On July 04, a handful of designers and lifestyle journalists gathered at New Delhi’s hip Cafe Dori in the upmarket Dhan Mill Compound for a “fashion masterclass.” Their host was Sandeep Bhushan, director of Facebook for India and south Asia.
Bhushan was making a case for following fashion trends on Instagram, the social media giant’s video- and photo-sharing app. However, he didn’t have to do much, backed as he was by some of India’s most popular brands: Pero, Jaypore, Shantanu & Nikhil, Nicobar, and others.
“We love Instagram,” says Raul Rai, a former investment banker who co-founded Nicobar with his wife. “For us, it is a dynamic shop window that gives the versatility of products and also helps as a feedback loop.” The two-year-old brand’s Instagram handle, Nicojournal, has over 58,000 followers.
Rai is certainly not the only one whose business has benefitted from Instagram, which has emerged as an unconventional e-commerce channel across the world.
Over the past few years, fashion designers and apparel makers in India—as in several other countries—have sought to use Instagram to market their products and attract new customers.
In 2012, Facebook spent $1 billion to acquire what was then just a photo sharing app. Over the years, however, Instagram has not only added a slew of features that attract more users but also become a marketing and selling platform for businesses.
Globally, and in India, fashion is the third most-followed topic among Instagram users (after movies and music), making marketers drool over the ready target audience for apparel, accessories, and other lifestyle-related products.
Noticing this potential, Facebook is now trying to promote the segment through events like the one in Delhi—its first such in the Asia-Pacific region. Earlier this year, it hosted a similar masterclass in New York, attended by brands such as Birchbox and Madewell.
“Fashion is not just about the industry (at large) but also about small businesses,” an Instagram spokesperson told Quartz. “So, by doing (events like) this, we are also talking and reaching out to smaller communities.”
The platform, where Instagram has some 41 million monthly users in India, has already become an important means of marketing for several brands in India.
“In the last one-and-a-half years, for the fashion industry, the platform has been changing behaviour,” says Jaspreet Chandok, vice-president and head of fashion at IMG Reliance, which manages India’s flagship fashion event, the Lakme Fashion Week. ”Fashion brands and designers are aligning themselves to an Instagram-only strategy. They are shooting only for Instagram.”
Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of ethnic fashion brand Jaypore, says Instagram has become “indispensable” for her company. The app “enhances our ability to drive live traffic to our website and get people to transact,” she said while addressing the crowd at the Instagram event in Delhi.
Most designers now actively plan their Instagram strategy by coordinating shoots, creating content and even posting behind-the-scenes stories from their collections.
For sellers, Instagram offers a unique opportunity to reach consumers in a creative way. Nicobar, for instance, markets its brand by displaying a range of products through a series of stories.
Features like swipe to buy, stories, and multiple image sharing, have helped the creative heads of several other fashion labels offer better visual content to customers.
Unlike the typical e-commerce websites, the platform gives designers the opportunity to get creative in marketing their wares. For instance, Kolkata-based couture wear designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee often shares stories of real brides, instead of models, dressed in his designs. He has more than 2.4 million followers on Instagram and oversees the brand’s Instagram strategy himself.
“Instagram is the only social media platform that we actively engage in,” he tells Quartz over email. “A lot of content is created especially for Instagram and the good ones will lead to honest, transparent communication with consumers.”
And it is not just the big brands.
India’s fashion market is currently estimated at $70 billion, of which up to $9 billion is already digitally influenced, as in, shoppers are browsing, searching, and buying stuff online. This is expected to touch $30 billion over the next few years, according to BCG-Facebook estimates, throwing up a massive opportunity for several boutique shops and mom-and-pop labels.
Many such homegrown companies are already trying to make the most of Instagram, without having to invest in a retail store, inventory, or expensive advertisements.
Around 30% to 40% of these young Indian designers’ business queries come through Instagram, Chandok estimates.
In addition, Instagram lets brands target young buyers. As of 2017, over 50% of its users in India were aged between 18 to 24 years. Over the last one or two years, it has seen huge interest from advertisers and brands as new users and shifting demographics make the medium hard to ignore, says Prashant Gopalakrishnan, head of client services at digital media firm Dentsu Webchutney. ”There is a faster adoption from women on the platform.”
But Instagram still has a long way to go as it is much smaller compared to some other social networking platforms.
At 241 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking website in India, giving digital marketers a much wider reach. In addition, marketers are now also using messaging app WhatsApp—which has over 1.5 billion monthly active users in India—to reach buyers.
Scale apart, larger fashion brands reckon that Instagram will always need to be complemented with other marketing mediums such as print ads to reach out to a larger pool of audience.
“It is not a cheap platform for advertising,” Mukherjee says. “…it’s the right medium to reach out to consumers but we also work with magazine advertising because that helps to complete the picture.”