapper turned Instagram influencer who amassed over 50,000 followers in a span of six months after his track “Chote Sunn” went viral on YouTube.
For Loka, this increase in followers not only increased his earning potential—with brands offering to pay him anything between $400 to $700 per post—but has also helped him establish his reputation as a rapper.
“The entire virtual world bases its opinion on likes, and it’s very shitty to remove them,” he says. “People like us are the ones who run Instagram, so we should start a movement to get our likes back or move to a new app.”
But even as many are in a frenzy about what hiding likes will do to the industry, others are optimistic and say it shouldn’t matter as much.
“Being an influencer is not a skill, being a storyteller is,” says Kusha Kapila, the sharp-witted internet sensation who you may recognise as the fortune flexing South Delhi girl Naina or patriarchy product Billi Maasi.
Kapila, who started out as a fashion writer about three years ago, is currently regarded as one of India’s most unique and relatable creators, with over half a million followers on Instagram.
According to her, likes are too superficial a metric to understand how well one is performing, especially when it comes to videos. “What matters more is how relatable your content is and whether people are tagging their friends and family—these actually tell you how many people are engaged.”
Kapila also talks about the importance of paying attention to the feedback given by one’s viewers and taking it seriously when someone says a piece of content could have been written better or from a different perspective, and using this feedback as a foundation to grow and evolve from.
What does the future have in store?
Apart from algorithmic changes, even expectations are changing. Sustainability is the new #OOTD and people are pushing back against the "extraness" that bloggers inspire. Now, we want our online content creators to exercise responsibility more than exercising their abs. And now that we can see the term ‘Sponsored’ splashed against every branded collaboration, even the most gullible of viewers is spared from thinking it’s all organic.
But what do these new rules mean for the future of the industry?
“’It all comes down to your strength as a content creator rather than the platform you are on,” answers Ankita Kumar, whose follower count shot up from 5,000 to over 60,000 two years ago after she chronicled her cross-country expedition across India in a caravan.
“When Facebook started dying, we got Snapchat, and when that obsession also stopped, Instagram became what it is. We all know that at some point, this is going to wither away, so might as well make hay while the sun shines.”
So what does this mean for someone who’s just starting out and trying to break into the industry? Anders Ankarlid, co-founder & CEO of A Good Company, the Swedish firm that exposed the number of fake followers Indian Instagram influencers have, says that the future favours micro-community bloggers with a follower count of 5-10,000 and an organic reach.
“There will be even more pressure on companies to find the right influencers that truly match their brand values. As a society—and as conscious brands—I think we can do more to reduce the mindless consumerism that is fuelled by glossy freebies,” he told VICE.
When asked about how she keeps her content fresh, Kapila points out how it’s all peppered with cultural references that are relevant to both her and the audience she is targeting. “As a woman, a lot of my content is about my personal experiences like eve-teasing, sexism, having body image issues and being mansplained to, which is something almost every woman has felt at some point and can instantly relate to.”
Applying humour to shatter narrow-minded societal norms is a major part of Kapila’s content and she emphasises the importance of being true to one’s voice while talking about such issues, and let the cultural context naturally flow in instead of trying to force-fit it.
“Social responsibility is a way to make content, but not a template for the future," she said. "You shouldn’t make woke content and use social issues as clickbait because that’s also not right. You need to have an individual voice, have a storyboard in mind, have a focus and understand who you’re speaking to and trying to reach with your content.”
She also says it’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket and to branch out. While social platforms may change, the subject matter shouldn’t. What this probably means is that the current breed of influencers is not threatened with extinction, as some might believe, but it’s probably just that the industry is simply evolving, and the smart ones in the lot are just learning how to navigate it and evolve with it.
This means that not all hope is lost, but that anyone wanting to break in now will have to work twice as hard and be thrice as inventive to actually gain some clout in the circle, all while keeping in mind that content, and not cash, is king.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.