I belong to a generation in which the word influence was much more widely used than ‘influencer’. Invariably it didn’t have the best connotations. “You are a bad influence on my son/daughter” was a common gripe of heavy-handed (quite literally) parents. As was, of course, “he seems to be under the influence”. And then there were those who promised you everything from rock show tickets to jobs because they were the ‘He-Men’: They had the power, aka “influence”.
Yes, “influence” was much heard and much spoken about. But the influencer never quite made it then, perhaps for obvious reasons. One was never considered to be a (bad) influencer on impressionable boys and girls. What got you “under the influence”—cheap grog most often—was never ordained the influencer. And the guy who could move mountains, heaven and earth for you was never the influencer, either.
Yes, things are a bit different these days. The influencer enchanting the herd is king or queen, with the power and authority to decide what they eat, play, listen to and buy. Suffice it to say that the influencer is the messiah of her niche, and you are on most occasion a compliant follower. At least for some time.
Advertising and marketing may be even older than the printing press—which was invented in the 1450s—but that contraption would have paved the way for brand influencers. Pears Soap may be one of the first brands to have an actor endorse it—Lillie Langtry, the first ever woman endorser. Over time, even Santa Claus crept out of his North Pole workshop to promote Coca-Cola, The Marlboro Man influenced male smokers with his rugged looks, and the Old Spice Man sought to influence women by becoming “the man your man could smell like”.
In the digital age, influencing has been honed into a science, thanks to the availability of gazillions of data that help quantify and measure the degree of influence. The number of followers and engagement metrics like shares and comments help determine the success or lack of it of an influencer.
This fortnight’s edition of India’s Top 100 Digital Stars takes into account those producing engaging content and with the views, engagement and reach to show for their efforts. Launched in 2022, Digital Stars is a Forbes India-Group M study (this year via Goat, Group M’s influencer marketing agency). As Forbes India’s Naini Thaker, who once again anchored the package, puts it, the list is an effort to acknowledge influencers with sustained high-quality content across nine categories, from comedy to social impact.
This issue is also packed with trends in the influencer space. Samidha Jain writes on the rise of comedy influencers, perhaps the fastest growing and most popular content categories on social media; Anubhuti Matta identifies a new generation of entrepreneurs—call them creator-founders—that is launching its own D2C brands and attempting to turn followers into customers; Benu Joshi Routh delves into the challenges of being a mom influencer in a post-pandemic world, juggling professional and personal commitments; and Pankti Mehta Kadakia asks the question whether today’s digital stars will survive the longer haul in the midst of a constant churn of ideas.
Content fatigue may be a challenge, as is trust, against a backdrop of paid partnerships and sponsorships. As Manisha Kapoor, secretary general and CEO of the Advertising Standards Council of India, writes: “Trust is a delicate asset, easily damaged and challenging to repair. Influencers often discover this truth when controversies arise.” For more on how influencers should go about building a trust quotient, turn to ‘Trust in the age of influencers’.
(This story appears in the 03 November, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)