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6 Apr

Popularity is not Influence.

If you are a regular Instagram user, you must have noticed that some of the earliest influencers of the last decade have ventured into launching their own products.

Bhuvan Bam (@bhuvan.bam on IG), with about 15 million followers on Instagram and 26 million followers on YouTube, launched Youthiapa. It is a brand that sells sweatshirts, hoodies, T-shirts, mobile covers, caps, etc.

With about 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 689 thousand followers on YouTube, Dolly Singh has launched her brand of scented candles.

And this isn’t a new trend as such. Globally, artists like Rihanna and the Kardashians have been at the forefront of launching clothing and beauty businesses.

And the playbook to get to this level looks somewhat like this:

  • Create entertaining content consistently for some years (music, YouTube videos, Instagram reels, Reality shows, etc.)
  • People who relate to or enjoy your content gradually form your audience base.
  • The more entertaining you are, the more audience affinity there is. You now have, what many might call, a community. Some of your audience may even relate to your personal growth story and draw inspiration from you.
  • By constantly creating quality content, you have provided tangible and intangible value to your audience and now have a hold over the attention of a certain market segment. As a result, marketers with a target audience similar to yours now see you as a good distribution channel.
  • At this stage, you're courted by brand managers and teams to use content to create value, provide entertainment, and help the brand with awareness or conversion campaigns.

For example, a lot of travel content creators get free vacation stays in exchange for documenting their trip with a particular tour operator or hotel. At other times, the creator’s reach is used to provide a newly launched product at a discounted rate.

For you, the creator, your years of providing value for free have now started reaping financial benefits. In case you had initially pursued content creation alongside a day job, you now might even quit your job and pursue content creation/influencing full-time.

Your status upgrades from merely being a content creator to being an influencer.

But here is where any creator undertakes a big risk.

And this is where the difference between shallow popularity and deep influence rears its head.

Any brand marketer usually thinks that promoting via influencer channels will lead to lower customer acquisition costs (CAC) because they’re selling to an audience base they’ve built over the years. Their distribution is an honest by-product of their work so far and the attention any promotion will get will be of higher quality than running a context-less advertisement.

But the purported ease of selling to this audience quickly reveals itself to be a lie if the creator hasn’t figured out the difference between an audience and a community or between engagement and influence.

You see, creating content through any medium is a business that has few barriers to entry. And anytime there are fewer market entry barriers, a business ends up in a cut-throat competition frenzy.

A content creator is also affected by the idea of a shelf-life. Most of our professions seem permanent enough, but that isn’t the case with content. Although there's is a long-tail of content in multiple niches, the domain still suffers from the winner-take-all phenomenon where the top 1% creators make 99% of the money. A new creator, who is funnier, writes better scripts, and has good editing can quickly dethrone the incumbent and make them irrelevant.

So, any content creator has to constantly stay ahead of the trends in order to stay relevant while maintaining quality — for the audience is naturally quite unforgiving in a space with these many options.

And to stay relevant and keep engagement numbers high, creators can and do often fall into the trap of following trends without maintaining coherence or consistency in personality and essence.

Such creators may be popular, but they will never be influential. Simply for the reason that by hopping from one trend to another to gain eyeballs, they have failed to earn their audience's trust.

Because trust is a natural outcome of sensing integrity and stability in someone's outlook, opinions, and worldview. And persuasiveness is also an outcome of the coherence between the creator's vibe and ethos and what they're selling.

All of this is quite evident if you observe the replies and comments under their content. Creators with influence often command respect and awe while creators who are merely popular have comment sections with low-quality chatter.

There is also a hurry to diversify and launch businesses on the advice of influencer management agencies, which may make things worse for creators who are merely popular.

Moreover, the global trend of influencer-launched businesses being successful may not apply in the Indian context, and is evidenced in this report by Mint, which states:

“However, the “this has worked in the US and China" thesis falls flat in the face of the reality that people in those countries have a larger propensity to spend on hobbies and leisure, besides a far more evolved e-commerce scene.

At an estimated ₹900 crore at present, India’s influencer economy figures are not comparable to the $3 billion industry in the US, much less to China’s $210 billion influencer economy powered by a vibrant live-commerce ecosystem.”

One can also notice the difference between the number of followers that influencers have on their business brand accounts versus their content accounts:

Now, it would be right to argue that the number of followers doesn’t guarantee or take away from the possibility of making sales. But to me, it also reveals the gap between the influencer's reach when the entertainment was free compared to the support they actually have if they asked their audience to pay for products.

I'd like to end the conversation with a single looming question: How do you sell in a market that is spoilt by free goods?

Especially when your entire brand and audience was built on selling free stuff, this feels like it could either go really well for some creators who managed to not only gain popularity but create influence, and it could go disappointingly wrong for others.

Your audience may support you with cheap likes and comments and engage till it doesn't cost. But if you created a Superfan community on YouTube or used Instagram’s feature for creators (exclusive content behind a paywall), how many of your followers would still tag along?

This is similar to the cashback phenomenon: businesses burning cash to acquire customers by offering generous discounts and cashbacks but failing to create any kind of stickiness that's needed to upsell.

But for now, write back to me with your thoughts on what it felt when an influencer’s content you enjoyed suddenly changed. As a consumer, what was your reaction?

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