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Mumbai was a huge contradiction in 2020. On one hand, India’s financial capital was breaking under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic and on the other, its financial markets were on a tear. The stock market went on a record-breaking rally, foreign investors pumped in billions, and millions of new investors came in and traded at record levels. But the financially savvy investors were not the only ones cashing in.
Around 150 kilometres south of Mumbai lies Pune, home to Rachana Ranade, a chartered accountant by qualification and a teacher by trade. Here, the 35-year-old puts up 8 to 10 videos on YouTube every month. Ranade, however, doesn’t teach her 2.78 million subscribers how to draw up financials, but tells them how to analyse them and invest in the market.
|YOUTUBE CHANNEL||NUMBER OF SUBSCRIBERS|
|PARIMAL ADE #||8,62,000|
|P R SUNDAR||6,45,000|
A thousand kilometres from Pune is Raipur, which isn’t even among the top 20 cities in terms of contribution to the country’s stock market turnover. Yet, 28-year-old Pranjal Kamra has created a buzz with his YouTube channel. He has nearly three million subscribers — 2.83 million to be exact — who tune in for his advice on stock markets and personal investments.
Ranade and Kamra are among the many big names from smaller cities in the growing world of ‘finfluencers.’
Simply put, a finfluencer — as a financial influencer is usually called — is one who gives the ordinary investor information and advice on an array of financial topics such as stock market trading, personal finance and mutual funds. Their social media of choice is YouTube, where they post videos, mostly in Hindi or a regional language. Or even ‘Hinglish’, a mix of Hindi and English, to attract the non-English speaking, newly-minted investors from small towns. And people have flocked to them in droves, with the most popular ones commanding a following running into millions.
“THE LOCKDOWN GAVE PEOPLE MORE TIME TO LOOK AT THEIR FINANCES. THEY CAME TO YOUTUBE FOR INFORMATIVE CONTENT”
The popularity of these 10-20 minute-long videos is explained by India’s low financial literacy rate of 27 per cent, according to the National Centre for Financial Education’s 2019 survey. So naturally, first-time investors, especially from far-flung towns and cities, are drawn to these finfluencers. This also explains why some of their most-viewed videos are “How to buy your first share”, “Get regular income from gold”, or even “Earn 2.5 crores in 20 years! How?”
The finfluencer phenomenon isn’t limited to India. According to a report by Statista, a German firm specialising in market and consumer data, the global market size of influencers — those who talk about fashion, gadgets, health, beauty and finance on social media — has surged eightfold in just five years, rising from a mere $1.7 billion in 2016 to nearly $14 billion in 2021. More tellingly, the market size has more than doubled from $6.5 billion in 2019.
“IF YOU LOOK AT MOST BUSINESS NEWS CHANNELS, THEY PRIMARILY FOCUS ON MARKET UPDATES; THE NEW INVESTOR NEEDS EDUCATION”
These two years also saw an explosion in the popularity of finfluencers in India as millions of new investors entered the market. Trading was democratised as new-age broking firms built easy-to-use apps. Affordable smartphones, cheap data plans and ubiquity of digital payments helped. However, these new investors lacked the knowhow. And the 24/7 business news channels weren’t exactly helpful.
“If you look at most business news channels, they primarily focus on market updates, while the new investor needs education,” says Kamra. He says finfluencers are filling the vacuum of financial literacy. Kamra, who likes to be casually dressed in a tee in most of his videos, adds that most influencers prefer YouTube. “For a content provider, YouTube comes with a lot of tools to control how and to whom the content is highlighted,” he says.
The popularity of India’s top finfluencers is clear from the fact that they have more YouTube subscribers than new-age broking firms like Zerodha, Groww, Upstox and 5Paisa as well as traditional ones like IIFL, Kotak Securities, ICICI Direct and Angel Broking. Even popular western finfluencers — like Anthony O’Neal, My Fab Finance, Mr Money Mustache, The Budgetnista and Mrs Dow Jones — have a few thousand, or at best three to four lakh, subscribers. But nowhere near a million (or ten lakh) like their Indian counterparts. Such is their growing popularity in India that leading broking firms are engaging these YouTube stars to reach out to potential investors.
The high subscriber count has resulted in a financial windfall for Indian finfluencers, especially the ones with million-plus followers. While their videos are free to view, a financial influencer, like those in other categories, has multiple streams of income like Google advertisements, collaborations and partnerships. All these streams can add up to lakhs in earnings. One estimate pegs the figure at upwards of Rs 15 lakh a month.
“Once you have got more than a million followers and are making videos on a weekly basis while also engaging with broking firms, the monthly earnings can be anywhere between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 30 lakh,” says a broking firm executive who often engages top finfluencers. This is corroborated by three others, including a finfluencer, none of whom wants to be named.
But to hit those lakhs in earnings, they need millions of followers. And that isn’t easy.
“Credibility is the key… we have to be ethical. If we are talking about a product or service, we have to talk about the risks as well. It cannot be one-sided”
Mukul Malik started his YouTube channel, Asset Yogi, in August 2017, mostly focusing on real estate. But, the 39-year-old tasted success only after he pivoted towards topics like the stock market and personal finance. The Delhi-based MBA still remembers how he got his first 500 followers.
“It was mostly friends and family. I still remember it took me around three months to get to 1,000 followers, but the next three saw around 10,000 additions. The last year or so has been great in terms of followers as demand for information relating to financial instruments and stock markets has soared,” he says.
Similarly, Ranade started her YouTube sojourn in 2009 by posting videos for her students. It took her channel nearly a year-and-a-half to hit the magic mark of one million, and that happened only after she shifted to making videos on capital markets in February 2019. It took her just seven months to get the next set of one million followers.
Ranade says the pandemic was a strong catalyst for the rise of finfluencers. “The lockdown last year gave people more time to look at their finances and financial planning in particular. Job losses and salary cuts were rampant and people started looking at other sources of income, which brought them to YouTube for informative content,” she says.
But to keep those subscribers coming back, YouTubers also have to post content regularly. Ranade follows a strict schedule. She posts 8 to 10 videos every month — one each on Wednesdays and Saturdays. She also does one live stream each week where she interacts with her viewers.
While Kamra, Ranade and Malik are bonafide YouTube stars, having already crossed the one million follower mark, there are others who are closing in on the milestone. Parimal Ade, P.R. Sundar and Ankur Warikoo are among those who have crossed the half-way mark. And, if their recent pace of getting followers is anything to go by, they will be a part of the one million club sooner rather than later.
Warikoo, who hails from Faridabad, focuses more on financial planning and personal finance rather than stockspecific content, for his 6.98 lakh subscribers. He believes the young generation always looked at YouTube as a platform for learning and the pandemic made the demand explode. “The youth have used YouTube for their school homework, for their college assignments and for learning new skills like coding. So, the demand always existed. I think what changed in the pandemic was the supply,” says the 40-year-old who is also the founder of food and shopping discovery platform nearbuy.com.
“MY CHANNEL AIRS ONLY FINANCIAL EDUCATION VIDEOS AS THERE ARE A LARGE NUMBER OF INVESTORS WHO WANT TO LEARN THE CONCEPTS OF INVESTING”
The quality of the supply, however, is of paramount importance. The rules for good content aren’t too different from those for good journalism: it has to be informative, easy to understand and unbiased. This combination, say influencers, will lead to views and likes and ultimately translate into subscribers.
Take Varun Malhotra. The 39-year-old says his videos are primarily focused on explaining financial concepts to his 3.7 lakh followers rather than informing them about a particular stock. “I am completely into educating the viewer. My channel airs only financial education videos as there are a large number of investors who want to learn the concepts of investing,” says Malhotra, whose most popular videos have been on mutual funds.
In fact, most finfluencers play it safe by focusing more on the concepts and fundamentals of stock market investing and financial planning instead of giving advice on what to buy or sell. Some are also registered with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) as Registered Investment Advisors. In most cases, they even suggest that investors consult their financial advisor before taking the plunge.
There are some, though, who have amassed a sizeable following by creating a niche. Like 57-year-old Sundar. The former mathematics teacher, who is one of the top futures and options (F&O) traders in the country, makes videos on strategies relating to the derivatives market for his nearly 6.45 lakh YouTube subscribers.
“I am an F&O trader myself and more specifically an options seller. No channel talks about options selling. I believe in talking about what I know and hence talk about derivatives. This is also the reason that, unlike most other channels, I have many HNIs (high net worth individuals) as followers; 10 per cent of my followers are from outside India,” says the Chennai-based financial influencer.
Clearly, the focus is on improving financial literacy. In fact, the most-viewed finfluencer videos are on topics like the basics of stock market investing, personal finance, creating a retirement corpus, mutual funds and other such subjects. Their effort towards improving the investment culture earns them the trust of their audiences. This is especially crucial if an influencer also happens to be collaborating with broking firms or brands.
“Credibility is the key,” says Malik. “We have to be ethical. If we are talking about a product or service, we have to talk about the risks as well. It cannot be one-sided. The content needs to be presented in a manner that is a win for the audience, the brand and the influencer. Only if it checks all the three boxes will I do a video that is sponsored by someone.”
After all, sponsorships are one way to rake in the big bucks.
“THE DEMAND ALWAYS EXISTED. I THINK WHAT CHANGED IN THE PANDEMIC WAS THE SUPPLY”
There are three broad ways through which a finfluencer with a sizeable following can make money via videos. And savvy YouTubers have cracked this market, raking in crores annually in some cases.
The most common source of income is ads. Google, which owns YouTube, pays $4-5 for every 1,000 views on an ad. Known as ‘revenue per mille,’ or RPM, this metric is slightly on the lower side in India. But, even assuming it is a couple of dollars, a video with a million views could rake in Rs 1.5 lakh. That’s why views matter as much as subscribers.
And, quite a few influencers are consistently hitting the one million mark in views per video too.
Two years ago, Ranade made a series of videos titled ‘Basics of Stock Market’. The first part has amassed 15 million views to date, while the second has got 6.1 million views. Kamra’s video ‘How Can Beginners Start Investing?’ has garnered nearly five million views. Malik’s tutorial on Zerodha’s trading app has 4.2 million views. Warikoo’s catchily titled ‘Earn 2.5 crores in 20 years! How?’ garnered a million views in just one month.
While ad revenue is passive income, a finfluencer can proactively earn through collaborations to promote a financial product in their videos. They either do this subtly, by talking about the brand while also mentioning its peers, or directly by discussing only that specific brand.
The third way influencers earn money is through affiliate partnerships. Here, they include links in the video description for viewers to buy a product or sign up for a service. For example, a finfluencer could promote a broking firm by adding a link to open an account. They get a commission for each account opened using that link; some even get a share of the firm’s earnings from these accounts. At times finfluencers stay away from such promotions to maintain a neutral image but may accept an offer to feature on a broking firm’s official channel. “The top finfluencers can charge anything between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh per video to appear on the channel of a firm. At times, these firms also enter into annual contracts for a specified number of videos, and the fee could go up to a crore,” says the broking firm executive quoted earlier.
Sundar, for example, says he expects a total income of Rs 50 crore this financial year, despite focusing on the niche area of derivatives. And while this income is from both his YouTube channel and trading activities, it is a significant jump from the Rs 15 crore he had made last year.
Clearly, being a social media influencer can pay more than most regular day jobs and is fast turning into a fulltime occupation for many. Indeed, those who milk all three sources of earnings — Google ads, collaborations and partnerships — get a bulk of their overall income from their YouTube channel. Their day jobs have been relegated to secondary status.
Millions want to make trading their primary occupation, if one goes by the sheer explosion in the number of first-time investors in the past year or so. Many leading broking firms have got a record number of new clients. New client registrations hit a record 1.5 million in June 2021, more than double the 0.6 million in June 2020. This wasn’t an aberration. More than a million new accounts have been opened in each month of the current calendar year.
The share of retail investors in the cash market turnover jumped from 33 per cent in FY16 to 45 per cent in FY20 with the same level being recorded in FY21, according to data from the National Stock Exchange. The jump to 45 per cent in FY20 from 39 per cent in the previous fiscal year was the sharpest ever. The surge in new investors and trading volume was mainly due to a strong rally in the stock market for the last year-and-a-half, the blip in the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding.
The benchmark S&P BSE Sensex kicked off 2020 by touching a then record-high of 47,896.97. But it nearly halved to touch 25,638.90 in March — the lowest level of 2020 — as concerns related to the pandemic and the ensuing nationwide lockdown rattled investors across the globe, including in India.
The fall, however, was an excellent opportunity for foreign institutional investors, considered the prime drivers of any bull run in the equity market. They pumped a whopping $23 billion into the market in 2020, the highest annual inflow since 2012. That helped the Sensex rally more than 85 per cent off the lows of March to end the year at around 47,800. It topped 53,000 points this July, an all-time high.
And as first-time retail investors rode the wave, they were hungry for sound financial advice, especially in a language they understand. That’s what led to some of the top finfluencers making their videos in Hindi, not English. Moreover, they are also experimenting with videos in other regional languages like Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam. Such channels are also quite popular.
Earlier this year, Pune-based Ade, whose three YouTube channels have 8.62 lakh subscribers between them, launched a new channel named ‘Investment Gappa with Parimal Ade’ to cater to the Marathi-speaking audience. The channel has amassed a following of nearly 34,000 in a little over three months.
“In Maharashtra, the investment culture is not that evolved outside Mumbai, especially if you compare it with neighbouring Gujarat. So, I started the channel to make videos in Marathi,” says Ade, who has also been running a wealth management business for over a decade.
Broking firms also prefer to work not only with top finfluencers but also with those who have their own geographic or vernacular niche. “They are doing a yeoman service for new investors and are crucial to India’s equity culture. Digital creators, especially those in regional languages, have taught us a lot about client communication. In fact, they were among the primary drivers of new equity investors in FY21,” says Prakarsh Gagdani, CEO, 5paisa, who has worked with many finfluencers.
The spike in demand for financial information and knowledge has led to various market intermediaries focusing on investor education. Broking firms, mutual funds as well as SEBI have been conducting investor awareness programmes in Tier-II and Tier-III locations.
Although the world of YouTube is largely self-governed, the rapid rise in reach of these finfluencers has not gone unnoticed by industry bodies. The Advertising Standards Council of India released guidelines for ‘Influencer Advertising in Digital Media’ this June to make viewers aware that a particular video contains promotional or paid content.
That is not very different from YouTube’s in-house rules. The platform makes it mandatory for the creator or influencer to declare whether a video contains paid pro-motion, product placement, sponsorship or endorsement. It then displays a disclosure message to that effect for 20 seconds during the video.
“Many videos come with a message that they are promotional and that is an important disclaimer. YouTube has these guidelines in place so that the viewer knows exactly what he or she is watching,” says Kamra, who has also done promotional videos. But these are largely boilerplate rules, not very unlike the mandatory disclaimers about market risk by mutual funds at the end of every ad or promotion.
“Independent content creators know their audience at a much deeper level. Their credibility and simple communication are essential for the ecosystem,” says 5paisa’s Gagdani. In July, Angel Broking, which has a chiefly retail clientele, launched its Amplifiers platform for finfluencers — to collaborate with each other and the broking firm — to create content. In fact, most of the well-known firms work extensively with influencers to help grow their business in terms of clients and turnover.
“We have a standard partner programme for financial influencers wherein if they get new accounts, we pay them a certain brokerage. It is like the erstwhile sub-broker system,” says Nithin Kamath, founder and CEO of Zerodha, the country’s largest broking firm in terms of active clients. “In today’s world, there is no use case for a sub-broker as everyone is trading online. In the digital world, whoever gets more traffic does well,” he says.
While the pandemic may have had a starring role to play in driving traffic to the finfluencers’ channels and videos so far, industry experts don’t expect their popularity and importance to die down anytime soon. After all, India has only around five crore demat accounts, which means less than 5 per cent of the population invests in stocks. There is room for exponential growth on all sides.
“Influencers as a segment has picked up in the last three-four years and I don’t think it is only on account of the pandemic when people had more time on their hands,” says Jimeet Modi, founder and CEO of financial services firm SAMCO Group. “Influencer marketing has become a key channel for many brands, and as trading activity increased globally and in India, many turned to these influencers to ‘deep dive’ and learn new things. Influencer marketing as a channel is here to stay.”
That can only be good news for investors tuning in to the latest YouTube videos put out by Kamra and his peers.
Story : Ashish Rukhaiyar
Producer : Mukesh Adhikary, Vivek Dubey
Creative Producer : Amit Sharma, Anirban Ghosh
Video Editor : Mohsin Sheikh
Photographer : Bandeep Singh
UI Developer : Vishal Rathour and Mohd. Naeem Khan