Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
One of the ways Neha Nagar describes her career as a finance influencer is by calling it “a daily fight”. Nagar, who has an MBA in finance, launched a business and taxation consultancy firm in 2019 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. She initially took to social media during the lockdown to put out finance-related content as a means to drive customers to her firm, when her posts started going viral.
Today, two years down the line, Noida-based Nagar is a full-blown digital influencer, with over a million followers on Instagram, about 361K subscribers on YouTube, and 33K followers on Twitter as of July first week. She says she has created content about virtually every topic—trending and non-trending—related to finance, investments and business.
Ranging from mutual funds, stocks and IPOs to crypto, metaverse and Web3. “You put out 10 videos about personal finance, stocks or investing or whatever topic, but after a point, what more do you do?” she says. There is so much competition, Nagar says, that it makes you wonder how you can differentiate and how long you can sustain. The followers, with their short attention spans, will merely move on to the next creator.
There is another struggle too. Nagar says earning money through social media posts is not what it used to be. Brands are not as enthused about collaborations with influencers because markets are down, funding is drying up in startups and overall investor sentiment is low. “If I was doing six brand campaigns a month in 2021, it has now come down to three, and in some months, only two,” she says.
For an increasing number of youngsters, being an ‘influencer’ seems like a glamorous career path, given the popularity digital content creators have achieved over the last few years and the growing number of businesses investing in them for branding and promotions.
Look at the numbers: The India Influencer Marketing Report released in September 2021 by GroupM’s influencer and content marketing platform INCA estimates that India’s influencer marketing industry is valued at Rs 900 crore, and is poised to have a compound annual growth rate of 25 percent to reach Rs 2,200 crore in 2030. It also says that nearly two-thirds of the 1.3 billion people in India follow an influencer on social media. The report goes on to quote that while influencer marketing was a “high or top priority” for 100 percent brand marketers, close to 81 percent marketers who had deployed influencers said they were satisfied with their return on investment.
Beneath the glitzy numbers and projections, content creators and industry experts say, is the constant pressure to stay relevant, operating at the mercy of changing, non-transparent platform algorithms, navigating instability in sources of income, and balancing what you want to do, and what brands want, with changing audience expectations.
Diversifying income Streams
Youngsters are driven by the fame, and think it is easy and quick money. “Yes, there is a lot of money, but only if you do it right. It takes a lot of consistency and patience to become a content creator,” says Gautam Madhavan, founder and CEO, Mad Influence, a digital marketing agency.
He estimates that while a person should have at least 10,000 followers to be able to monetise, influencers on Instagram with 100,000 to 500,000 followers can earn, on an average, anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 2 lakh per month. Niche influencers with 1-2 lakh followers in areas like automobile, finance and crypto, according to Madhavan, have the potential to earn Rs 6-7 lakh per month.
Brands invest in content creators for their distribution capabilities and entrenched engagement levels, and people with one million (10 lakh) or more followers either on a single platform or across platforms, can earn anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 5 lakh on an average for one single collaboration, says Hitesh Rajwani, CEO of agency Social Samosa. Media reports have also said that top-of-the-line influencers even charge upward of Rs 10 lakh for branded collaborations.
Creators from non-metros, however, could many-a-times end up with the short end of the stick, with “agencies or brands sitting in glass offices of Mumbai or Delhi undervaluing them” and their own lack of exposure or access to guidance, says Rajwani.
Influencer revenue, largely driven by brand promotions and collaborations, is turning out to be an unstable one, which is why it is important for content creators to diversify into other revenue streams. Rajwani gives the example of Bhuvan Bam, who has launched a range of merchandise, and a production house, among other revenue streams. Prajakta Koli has diversified through merchandise, and acting in films and TV shows. Nagar, too, wants to reduce her dependence on brand collaborations. She wants to launch her own course in finance, and a merchandise range, apart from focusing on her firm.
“Revenue consistency for any creator is a function of their adaptability,” says Rajwani. “If you see over time that your content is hitting a roadblock and you are not getting views or followers, you need to change tracks and find ways to build new business models on top of your content creation.”
Many content creators continue to hold a full-time job, at least till the time they are assured of a stable long-term income through content creation. Rohan Bhatt, co-founder of the food community Foodaholics on Instagram, has a business in the F&B space in Ahmedabad. He says that algorithms—computer programs that determine which posts are shown, in which order, to users—decide who and what gains more visibility. And there is a lack of transparency about how these algorithms operate. They also keep changing.
“You have to accept that you are going to be as visible as an app decides you to be. This volatility makes me believe that the digital content creator economy has a long way to go [before becoming a stable career option],” he says, adding that it is easier for youngsters who do not have dependents to dip their toes completely into this field.
Method to the Madness
Saloni Mehta, 23, a fashion and lifestyle influencer from Ahmedabad, says she has been creating digital content for four years, but still “has no idea” how algorithms work. “I used to have 9 am or 3 pm as a good time to upload photos, or specific hashtags that would do well. But when I think I have figured it out, the algorithm will change and the posts won’t do well. It’s a constant trial and error,” she says. “You are constantly worried about numbers, when to post, which hashtag to use etc. Sometimes you do everything perfectly, and it still does not work.”
Nagar used to initially keep thinking about negative comments or why a certain post or video did not do well, but not anymore. “It is important to keep track of comments to see what your audience expects of you. Many-a-times, you get ideas for new videos based on requests made by people. But that’s the extent of my involvement. If there is a negative or mean comment, my mind does not even register it these days.”
Being an influencer in a space like finance, it is important to carry out due diligence and be open about your credentials, Nagar says. In July, Indian finance content creators who had promoted Valud were criticised after the Singapore-based cryptocurrency firm suspended all transactions, leaving investors in a state of panic.
Rajwani says strengthening the regulatory framework will help take the content creator economy forward. In June, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) released its annual complaints report 2021-22, which said the industry body processed 1,593 complaints against influencers during the year, totalling to 29 percent of the complaints received. Most complaints about influencer violations were registered in the crypto space, followed by personal care, fashion, ecommerce, F&B, services, mobile apps and finance.
Last year, ASCI had published influencer guidelines to increase transparency around promotional content. “Fake followers and likes are problems too, and there has to be an effort from all stakeholders to address this,” Rajwani says.
He also says if these challenges are ironed out, digital content creators have the potential to change the direct-to-consumer landscape as we know it, building their own products and catering directly to their audience.
Mehta says she has learnt that instead of getting overwhelmed by or lapping up on every other viral trend, it’s best to stick to her own niche, plan and schedule at her own pace. “It’s about keeping your creativity and authenticity intact while balancing audience and brand interests.”
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(This story appears in the 29 July, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)