Lead Story

'The Influencer Marketing Space Is Ready To Explode’

Sandeep Bhushan, Director and Head of India GMS, Facebook speaks to Pallavi Chakravorty at length about the rise of influencers, role of platforms such as Facebook & Instagram and why brands are making a beeline to launch campaigns with social media influencers

Sandeep Bhushan Director and Head of India GMS, Facebook

Instagram and influencers have become synonymous with each other. How did it all begin?

Let’s rewind a bit. Instagram began with being a square photo-sharing app, used mostly by photography enthusiasts. It always stood for allowing people to express themselves. As that expression evolved, Instagram evolved with the arrival of Stories, Live, IGTV, and then Reels. Young people and creators are driving trends on Instagram. And, we are observing a shift in power from organisations to individuals. Today, each individual has his/ her mouthpiece. A singer can release his song without a label. Artists can showcase their work without galleries or museums.

As per Statista, India is the leading country based on Instagram audience size with 180 million users followed by the US. Do you see it as an indicator for the growth of influencer marketing in India?

The increasing influence of influencers and the way they’re monetising is driving this. From a brand perspective, influencer marketing can be used to drive salience or sales, which means influencer marketing has moved on from being just a buzz creation measure, to being one that helps land business impact. Plus, on Instagram, 90% of the people follow some brand, because brands somewhere fulfill their passion. In India, we make 6 million Reels a day. That’s a number that leads the world. So, while we are moving parallel in India and the world, we are going much deeper in India with programmes such as Born in Instagram.

In a country obsessed with Bollywood and Cricket, what do you think is the reason for the increasing popularity of influencers?

That’s the whole point of what the Internet is doing. Traditional media finds one feed, one channel, one front page to do what is liked by most people, but it’s not the number one choice of all people. In fact, there are possibly more people watching non-Bollywood films such as Tamil, Telegu, Bhojpuri, French, English but some minimum aggregation puts the number 1 language as Hindi. But that’s not true in the way we consume.

India is a country with varied demographics, varied cultural practices and different interests, which is why influencers and creators of varied genres are showing up. If my feed is persnolised, I may care for local creators or my interests and that might create opportunities for those who have been denied earlier. And that, in some sense, is the difference between the old paradigm of celebrities versus the new-age influencers.

What kind of tools are being introduced by Instagram/Facebook to authenticate and encourage more influencers to come on board?

One is creative tools. The biggest creative canvas provided recently was Reels. It has unleashed the rise of a new cohort of short-form video creators, from all across India (not just the big cities). Even within Reels, we’re constantly refreshing it with interesting creation and collaboration tools, like Remix, Collab, etc.

Two, is monetisation tools. Currently, the way people monetise Instagram is through brand partnerships. We provide tools to ensure this brand-creator handshake is done in the most seamless way possible (example, the branded content tag). But there are more things we’re testing in the U.S., for example (1) a native affiliate tool that will allow creators to discover new products available on checkout. (2) badges on Instagram live to give creators ways to earn from their supporters.

Three, is learning and enablement programmes. We’ve just launched a new version of our Born on Instagram programme. It now has taken the shape of an e-learning programme, where people can access learning resources as a self-paced course. It also provides a way to unlock monetary opportunities, through rewards and brand partnerships.

How do you ensure that the influencers are genuine about what they promote?

There are two aspects to it, the influencers and the brands. We engage with creators across the pyramid (public figures to aspiring and emerging creators) and among other things, always advocate for transparency with their audiences with respect to branded content. But the relationship between the user and the creator is their own. We will always watch over the integrity of the content. All the rules that make Facebook and Instagram a safe place are critical to be followed irrespective of you being a brand, influencer or user. On the brand and business side, we have tools such as branded content, which create a relationship and consumers can see that relationship and the brand can see the full matrix of the brand.

To what extent has the pandemic played a role in the growth of influencer marketing in India?

Immensely. In fact, the last one year has proved to be a tipping point for digital adoption and acceleration in India. Key industry studies show that online advertising is growing in India, and with more than 400 million people using at least one of our apps each month in the country, we play a consequential role in this ecosystem. Our studies (with BCG) have shown that online shopping in India has accelerated by 2-3 years in a matter of weeks after the first lockdown began last year.

Digitally influenced purchases increased by up to 25% in urban consumers, in just three months. Social media is a pivotal bridge between people and brands creating engagement and impact. A Facebook and IPSOS survey released in January 2021 showed that 86% of those surveyed in India said that social media has allowed them to interact more and deepen their relationship with brands in 2020.

How have Indian brands warmed up to the idea of influencer marketing – what has changed in the past three years?

We started branded content ads two years back and since then the number of brands taking up influence marketing has only increased. Even traditional brands from sectors such as banking and FMCG are now engaging with influencers to achieve customers. I’ll give you two examples:

Closeup’s #FreedomToLove campaign for V-Day – The brand worked with creators to develop content that showcased their personal stories of love overcoming norms like age difference, diverse backgrounds, etc. using branded content ads. This resulted in a 4.4 points lift in ad recall for the campaign.

Red Label’s #letsunstereotypeIndia campaign – Unilever wanted to start conversations to make India more inclusive. Diverse creators addressed different stereotypes they faced personally such as tackling ageism, gender, mental wellbeing, language, etc. This resulted in a movement of 8.7 points in ad recall.

How do brands make the choice of influencers? What kind of role does Instagram play in making these choices?

A lot depends on how the influencer appeals to the values of the brand. In India, influencers have to be genuine to themselves. Consumers are swayed by authentic expression, which is why we saw all these lift results. They want to map the personality and values and check the authenticity of expression and run it in the branded content form. But the choice is entirely of the brands’. Our tools are available for both the brands and the creators. For example, we have a small business programme that reaches millions of customers and we have various tools for them. On the creators’ side, we are investing $1 billion globally to help creators find new ways to earn money for the content they create on Facebook and Instagram. This investment will include new bonus programmes that pay eligible creators for hitting certain milestones when they use our creative and monetisation tools.

How do you see/foresee the future of the business of influencers?

We have just started to scratch the surface. Brands are essentially looking for business impact. And, in that regard they have just begun to discover the power of influencer marketing. Influencers and consumers have already been there for a while; brands are joining the part now. The place will explode in the future.