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Inside the race to be a viral content creator

India may soon have over 100 million social media content creators. Successful influencers have now turned mentors and run courses to put others on the path to fame, fortune and a massive following

Raj Shamani during a recent closed event on how to build a brand using content creation, in Chennai
Raj Shamani during a recent closed event on how to build a brand using content creation, in Chennai

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"Everyone will be a content creator by choice or force in the next few years,” declares Raj Shamani. Since mid-2022, the Mumbai-based content creator, who has over a million Instagram followers, has been offering every Indian a chance to find their unique voice on social media—for a fee of 99. His “course” is a one-time, three-hour online session in which you can learn how to create an Instagram Reel, write a 60-second script, get a road map to 100,000 followers, and gain an understanding of social media algorithms. If you are willing to spend more time and money, he also teaches a 6,000, year-long course, where you get one online one-on-one session with him every month and learn how to land brand deals, build a business around your own brand, even how to get public speaking gigs across the world.

Shamani’s belief stems from the fact that there is a demand, as seemingly endless as an infinite scroll, among brands across the world to endorse their products with the help of social media content creators. From a beauty brand to a media organisation, everyone wants to make their presence felt in the online world to get some visibility, and, hopefully, more customers. Content creators come in by introducing these brands to their massive fan base of followers.

Till date, about 1,000 people have signed up for Shamani’s courses to learn what it takes to be a viral content creator on social media.

The 26-year-old’s biggest draw is his niche: the idea of how to achieve the “Indian dream” of making enough money to have a comfortable life.

Also read: Looking for success in 15 seconds on TikTok street

He distils learnings from books like The $10 Trillion Prize and presents these as posts, Reels and stories on his Instagram account. For instance, if a book or a research paper suggests that waking up at 5am daily for 50 days will make you more productive, he will follow this routine and then tell his audience whether it works. “I wanted to become a content creator because I love learning new things. Literally anything that catches my attention, I share it with others,” says Shamani, who is also a podcaster, an author and the founder of House of X, a platform that provides end-to-end tools to launch, build and scale creator-led D2C (direct-to-consumer) brands.

“I had this desire to help people become better at living their life, whether it means earning better, living better, being more productive. Nobody was doing it at scale at that time (five years ago),” he says. By posting content every day—on an eclectic variety of topics from productivity hacks to how to invest money—since 2018, Shamani, who calls Indore in Madhya Pradesh home, has gained 1.4 million followers as a content creator.

“I want people to live their Indian dream,” he says. “If it means becoming a content creator, I want to help them achieve that. There’s no competition; it’s a zero sum game. And there are going to be a lot of content creators soon.”

Shamani is part of a growing network of social media content creators who are diversifying to build their brand and earn more, not just by improving their craft but also by offering online or one-on-one sessions to others who wish to become better at posting photographs and videos of a Bollywood dance skit, an ASMR-esque (Autonomous Sensory Median Response, or calming videos that contain stimulating sounds like whispering, tapping, etc.) night-time beauty routine, or a GRWM (Get Ready With Me) with a pet. These coaches are helping newbies find their niche or refine dialogue delivery, as well as skills like video editing, scriptwriting, even camera setting.

It seems like a win-win situation. The established creators, across age groups, can earn some extra bucks from teaching, considering India is on its way to having the world’s largest base of social media content creators by the end of this year. Over 100 million, if you go by a recent report from the influencer marketing firm Zefmo. Aspiring influencers, meanwhile, can learn from their mentors.

This coaching centre-like approach to create more social media content is driven by a demand from brands that want to see their products endorsed across platforms without having to use Bollywood celebrities. Brands prefer social media content creators because they charge less and have a more intimate connect with their fanbase. The pandemic too gave social media a boost, with the number of creators and followers booming. According to Statista, Instagram has 2,000 million monthly active users and YouTube, 2,514 million. The Indian influencer marketing industry is set to reach 3,000 crore in FY23-24, predicts the Zefmo report.

It’s not just influencers who are playing coach. From digital marketing companies to influencer marketing agencies, several platforms are promising to make people better salespersons of content on the hand-held screen. They earn 5-10% of the fee a brand pays to a content creator as commission for helping a brand home in on a candidate. Even colleges in countries like the US now offer courses on how to become better at marketing content online. Instagram and YouTube, which earn via the advertising model, teach tips and tricks to “win the algorithm”, without charging a penny.

How to go viral

Ask anyone in the industry what it takes to make it as a content creator and the answer is: Find a niche and be consistent with content. In other words, post unique content every single day. The consistency helps build visibility and quality content attracts brands. Depending on the number of followers, a social media content creator can earn anything from 500 to 6 crore for a post or a video. Even someone with 5,000 followers can earn at least 500 per post. About 90% of the marketing budget of brands is spent only on the 10% top influencers, according to Neel Gogia, the 25-year-old co-founder and chief executive of IPLIX Media, an influencer marketing and talent management agency.

Several factors have driven the development of the content creator economy. Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships at Facebook India (Meta), which owns Instagram, lists them: a large and young population, growing internet user base, increasing video viewership, democratisation of content tools, the rise of the Bharat consumer, the use of Indian languages on social media, the hyper-local focus from consumers and brands.

“In the post-pandemic world, there’s no concept of one hero. You can have as many heroes as you want,” says Ashutosh Harbola, founder of the influencer marketing company Buzzoka. Harbola teaches influencer management and the impact on the digital landscape as a visiting faculty member at Indian Institutes of Management across the country. “The social media content creator is today’s dream seller because they have established that close bond with their follower.”

In 2021, The India Influencer Marketing Report by media company GroupM’s global influencer and creator marketing solution INCA found that celebrities account for 27% of influencer marketing spending and influencers, 73%. According to the Advertising Standards Council of India’s recent Influencer Trust Report, 90% of the 820 respondents (above the age of 18) said they made at least one purchase based on influencer endorsement.

“Social media content creators have created that space for themselves by entertaining us. That’s what is making this profession so attractive. That’s why there is this new trend of people trying to create the next big influencer, or at least a good content creator,” says Harbola.

More than a fame game

Takesh Singh
Takesh Singh

Takesh Singh is busy these days building a mentorship programme that can help aspiring content creators face the camera better. The first topic in the syllabus is “authenticity”. Imagine you want to talk about how your day was. You got up at 7am, took your dog for a walk, met a friend on the way, returned home, got ready for college. How would you say all this while trying be funny, not sounding rehearsed and boring, and ensuring that you catch your audience’s attention in the first three seconds and discourage them from swiping next?

That’s a lot of to juggle and these are things that Singh, an actor, a film-maker and, as he describes himself, a camera-facing and speech coach, will teach as part of the programme. If you feel anxious while facing the camera, his solution is simple: “Think of your camera as your best friend.”

“You also need to know what sound to use in the background, how to dress, which camera angle to keep,” says Singh, who divides his time between Delhi and Mumbai. “It’s all simple, already-known stuff but while making a 30-second video you have to be extra careful since the viewer’s attention span is very short.”

In other words, you need to find a formula that shows off your creativity and generates curiosity.

Universities in the US offer courses on building a global audience from your dorm room. Duke, for instance, has fall/spring courses like Social Marketing: From Literary Celebrities to Instagram Influencers, Hashtags Memes, Digital Tribes and Building Global Audiences, all of which teach students about the world of social media, search engine optimisation, virality, content marketing, growth hacking and other digital audience-building strategies for yourself, a business or both.

Platforms are playing teacher too. Meta’s Born-on-Instagram is a creator education and enablement programme that aims to help creators get opportunities to partner with brands based on their talent (the criteria are their niche, quality of content, the number of followers, not necessarily in that order). It also hosts workshops, again open to all, where newbies can learn to improve their skills through better use of the tools provided within the app. YouTube runs creator camps across all major cities where emerging creators get to hear directly from YouTube product experts about new and upcoming features, storytelling formats and analytics.

The winning formula

So, what does it take to be an influencer? “Nothing,” laughs Harbola. “There’s no formula really. You have to offer good-quality unique content and hope that it flies with the public. You can be lucky one day and get a viral Reel but it might not happen the next day. The public’s mood changes every day.”

There’s enough scope for finding a unique voice, or niche, though. Within fashion, you could do GRWM with your grandmother. In tech, you could show Reels of ways to just fix Samsung phones. Tiffin ideas in 15 minutes could be unique in food. Your creativity is the limit.

“Generally, a newbie already knows what their niche is because they have already played around with content and seen their followers’ response before reaching out to us,” says Gogia of IPLIX Media, which handles 70 content creators and 20 brands, with names as big as Audi and Samsung. He, along with the other founders, is building an academy that will offer mentorship to nano- (someone with less than 10,000 followers) and micro-influencers (less than 100,000) on brand-building. It is expected to roll out later this year.

“At present, 90% of the business is going to only the top 10% of content creators. There’s a huge demand for smaller influencers, especially when it comes to regional content,” says Gogia, who studied engineering from Manipal University in Karnataka. According to the Zefmo report, the revenue share of micro-influencers will rise from 9% this fiscal to 14% in the financial year 2024-25.

“Entertainment (Bollywood skits, general, everyday funny content) and fashion are best-performing content areas, especially after covid, because they are massy, offer humour and are generally easier to consume. Tech and food also do well but they work for an audience that has specific interests,” he adds.

Setting a road map

“I want to be the Janhvi Vinod Singh,” says Janhvi Vinod Singh. “Actually no. Scratch that. I want to be the Janhvi Vinod Singh from Prayagraj.” Vinod Singh, 19, knows exactly what she wants: money, fame, and to educate people about the life lessons ancient Hindu scriptures offer. She also claims to know how to achieve it all.

Janhvi Vinod Singh.
Janhvi Vinod Singh.

A scribbled whiteboard in her recently rented Gurugram, Haryana, apartment offers glimpses of the game-plan. It has a flowchart of how Vinod Singh, a full-time content creator managed by IPLIX, will create her next Reel, based on a shlok, or verse, from the Bhagavad Gita. Make-up. Check. Clothes. Check. Camera angle. Check. Post-production. Check. Caption and hashtags. Check, check. She doesn’t want me to reveal the details of the Reel since “it’s always better to leave your followers guessing” but like all videos on @janhvsingh, it claims to have enough “hatke (unique)” motivational content based on the 700-verse scripture to keep her 513,000 Instagram followers engaged.

Her hope while posting it next week will be what she has wished for all the 600-plus posts uploaded over the past two-and-a-half years: that it goes viral. Greater visibility could increase the chances of brands approaching her for collaborations or endorsements. And more partnerships would mean more money—and more visibility.

The other hope is that her mentors, or gurujis, as she calls them, are happy with what she presents. To ensure the content is close to its source, Vinod Singh learns Sanskrit and the scriptures from two gurus at Ahmedabad’s Darshan Yog Mahavidyalaya. Every day on Zoom, from 8.30-10.30am, they teach her what a particular shlok means and how it can be made digestible for a layperson. “They help suggest how to put the content in videos together so that it’s easier for the viewer to understand,” explains Vinod Singh. They even assist in picking Insta-worthy shloks. Earlier this week, for instance, they suggested the 12th verse in the Gita’s Chapter 4 that explains the importance of karma. It became one of her most viewed Reels in a short span, attracting 8,000 likes and 100,000 views in less than an hour.

She started with both spiritual and self-help content. Then, on her mentor’s advice, she started focusing on the scriptures. “I was getting more attention for both kinds of content but it was leaving my audience confused (they couldn’t understand what kind of content to expect from her),” she says. “When I started focusing more on spirituality, I started being known for it. It’s not just about the quantity of followers but also quality, because that’s how you get better engagement.”

While she enjoys the thrill of her full-time job, she is also aware of the fact that the job comes with an expiry date. “I have created a niche for myself. It’s the most important thing to have if you want to become an influencer today. Can you believe I have more older people following me than younger ones?” says Vinod Singh, who is also doing an English honours course from Noida, Uttar Pradesh’s Amity University via distance learning. “But I know tomorrow some other creator will find a niche within my niche and become more popular. And that’s okay because before that happens, I will future-proof myself.”

That part of the game-plan is already in the works. She has started working with brands to build social media content for them and creates courses for some other brands on how to build confidence among aspiring content creators—it ensures her bank account sees at least 50,000 flowing in every month. “I want to grow a lot in life,” she says. “But smartly.”

Staying the course


New York-based fashion content creator Thrisha
New York-based fashion content creator Thrisha

How do content creators stay inspired? The answer will depend on whom you ask. For New York-based fashion content creator Thrisha, who prefers to use one name, the joy of flaunting designer clothes while standing in front of the city’s landmark sites makes her want to get up every morning, at 5am, and get ready for her content shoot before leaving for her full-time job as an HR professional. The number of her Instagram followers has grown from 100-odd in October 2018 to 21,500.

For homemakers Lavanya Senthil from Palapse, Maharashtra (who has acquired 55,300 Instagram followers in three years), and Sapna Singh from Bhilai, Chhattisgarh (who started in November 2017 and currently has over 64,000 followers), earning an income while talking about their passions like cooking and home décor on Instagram is a driving force. They are part of Instagram’s Born-on-Instagram programme.

For Sreehari Shaijan from Munnar, Kerala, who has gained 113,000 Instagram followers since 2016, it’s all about showing the world his hometown through his eyes. He, too, was part of the same Instagram programme.

Sreehari Shaijan is part of Meta's Born-on-Instagram programme
Sreehari Shaijan is part of Meta's Born-on-Instagram programme

While Lavanya Senthil earns 30,000 a month on an average, Sapna Singh brings in 20,000, and Shaijan, 5,000-8,000, through social media content creation.

For Shamani and Vinod Singh, teaching people how to live a better life drives them to follow a strict work schedule.

The dark side

It’s not all hunky-dory, though. The job of a content creator comes with baggage.

Many of the coaching classes have one session dedicated to “creator’s burnout”. The rat race to upload a post every day gets to the best of content creators. Arpan Soni, vice-president and creator management at IPLIX, says many content creators face burnout. “A few days ago, a creator with over 200,000 followers said to me, ‘How do I get over anxiety while speaking with people in real life?’ Often, we forget that social media content creators lead a double life. You can talk in an empty room through your camera but in person you don’t know what to say,” says Soni. “Plus there is the daily task of thinking up fresh ideas that are also unique. And then the online hate.”

Anushka Rathod, a 25-year-old creator who shares lessons on investing, taxes and budgeting to her 800,000 Instagram followers, regularly goes for therapy sessions to tackle the stress and anxiety that come as part of her job. “There are two Anushkas. One Anushka as a person and one Anushka as a content creator. Sometimes, it becomes hard to separate the two,” says the Surat, Gujarat, resident who is set to launch a book, and a pre-recorded course, on personal finance. “You can’t stop in this field and the negative comments are just too much sometimes.”

These are among the reasons Taamra Ranganath, a counselling psychologist at the mental health platform MindPeers, says she has been seeing a rise in the number of patients. “Many of these content creators come with the same problems: the pressure to evolve, entertain the audience, seeing their self-worth in others, struggling to maintain the distance between their reel and real selves,” she says. “It has become more common after the pandemic.” Ranganath doesn’t share numbers but says the issues are common among big and small influencers, regardless of age and gender.

Shamani, too, gets tired sometimes of the constant run but he has been in the game long enough to know how to handle it. “Earlier, I used to feel sad when people left negative comments on my content,” he says. “Now I think differently. Now I think why did something not work? How can I do better? Every job needs hustle. You need to be smart about how you do it.”

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