Har ek social media influencer zaroori hota hai

I follow Surendhar on Twitter for his South Indian films related updates. Occasionally, he also started tweeting a lot about Airtel. The first one I noticed was on November 2, 2018. This one:

I thought that looked unusual. It sounds like a personal opinion but is also worded so formally. And then I started seeing a lot more Airtel related tweets. It was clear that Airtel had engaged Surendhar into some sort of an influencer program.

Then I started seeing similar tweets—not the same words; differently worded—from a few other Twitter users as well. The timing of what they wrote about Airtel was closer to each other and the overall sentiment was also very similar, though they were worded slightly differently in each case.

For example, there were coordinated efforts to talk about specific news-related updates about Airtel.

Beyond these coordinated ‘opinions’, there were a lot of other stand-alone opinions too from these influencers. Most of these are written in the form of personal views as if they are coming from actual experience, unaided and uninfluenced. Some of them could be too, really.

Looking at the larger picture, I understood that Airtel has broadened its influencer program.

Now, let me add 2 contextually relevant disclaimers before I dive deeper:

  1. I have been an Airtel customer since the year 2000. A very happy one, at that. I may have had smaller problems from time to time, but overall, I’m very happy with the service.
  2. I follow some of the people I’m writing about, as ‘influencers’. This post is not about them, as individuals, but about the influencer program concocted by Airtel. I fully understand that these influencers are merely performing a job, for a fee, on behalf of Airtel.

Having said that, here’s the crux: we seem to be doing this influencer business in the most awkward manner.

Consider what Airtel does in mainstream media.

It signs up a celebrity (or celebrities) and makes them say good things about Airtel. General good things – the signal is damn good, service is good, call quality makes me happy… and so on. And these are aired on TV, added in print ads, etc. This is normal advertising, using celebrities.

Then, where there are no celebrities, Airtel gets models to pose as Airtel customers and say good things about it. To add ‘youth’ appeal, in the ‘try everything’ campaign featuring Sasha, where 3 ‘young’ people are talking about something as functional and commonplace as their mobile connection (that too, called out as ‘4G’) as if they are speaking about their first kiss or first date.

Or, in the Airtel Thanks campaign, they have a few good-looking people thrusting the phone in our faces singing a catchy song, as if a mobile connection is taken this seriously in life, beyond a service that provides a functional benefit, worth the fee we pay per month.

But both the above examples are mainstream advertising. And like films, advertising is sometimes wish-fulfillment. In advertising parlance, they call it ‘aspirational’.

For the social media-led influencer campaign, it looks like Airtel has merged the 2 concepts: sign up seemingly normal people online (who have a reasonably large number of followers) and have them say obviously great things about Airtel from time to time.

The only difference is that unlike the 2 examples above, Airtel doesn’t spend money in media (like print, TV or outdoor) and expects the equivalent of models themselves, in this case, the influencers, to use their personal media (on social media) to share their “views”.

Do these influencers truly believe in what they are saying about Airtel? I’m sure they do. But, I don’t know, or cannot be sure.

Is it coerced by the fact that Airtel perhaps has a monetary deal with them (like how they pay models to say things for TV ads anyway) – that is, they say this ONLY because Airtel makes it monetarily beneficial for them to say so, so often? Most probably.

Do we ask a similar question when random models say great things about Airtel on TV? No, we don’t. Why not? Because, “C’mon bro – they are models. That’s their job!”.

Using similar logic, are these social media influencer performing the role of ‘models’, in the name of influencers?

The only difference here is that the channel in which they are saying all this. With TV ads’ models, they do not own the channel/platform in which those views are aired. With social media influencers, the platform on which they share their views is owned by them, through their individual handles. And on this handle, they say a lot of other things – about their life, likes, where they ate, where they had their vacation and so on.

That is the awkward part. A platform that allegedly stands for conversational authenticity is being used as a substitute for mainstream media. We do not question the models who spout things on TV because there is no way to do so, and we have been conditioned to accept them as business-as-usual.

On social media though, these statements attract questions, and often, ridicule.

This ridicule is not out of cynicism – everyone who follows these people inherently understands that they are just saying things for a fee. But, from time to time, the facade, of being a model paid to say things, gets in-your-face and people offer their mildly-annoyed point of view. Because… they can.

So how does this help? Are these ‘influencers’ being ‘used’ simply for visibility? And not any real influence? So, is Airtel using these influencers like a cheaper version of a TV/print advertising? Because if people have resigned to the fact they are just saying these things because they have been induced to, for a fee, how credible is what they say, and how useful is it for Airtel?

This influencer engagement seems counter-productive since it merely mirrors the engagement on one platform (mainstream media), on a completely different platform (social media), without taking into account the inherent differences between both platforms. And, as you know, Airtel is not alone in this. Many other brands use the same model for ‘influencer programs’.

To add context, Airtel has done at least one thing right – instead of one-off engagements with these influencers (usually a one-off campaign where they are paid and they things and move on), it clearly looks like Airtel has a longer contract with them. See the number of tweets from them, over a longer period of time.

This long-term contract part is a good thing. But the method of using them seems misguided since it is so obviously duplicitous (I’m not saying this in a cynical/angry way but in a manner of its usefulness).

A far better way would require more imagination and more work. That is to take these influencers in a journey along with the brand, with many of its updates. To get them to actually experience the updates and evolution of the network and have them talk about their experience in a more natural way.

To be sure, that ‘natural’ way is also engineered (not scripted; there is a difference). In ‘engineered’, the brand creates the conditions for them to experience the features or updates themselves. But the reactions are, hopefully, more grounded.

To a large extent, much of the cynicism and annoyance these influencers face from time to time for their Airtel plugs could be done away with a simple disclaimer. These disclaimers are mandatory in the US (adding a #promo or #ad, even in tweets), but not in India. As a result, most influencers don’t care and I reckon that indiscretion is affecting the credibility of the overall influencer business.

This should ideally come from Airtel – Airtel should insist on these influencers calling out their promotional posts for what they are worth. When the brand stands for that level of transparency, it almost preempts people from ridiculing the brand’s online influencers.

This is not unfounded. Consider the fact that Airtel also promotes transparency about the quality of their network, in a campaign called Open Network! If the brand can be open about (pun intended) its core competency, why is it too much to expect the same level of transparency in its social media influencers’ campaign? After all, if it helps in adding a layer of credibility to both the brand and to the individual influencers’ online utterances… why not?

To make things particularly more awkward, it clearly looks like Airtel’s marketing team has not shared the information about its social media influencers program with its customer service team! Because the customer service team on Twitter is actively responding to these influencers, thanking them for their pro-Airtel statements… which is being further ridiculed by the influencers’ followers!

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