When we are born, we are all the same – we know nothing about this world. We start looking up to those around us – the parents and the close ones and learn the basics of living – how to eat, walk and talk. As we grow older, our circle increases and we have friends, teachers, relatives and society whom we look upon and learn living in a community. We aren’t born vegan, religious, introverted or otherwise, we adopt it from those around us. Into the teenage, we start understanding the world around us, until then we only knew about it. We start developing our well-evaluated perspectives, principles, thoughts, desires and dislikes. By the end of our twenties, we develop aspects of our thinking which we find difficult to override in the rest of course of our life – our minds are concretised.
This stage of life is also the time when we look upon certain people as our heroes, based on our activities and experiences. In the early days, people used to look upon their clan leaders, kings and the Gods as their heroes, as our world was limited. However, with modernisation and globalisation, our idols were supplemented by great artists, thinkers, writers, revolutionaries, and leaders. In the last two decades, self-made personalities such as film and music celebrities, sportspersons, political leaders, businesspersons and technocrats have become the new idols of the millennial generation, thanks to the advancements in technology and the rise of the entertainment industry. However, even this trend is changing and fading quickly. The new teen generation is increasingly rejecting the historical greats and self-made personalities and is inclined towards a new class of idols – the social media influencers.
As a parent, it is heartbreaking to see children moving away from following the principled leaders and inspiring personalities, to the social media stars who have neither been instrumental for the country nor their own lives. However, some others in the background are having big smiles on their faces. Let’s talk about them today and other things on another day!
It hasn’t been too long since the advent of social media – it is barely 10-12 years in age and gaining impetus only recently during the past 4-5 years. However, today right from Political Statements to Official Government updates, Product announcements to Sales Support, Sports talk to Protests for rights – everything happens on social media. It isn’t merely being updated, things are literally happening right there, from all around the world. The business of social media has flourished more than anything else over the years and the annual earnings of Facebook, now Meta, is a prime example of things that have been so far. The business model of social media companies is pretty straightforward – build a platform where people can have fun, analyse and sell the data collected, and display advertisements based on it. It has provided the marketing industry with a much-needed alternative, far more powerful than the traditional billboards, displays, pamphlets and televised videos. More importantly, social media has built a space where even small businesses can advertise with their small budgets. ‘Presence building’ has been the term that the new age ‘social media marketing’ and ‘digital marketing’ professionals have been using for a while now. This was all fine until the lines started getting blurred.
There are two kinds of marketing – inorganic and organic. The former type specifically says “Hi, I am an advertisement, click me to know more”. This is how traditionally marketing has been – clear and specific. You can differentiate the content from the advertisement. However, things started getting blurry as the marketing pundits started crossing the line. Firstly, the click baits came in – it looks like news, but isn’t. In the audio-video world, this was accompanied by darker, colourful and flashy visuals along with the humans modulating the voice and speaking to the highest pitch of their tone to create a scene as if something big has happened. Meanwhile, the celebrities began with fabricated interviews, which were later adopted widely by politicians and businesspersons to promote their public image. And let me tell you, this was still fine.
Things have changed since the pandemic as everyone has moved to social media because that’s where “everything is happening.” Although we still breathe, eat, live and do literally everything in our physical world, we are made to believe that social media is the place where everything is happening. Thanks to the geniuses at the social media company tracing and tracking all our clicks and taps to generate higher views and revenues for the social media platforms. Suddenly, everyone is selling on social media. Facebook posts, WhatsApp statuses, Instagram live and reels, Youtube videos, Linkedin posts etc. and of course the messaging section of these platforms – every possible means have been used to advertise products, services and for image building. And these aren’t businesses or corporates trying to sell to us – these are our friends and relatives whom we added or followed to ask and know their whereabouts. The line between business and personal has been destroyed and today the social media is no longer the place for personal chats and witty comments, instead, it is a place where everyone portrays what they aren’t but wish to be.
All these above tactics where the advertisers don’t outrightly call an advertisement, an advertisement, is known as Organic marketing. So when a celebrity tweets about how nice a particular product is, it is organic marketing. When your friend keeps on mentioning a particular brand and later tells you that you can buy it from him, that too is organic marketing. Organic marketing has destroyed the essence of personal interactions and there’s nothing that can be done about it because even our real lives have somewhat become the same – we are advertising to each other.
Social media stars a.k.a Influencers
Social media influencers are people with sway over their target audiences, with specialized knowledge, authority or insight into their subjects. And this isn’t about history, politics or science, but topics like gadgets, makeup, recipes, travel, exercise, gaming, dressing, investing and gossips – the everyday things that our education system doesn’t cover. This is the reason why social media influencers have so much sway and fandom – because they are teaching the teens what their teachers and parents have been talking about. There is a whole other class of influencers who just create memes, dress or dance, make funny videos, sing or take up absurd challenges. While it might sound casual, it isn’t as easy, since technology has made it possible for everyone, to create and edit high-quality content. Most of these influencers spend heavily on cameras, editing software, editors, props and other things necessary for their content, including travelling and special permissions for shooting. This is no joke, they are almost running a micro-filmmaking business and spending heavily for the likes, comments, views, followers and subscriptions.
And don’t think of this spending as a leisure and entertainment expense, it is rather a business expenditure as these influencers, in turn, make huge money out of advertisements and product branding. The YouTubers make informational videos on a topic to promote an advertiser from the same industry, who is paying them to make the video. The artist influencers are using products of brands who are paying them to display the same. The fitness influencers are promoting fitness apps, equipment, nutrition products, etc. Then there are a large number of influencers who dress up, sing, pose or dance and garner views and followers to their posts, while displaying products and product links in between their posts and in the descriptions. Some even earn commissions on the product sales that occur through the links displayed.
You may think the influencer was recommending you a piece of real advice, while the truth is he/she may have never even used the same, but merely doing so because the brands have paid them to. And it’s too late till you realise the reality. It doesn’t look like an advertisement anymore, it is almost a betrayal.
How are brands capitalising on influencers?
An influencer assists companies in influencer marketing, a form of advertising that builds brand authority on the back of another person’s reputation. The presence of influencers in a niche makes them a useful launching pad for brands who are looking for credibility. 85% of marketers engaged an influencer for marketing in 2017, and 92% said their campaigns were effective. When someone you believe in recommends something, there are more chances that you will buy it. Social media provides the perfect platform for the brands to advertise and with organic modes of marketing, they are churning out sales in huge numbers, while being almost invisible. If you understand the marketing world, you might have realised by now, how scary this form of advertisement is. And the recent concern around investments in cryptocurrencies is the best example of the same.
Cryptocurrencies are a new and unregulated market. Thus, there is no Government control, nor any official information about anything. If a website says that the crypto is valuable, you may choose to either believe in their words or opt not to. There’s no means of cross-checking the information with an official database, as there isn’t one. While people usually stay aware of their investments, the patience doesn’t stay the same when a favourite influencer starts recommending investing in a cryptocurrency. There’s more trust as the influencer recommended it although the product isn’t a real asset, merely a pump and dump scheme where the hell will break loose one day when the invisible scamster withdraws all the money.
While being a social media influencer has become a great career alternative for many, the advertisements have become too organic and we can never be sure whether the advice is real or not.
The brands have realised the effectiveness of influencers as they are a cheaper form of advertisement and also reach out to the end consumer closely, instead of billboards and television adverts which people usually skip. This has led to brands bringing them to the mainstream advertisement, instead of merely allowing them to display a link to products and ‘Live Commerce’ is the latest trend.
Live commerce enhances eCommerce with live streaming video events, combining the personal help of in-store shopping experiences with online convenience. A celebrity gives a live product demonstration or endorsement and with live interactive video streaming, customers can interact, comment and even directly ask questions of the presenter. Links allow the customers to learn more and purchase directly during the celebrity presentation, then return to the live stream and participate. The live commerce experience mimics the experience of shopping in a store. The stream also includes embedded videos and links to provide further information about measurements, sizing, material, and various ways to wear the product. Live commerce works in two ways – 1) the brands can create their accounts and advertise their products through their company resources 2) the influencers can create their accounts and endorse brands and products of their choice. If you look at the whole picture, the marketplace platform is earning, the product brand is earning, the product reseller is earning, the influencers are earning, the social media platforms too will learn and the only person shelling out money is the customer – may be on the right product, or maybe not!
The live commerce model has been a major success in China where Alibaba’s Taobao Live has a large chunk of the market share and reported a gross merchandise value (GMV) of close to USD 62 billion in 2020. ByteDance, the parent firm of TikTok, owns Douyin — a short-video platform that integrates the platform to direct purchases. Kuaishou is the other major player in the market. In India, startups like Bulbul and Simsim (now acquired by YouTube) are building the same model. During this year’s Prime Day event, Amazon launched its own ‘Amazon Live’ the retail giant’s video shopping platform. Amazon announced Prime Exclusive Deals to its network of influencers allowing them to create live video content around featured products and create an engaging experience for shoppers to explore video content featuring discounts. Recently, even Myntra has announced that it is going to launch live commerce. Flipkart has also announced that it has partnered with short-video platform Moj to introduce video commerce to users on its platform while shopping online.
Live commerce is destined to become mainstream in the next ten years. It reduces the distribution costs for the company as the products are sold directly to the consumers and not through wholesalers, traders or dealers. The overall customer experience also enhances as now buying is more lively right from the comfort of home. For the marketing teams, there’s more tracking and measuring data than ever before, thus, more accurate advertisement targetting. For the brands, they have a place to build their presence moving away from the brick and mortar showrooms in the shopping malls. And for the influencers, they are going to become more powerful than ever. It’s a win-win everywhere!
The road ahead
All things apart, if you are considering becoming an influencer, don’t be shy, it’s a real career now, with some great prospects in the future. For the brand owners, the people in the background with a big smile, it seems like the smile is going to be intact for a long time ahead. The brands with the marketplace and social media together – money will make money for itself. The technology and marketing industry will gain more impetus, as the demand for more immersive shopping experiences will rise. Thus, everyone is expected to be in money, and customers too can expect an upgraded shopping experience. However, things are not all green as there are some greys which need to be sorted.
The advertisement industry has become a wild beast, untamed and beyond control. There are authorities, however, their contribution to making advertisement safer is equivalent to the contribution of ants to the country’s GDP. India and many other developing nations still do not have proper laws for data protection, data privacy, online safety and more importantly, standards and ethics for advertisement and stricter implementation of the same. There are so many fake campaigns and schemes that run online and dupe people, cryptocurrencies and Non-fungible tokens are the latest means for doing the same. The Government is nowhere in the picture as neither the legal framework is in place, nor the administrative machinery. For the shopaholics, the experience ahead is going to be exciting. However, for those others, their privacy is at stake.