Explained: How the influencer industry changes with new ad norms

“Influencer marketing in India has become huge and we felt it was important to bring in greater transparency,” says ASCI Chairman Subhash Kamath
Last week saw Clubhouse, the invitation-only social media app where multiple users can interact through chat rooms, take off in a big way in India. Topics up for discussion included the Friends reunion episode, the Central Vista project and mental health in the time of a pandemic. A good chunk of the conversations revolved around the new digital influencer guidelines issued by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).

Broadly, the regulations, which kick in from June 14, stipulate that influencers must clearly label all promotional posts to safeguard the interests of consumers, marketers and the advertising industry.

On Clubhouse, Kusha Kapila, a digital creator with 1.7 million Instagram followers, spoke about how some people on her timeline had wanted her to label promotional material for years. She said she has no problem in doing that since users have a right to know if an influencer has been paid to push certain content.

Others were happy that brands would be equally culpable if the rules are flouted, while some expressed concern over how challenging it would be to get influencers to adhere to the norms, given that these are not legally binding.

“Influencer marketing in India has become huge and we felt it was important to bring in greater transparency,” says ASCI Chairman Subhash Kamath.

The response has been largely positive from most stakeholders. Kunal Kishore Sinha, co-founder and COO, ClanConnect, an AI-driven smart platform for influencer marketing, feels the rules will go a long way in regulating this vast and multidimensional world. “We are geared up to guide influencers through the intricacies of the guidelines and help them meet all the requirements,” he says.

That such a regulatory framework was essential underscores the substantial reach of influencers. Instagram, with its eye-catching imagery, is rife with individual accounts that create content around fashion, travel, beauty, health and fitness.

Influencer marketing agency AdLift estimates that the Indian influencer market is worth $75-150 million annually. Brands now have dedicated influencer budgets, with research from eMarketer showing that 81 per cent marketers feel such partnerships are quite effective. Influencing has morphed into a full-time profession, with some wealthy influencers having entire teams at their disposal that help them cut deals with brands.

And brands opt for such associations with good reason: one, influencers appear more relatable than big-name celebrities and can present content in a more organic manner; and two, they are lighter on the pocket.  

Choosing the right influencer is a complex, multi-layered procedure that brands usually outsource to media agencies. Influencer marketers carry out listening analyses that allow them to evaluate what is most being talked about on social media, and accordingly zero in on potential influencers. Often, they turn to influencer search tools — paid services such as Qoruz and Plixxo to identify suitable influencers.

 Subsequently, contracts are sewn up in some cases, while others are paid for single posts. As for the content, ideas flow both ways. Some of the seasoned influencers are granted the liberty to create their own content.

Lifestyle blogger Karan Sehgal says that brands have started offering greater freedom now. “It’s all about trusting the influencer because they understand their audience best. You produce better content that way.”

Either way, the final say lies with the brand. The copy to be posted on influencer social media handles is thoroughly vetted by brand managers, a reason why ASCI feels that advertisers must lead the way in highlighting promotional content.

But that’s not as simple. 

Some influencers reckon that bombarding users with disclaimers affects their engagement rates. “People get put off by stuff like that. The whole purpose of influencer marketing is to keep things organic, which is not possible now,” says Shreya Singh, a Delhi-based blogger. An overwhelming majority of creators don’t divulge paid associations upfront, and instead bury them in a series of hashtags at the end of their posts.

A few say it’s often the brands that discourage them from spelling out if a post is paid for. A “mom influencer” from Gurugram, who does not wish to be named, says that a health supplement brand specifically told her not to tag a post with the words “paid partnership”. “I wanted to label it because this pertained to health, and I didn’t want to come across as an expert when I’m not,” she says.

The chief marketing officer of a beauty brand that Business Standard spoke to said the idea behind influencer marketing is to appear subtle about the fact someone was being paid to publicise a product. “The difference between conventional ads and ‘social media content’ was that the latter brought together the styles and personalities of different influencers. It seemed real,” he says, adding that brands will have to reassess how they place products now.

A bigger problem may be spreading awareness of the ASCI guidelines. With thousands of influencers — many of whom operate independently and are spread across cities — getting the message across will not be easy.

ASCI has set up “ASCI.Social”, an interactive platform where influencers can come together and learn more about the intricacies of the protocols introduced and the ways to apply them. It will monitor potential violations through an AI-powered cloud platform developed by French technology company Reech.

However, it is worth remembering that ASCI cannot penalise violators. It can only ask an influencer to take down or amend a violative post.

Even so, many within the industry prefer to see the bright side. With a burgeoning influencer base and the entry of a spate of new social media platforms, they reckon it was time to rein in the vast amount of potentially dodgy content available online.

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