Post Thumb

Culture is a big word and is mostly thought of in traditional terms – the lived culture of rules, rituals and way of life encompassing religion, art, music, dance, literature and so on.  However, at a broader level, culture can be thought of as the rules that a group of people agree to live by. Hence, most content marketers or even influencers for that matter, rarely think of themselves as shaping culture when they get down to do their everyday job.  

For an influencer who creates food vlogs or travel vlogs or provides tech ‘Gyan’, the challenges of building and holding an audience over time are so significant that they are unlikely to even think of what they are doing as culture building. 

Marketers who hire influencers to create content for their brands also don’t think of what they do as shaping culture.  However, there is another way of conceptualising culture which is accepted in the discipline of Cultural Semiotics which is explained and elaborated on below. Within this framework of culture, the everyday actions and choices of marketers, content creators and media intermediaries all result in the creation of an influencer sub-culture.

Culture comprises the codification of beliefs and practices into rules that groups of people agree to follow, voluntarily or coerced, in the way they go about doing things or living in general. Culture also comprises a shared imaginary, a symbolic field that the group accepts as being valid, true and right, the way the world ought to be. This symbolic field provides the concepts and ideas which are then embodied into the products and practices that the group follows as a shared practice. This shared imaginary is the glue that holds the group together and legitimises the products and practices in the eyes of all the members of the group.

It is in this sense of the meaning of culture, that we can decode the recently published Forbes-GroupM Ranking as an effort to build an influencer sub-culture within the larger ‘social-media culture’ as well as the ‘market-based business culture’ that is prevalent today.

What is the shared imaginary of brands, business and marketing that this ranking exercise taps into? 

Ranking of talent is not a new idea. Creating league tables is also not a new or contemporary idea. It is an age-old practice that can be found across multiple fields, notably sports – think gold, silver, bronze medallists, the ATP rankings in Tennis, the PGA rankings of golfers. Even in the field of education, universities across the world and in India are rated and ranked. 

The creating of league tables and ‘pecking orders’ serves a functional purpose in society – it helps everyone know and understand the social hierarchy into which they are placed. ‘Pecking orders’ can be found in many animal groups, among those creatures that are social animals, living in large groups e.g., hyenas, monkeys, chimpanzees, even birds. So, there is an animal instinct amongst us Sapiens towards rank ordering of the group into hierarchies of various kinds.

In contemporary society, there is a desire for meritocracy as the basis of hierarchy – a system in which merit is recognised and rewarded and forms the basis of the social hierarchy. So long as entry and exit into the league table is open and not closed, everyone with talent who has the ambition and is willing to put in the hard work has a good chance of moving up the league table. 

Equally, a person’s position in the league table is not fixed forever. He/she can easily move down the table if their performance is not up to standard. Thus, competitive performance is the measure of merit. A league table is therefore, the embodiment of the concepts of fairness, open-ness and the creation of a meritocracy – where the people at the top have earned their place through their merit and not by the other social advantages such as family, class, caste, gender etc. Unlike other sources of privilege which are ascribed and cannot be taken away, position in the league table is a function of performance – it can be taken away too.

A league table serves another functional purpose in the market-based business culture, the critical function of pricing. Talent must not only be recognised, but it must also be fairly rewarded. What should be the basis of the reward? Merit and performance. The league table enables those at the top of the talent pool to negotiate for the higher fees that is their due, which they have earned through their own merit. The measures of performance are ‘objective’ and agreed upon by all the members of the sub-culture.  More importantly, the measures are visible and transparent, since they are published in the media, they are known to all. The A-Listers have earned their place through merit, and the pricing mechanism is transparent, the lesser earners have no reason for envy or grudging the multiples of earning that the A-Listers are able to command in the market. On the contrary, it can spur them to perform better and climb higher.

What about the creators of this league table – in this instance, Forbes and Group-M? What role do they play in the creating of an influencer sub-culture? As the owners of the league table, they acquire power and influence in the eco-system by shaping the sub-culture. Cultures rarely arise organically on their own. Even if there are collective impulses that can be sensed, these take form and shape because of leaders, leaders who drive the agenda for followers.  Group-M as a very large intermediary in the media sector acquires greater influence by positioning itself as the umpire of the influencer market and eco-system. Forbes also acquires influence by supporting the effort of Group-M at creating a transparent league table, gaining greater trust by positioning itself as a believer in meritocracy.

What of the influencers themselves?  

Quoting from the article about India’s digital stars:

“Content creation as a profession is trending right now, but it can also be extremely fickle. Creativity, consistency and hard work are key to success. This list identifies stories of many such creators who worked their way to the top. These creators go beyond personalities who influence an audience, it is often their content, in the shape of videos, reels, graphics, blogs et al, that engages audiences and makes a difference. Influencers have gone beyond just content creation; they are now becoming brands in themselves. They do more than just creating awareness for a brand. They impact the mid and bottom of the funnel metrics, which include leads and conversion”.

In a country like India, where high paying jobs in the organised sector are very small relative to the number of applicants, becoming an influencer is appealing because it is open to all. One does not need to have high marks in school or a stellar academic record in college. One can learn the ropes through trial and error and self-learning. Influencers were scattered and solo players in the early years, but they are getting progressively ‘organised’ and ‘structured’ as members of an eco-system. A credible league table of influencers gives content creators a membership card to leverage as they grow their influence. This membership card gives many benefits, most of all awareness and credibility among marketers and brand owners which then translates into higher earning capacity.

The influencers in the top 100 list are a young bunch, aged from 22-32 years for the most part, with a handful above 35 and an outlier, aged 54. Men and women are in a 60:40 ratio. More egalitarian and gender equal. There are two Trans influencers too. Thus, this influencer list provides marketers with an easy access to the youth market. Most of them communicate in English or Hindi. The regional language influencers are under-represented except on the theme of tech. This could be an area of future development of the league table itself, as marketers and brands begin to search for influencers at the state or regional level.

Finally, what about the content itself?  Does it have a part to play in the eco-system and creation of a sub-culture?  

We understand from the selection effort that there are nine categories of content that comprise most of audience interest and engagement. These are travel, comedy, fashion, beauty, food, tech, business and finance, fitness and social work. We are likely to see these genres as defining branded content and content marketing going forward. Social work is an interesting genre as it is a catch all for the areas of interest to the youth of today – sustainability, climate change, gender equality, LGBTQ rights and human rights. We all want a better society to live in, and India can be improved and made better on many dimensions. However, it is these five themes that seem to have captured the imagination of youth. Tracing these values back to their source, one can identify these as the driving forces of American Woke Culture, which we are very happy to take on board in India as well. Brands using influencers need to give themselves a rapid education in the ‘progressive’ or ‘woke’ positions and codes around these themes. Otherwise, high ranking Influencers might not wish to work with them and the brand’s content could get heavily trolled.

Audiences might not be directly and immediately impacted by the forming of a league table. Over time, though, content creators will reshape their content in ways that helps them climb higher in the league table and audiences will be impacted. It’s an ongoing process of change with winners and losers, ups and downs.

Key takeaways for Content Creators and Marketers:

- Culture is not what you think it is. Changing your perspective on culture can help you see more deeply, widely and clearly about what you do in the everyday and what you take for granted.

- Viewing the world through the culture lens enables a holistic perspective – taking note of a full range of players and the inter-relationships and interactions among them all.

- Tracking the influencer sub-culture and its development through the league table effort will enable smarter decision-making and help in staying on top of a fast moving sub-culture.