Thursday, December 7, 2023

IN FOCUS :Boosting influence quotient – Can a degree be the secret sauce for a commanding online presence? 

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At a time when the world recognises content as king, content creation in the digital universe can be driven by enjoyment, self-expression, altruism, or profit. Some do it in pursuit of their personal passion, while others aim to inspire, educate, or raise levels of awareness in various domains. Many turn their hobbies into profitable careers through avenues like social media influence.
In a bold move, a university in Ireland has unveiled an ambitious vision: the launch of a groundbreaking degree program centered on the art of influencing. Set to commence in 2024, this program promises to delve into the intricacies of digital influence, offering students a chance to master the skills required to excel in this ever-expanding field.This week, Tanisha Saxena, while feeling the pulse of modern society, maps out the implications of this intriguing development, for insights on how this educational endeavor will shape the future of digital influencers and the phenomenally expanding landscape they and others continue to shape.
In the ever-evolving digital landscape dominated by platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, X (Twitter), and more, there is bewildering diverse of users, comprising, inter alia, vloggers, streamers, YouTubers, influencers, Instagrammers, gamers, and TikTokers. Each of these and emerging platforms possesses unique features and specialisations that users leverage in various ways, driven by their distinct profiles and objectives. Some create content purely for enjoyment, while others are motivated by altruism or profit, often capitalising on their hobbies.
Within this dynamic ecosystem, if we peer into the captivating phenomenon of influencers, a concept often associated with stereotypes, many tend to associate influencers predominantly with femininity and the realms of fashion and beauty.  However, it is evident that the sphere of influence extends far beyond these boundaries and can impact any industry, going by some recent developments. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of new avenues for exerting influence, rendering traditional methods obsolete. Notable examples include the X accounts of figures like Donald Trump and Elon Musk, illustrating how platforms can grant individuals greater influence than traditional media, constituting part of the ‘fourth estate’.
The evolution of the influencer industry is a captivating journey through the annals of consumer behavior. It transcends eras, from the early days of influential figures like celebrities and political leaders to the digital age, where anyone can become an influencer, thanks to the democratising force of social media platforms and the internet. This transformation underscores the potency of personal branding and the shift from conventional advertising to recommendations driven by peers.
In India, there are an impressive 80 million influencers and content creators, divided into four categories based on their follower count: nano influencers (1,000 to 10,000 followers), micro-influencers (10,000 to 100,000 followers), macro-influencers (100,000 to 1,000,000 followers), and mega influencers. The global influencer marketing industry is expected to reach $21.2 billion by 2023, with an annual growth rate of 29%. India’s portion of this market is projected to be $146 million in 2023, accounting for just 0.9% of the total global influencer marketing expenditure.
Studying the art of influencing
As influencers have risen in prominence, so has the quality of some of their content. They now invest in top-tier equipment, professional video editing, and even dedicated teams to craft captivating content. This professionalisation has propelled influencer marketing to a sophisticated level, but it has also set a higher bar for newcomers trying to make their mark.
A university in Ireland has unveiled its ambitious vision to launch a distinctive degree program centered on the art of influencing, scheduled to commence in 2024. This strategic initiative seems motivated by the aspiration to tap into the thriving influencer industry, which boasts a global valuation of $16.4 billion. The influencer sector has garnered remarkable attention, particularly among the younger Generation Z demographic.
Moreover, alongside nurturing aspiring influencer talent, the university may contemplate offering condensed, high-impact courses tailored for existing influencers. This move could serve as a valuable response to the growing concerns surrounding the potential spread of misinformation by certain online influencers.
“Influencer marketing is not just about promotion; it is also about forging a genuine connection with a loyal community. Influencers engage with their followers, responding to comments and even involving them in content decisions. This engagement nurtures trust and authenticity – two of the pillars of successful influencer marketing,” says Paridhi Gulati, a fashion and lifestyle influencer.
She continues: “Obtaining a degree in the art of influencing can serve as a pivotal step in cementing influence as a legitimate and thriving career path. Such an educational pursuit not only equips individuals with the profound insight needed to harness the power of influence but also positions them as vital conduits within the realm of digital marketing.
Through their expertise, influencers become the linchpin in bridging the divide that separates brands from their audience, ultimately ushering in a bountiful stream of revenue for businesses. This transformative journey towards professional influence not only bestows influencers with a stable source of income but also imparts a profound sense of financial security and well-being.”
Balancing the alignment of influencers with brands is a strategic challenge. While it can yield professional content, excessive sponsorship can undermine authenticity. Striking the right equilibrium is imperative for both influencers and brands to uphold their credibility.
The intricate pattern of operations between brand communities and influencer marketing adds another layer of complexity. These communities can amplify an influencer’s message or, conversely, hold them accountable. Yet, they can also become polarised, leading to backlash if an influencer’s actions or affiliations are viewed negatively.
“This comprehensive four-year program is designed to immerse students in a diverse array of essential subjects tailored for aspiring social media influencers. Throughout their journey, students will gain expertise in vital areas such as business acumen, video and audio editing proficiency, critical cultural studies, and creative writing prowess. This multifaceted curriculum equips them with a well-rounded skill set perfectly suited for navigating the dynamic landscape of digital content creation,” explains Himanshu Goel, business head at TopSocial India, a marketing firm.
In essence, the influencer industry amalgamates marketing, psychology, and technology into a dynamic landscape. It continually evolves, offering businesses innovative ways to connect with audiences, but it demands a nuanced understanding of ethics, authenticity, and the ever-shifting social media and consumer behavior terrain.

Influencing is myth, content is the force

Shagun Segan, one of the most popular travel bloggers and influencers in Hyderabad, says: “Influence initially stemmed from our ability to impact those close to us, but with the advent of social media, this reach expanded virtually, connecting us with new friends who became followers, amplifying our influence. The key challenge lies in determining the specific area of influence, which can range from food, travel, beauty, and more, depending on an individual’s passions and expertise.”
When we call someone a ‘social media influencer’, we are essentially acknowledging that they have the power to impact and shape the opinions, behaviors, and choices of their followers on social media platforms. This influence can be related to a wide range of topics, such as fashion, lifestyle, health, or even social and political issues.
Shagun breaks down the meaning of influencer for us: “The term ‘influencer’ implies that these individuals are seen as role models or authorities within their niche or area of expertise. People look to them for guidance, advice, and inspiration. As a result, influencers often have a responsibility to use their platform in a positive and responsible way, as they can sway their followers’ decisions and attitudes. So, when we say someone is a social media influencer, we are recognising that they have the potential to influence and guide their audience, and this influence can extend to various aspects of life, including trends and choices.”
Shagun thinks that introducing a degree for everything seems strange in our fast-paced, ever-evolving world driven by social media and the internet, where creators constantly explore new and exciting dimensions.
Echoing a similar thought process, Karishma Chavan, choreographer and entrepreneur, says: “Content making, and influencer marketing have become a source of income for many deserving and enterprising people who would have possibly never gotten an opportunity to showcase their talent. But it has also brought a lot of eyeballs to the not-so-talented too. Which are technically not really positively influencing and just happen to have a phone. None the less, brands do take into consideration their target audience and choose their influencers. I believe everyone has an audience if you choose to be online. I definitely do not think that you require a degree for this. Just curiosity and consistency in making good content with talent are enough.”
She adds: “Influencer marketing challenges are interesting when you are considered an influencer who also has a brand called ‘sassiest’. As an influencer, I really want to work with brands that resonate with my personality, occupation, and lifestyle. As an entrepreneur, I am looking for people who represent the brand’s persona. The challenge is finding the right gamble. You have to understand which influencer will give you sales and which influencer will help you spread awareness and represent your brand with the right content quality. I like to keep everything authentic, and yes, people who are authentically natural always have a greater appeal.”

Conventional degrees
‘Relatable content’ is a buzzword. In the vibrant realm of social media, a mere scroll through Instagram’s reels reveals an eclectic ensemble of Gen Z influencers, each weaving their own tapestry of wisdom. With finesse, they divulge secrets on banishing anxiety, crafting data science mastery, nurturing flawless skin, sourcing the choicest attire, and even dealing with life’s uncertainty. It is a veritable symphony of counsel, where no concern remains unaddressed. These youthful mavens have masterfully harnessed the art of crafting content that resonates deeply with their audience, transforming relatability into a lucrative vocation.

While not all academic institutions offer specialized qualifications for aspiring influencers, there are several more widely available general degrees that can provide valuable skills. In the daily routine of influencers, digital tasks like editing, uploading, and planning are crucial, but what other skills should you cultivate to build a successful career in social media?
“My friends with marketing degrees have been my true guides, showing me the depths of audience comprehension and the secrets of capturing attention, far beyond the surface-level advice found in the generic books on my shelf,” says Kalpana Bhandari, an aspiring influencer.
Abhinav Choudhary, actor and influencer, stresses the fact that influencer marketing is a field that is evolving every single day, and tapping into the wilderness is important. According to him, a degree in influencing will definitely alter things for the industry. “Right from choosing the equipment for a video shoot to finding your target audience, everything is so important. I believe having a degree in place will help us address the specific issues we face in the process. There is a huge difference when you learn something professionally.
For example, many creators believe that the key to enhancing the visual quality of their videos lies in making a substantial financial investment, such as purchasing a Rs 1 lakh camera. However, they may discover that they can attain most of their desired improvements by mastering the effective utilisation of their existing equipment.”
He adds: “Creating an Instagram platform focusing on a specific niche or topic is greatly enhanced when you possess expertise in the subject matter or possess a substantial foundation of knowledge to draw from. This not only grants you credibility within the niche but is especially valuable in crowded categories such as fashion.”
Understandably, a degree in fashion will equip an individual who aspires to be a fashion influencer with a breadth of knowledge, from textile design to styling. Dr. Sandra Lee, also known as The Pimple Popper, has leveraged her medical expertise to achieve viral fame, and she has even launched her own television show. On the other hand, many other beauty influencers have chosen the conventional path, possessing qualifications as beauticians, and they share valuable advice and techniques with their followers for enhancing their appearance and well-being.
In a nutshell, thorough knowledge about the subject matter is crucial to being authentic in a sea of creators. A digital marketing degree was highly favored not too long ago and continues to be a top choice.
Sharmistha Mazumder, a postgraduate in mass communication, tells us: “Shortly after finishing the course, one of our professors recommended pursuing a digital marketing diploma, emphasising its numerous benefits in the current era. A digital marketing diploma involves enrolling in a structured educational program designed to provide comprehensive knowledge and expertise in the field of digital marketing. This program covers a wide range of essential aspects, starting with the fundamentals of digital marketing. You will delve into concepts such as search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), content marketing, email marketing, and social media marketing.”
PR courses, too, offer a valuable education in three key areas. “Firstly, they equip you with the skills to expertly manage your public image, whether on a personal or professional level. This involves mastering the art of conveying your values, goals, and accomplishments effectively, including crafting compelling narratives and deftly navigating online spaces, all while being prepared to tackle reputation crises if they arise.
Secondly, these courses emphasise the importance of building robust relationships with brands, companies, and influencers. You will learn how to identify promising partnerships, pitch collaborations, and negotiate mutually beneficial agreements. Such relationships can open doors to valuable resources, sponsorships, and promotional opportunities,” explains Manish Sharma, a professor at a media institute.
In sum, the future of this domain depends on various factors, including technological advancements, societal trends, and economic conditions. This field is likely to continue evolving as technology and media platforms change. Additionally, building a personal brand and having an online presence can be valuable skills for individuals looking to become influencers in their respective niches. Keep in mind that the landscape can change rapidly, so adaptability and continuous learning are essential for success in this area.
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