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Instagram Reels and the small seller saga in India: How Meta's platform is tripping up small sellers

Small sellers are finding it hard to leverage Meta's Instagram Reels and promote their products. Here's why.

By  Sanghamitra Kar and MoneycontrolOct 28, 2022 11:27 AM
Instagram Reels and the small seller saga in India: How Meta's platform is tripping up small sellers
Over the last few years, Facebook and Instagram pushed a number of features on their platforms to encourage small sellers. The tech giant even boasted of supporting 200 million businesses on Instagram, globally. (Representative image via Unsplash)

“Pakistani suits are very popular in my community but after searching in Bengaluru and Delhi I finally found them on Instagram. During my wedding last year I purchased quite a few items from Instagram,” says 27-year-old Israrul Haque, a Delhi resident.

Over the last few years, Facebook-owned Instagram became quite popular among many youngsters like Haque, who started purchasing distinctive items from the app. Sellers from across India and globally brought in unique selling items, making it a trendy shopping destination.

But things started changing over the last one year.

In the last few months, Haque has not made a single purchase from Instagram. His reasons are many; finding good quality pages with products and also good quality products has been a problem.

Not just the users but even sellers both globally and in India have been finding it difficult to widen their reach on the app.

The reason is products are now lost in the huge labyrinth that is Instagram as 'Reels', the popular short video format on the app takes precedence on the feed.

The sellers’ woes

For instance, Guwahati-based Barsha Sharma, who ran a jewellery shop, moved her business to Instagram in 2019 by starting a page called Styleninety9, solely because of the pull the platform had back then.

But things haven’t been so easy over the last one year. Posting one video on the page takes her hours, and even then garnering eyeballs remains tough. This wasn’t the case earlier when she could easily take some still pictures and post them on the photo-sharing app.

Now she has to increasingly post videos on the app, to remain relevant.

“Taking videos then editing them out, posting them with trending music and proper lighting easily takes a few hours. And if I do not post these videos, my products will not show on the feed so I will miss out on being visible in the customers’ feeds,” Sharma adds.

She started noticing this change over the last one year. And she isn’t wrong.

Vidyaa Vayath, who runs a boutique Kala Kutir in Bengaluru, says it's very difficult to keep up with the changing Instagram trends. “And if you miss out on the right music or hashtag, you will not have the reach.”

Elaborating on the woes, she says the bigger brands usually outsource such work, which isn’t possible for her because hiring these skilled people costs at least Rs 50,000 for a month.

“Even though many businesses are on Instagram, it is basically to engage and get the recognition, not primarily to sell,” says Vayath.

Many sellers are finding it difficult to create these 90-second videos or in Instagram language ‘Reels’. On the other hand, well-funded direct-to-consumer brands are spending upto Rs 30-40 lakhs a month to engage with influencers and promote the brands.

“We spend around Rs 15-20 lakhs a month on Meta marketing which includes Facebook and Instagram. As a strategy we have stopped using static pictures and only focus on Reels because that’s where we see our maximum conversions,” said Ishan Grover, co-founder and CEO of D2C brand Svish.

Over the last two months, brands have started promoting their products on Instagram which costs around 50 paisa. “So the costs now are of content development and promotions,” said Grover.

“The TikTok phenomenon has proven that short video is the preferred choice for consumption but it may not necessarily be the best option for e-commerce. It is a very casual type of viewing. It is usually not the type where you will click on a product to explore more or are viewing it with the intent to buy something,” said Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan, managing director of MyQyuki Digital Media.

But he adds that the sellers can use Reels to showcase their expertise on a topic or become an influencer in a certain category.

However, social media influencer Paras Tomar, who runs the brand ParasKeNukshe which has over 49,000 Instagram followers, has a different view. “The sponsored posts strategy did not work on Instagram because users would just move over to the next post, easily understanding that it’s an advertisement. Reels, though, make it look very organic. And we also use these videos to post on Facebook or WhatsApp.”

There are now more than 140 billion Reels plays across Facebook and Instagram on a daily basis, registering a 50% increase from six months ago. People also reshare Reels one billion times through direct messages on a daily basis on the Instagram app alone.

Instagram did not respond to Moneycontrol’s email.

As of January 2022 data, India had over 230 million Instagram users. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the company's earnings calls on October 26 said that Instagram now has more than 2 billion monthly active users and Reels has a $3 billion annual revenue run rate across Instagram and Facebook.

India is the biggest market for both Instagram and WhatsApp.

What’s next?

During this festive season, Sharma went out to showcase her products in exhibitions and other stalls, and with a positive response among the customers, she is leaning back on offline channels to grow her customer base.

These sellers are now increasingly looking at other channels to expand their businesses as engagement on Instagram is gradually dropping.

Kolkata-based Darshinika, which sells Indian wear, initially saw more traction on Instagram but gradually with the app’s focus shifting to Reels, the brand started engaging with its audience through its offline networks. Over the last one year, it has done 90 percent of its sales through offline channels, and only 10 percent through WhatsApp and Instagram.

Over the last few years, Facebook and Instagram pushed a number of features on their platforms to encourage small sellers. The tech giant even boasted of supporting 200 million businesses on Instagram, globally.

But it began to change when Instagram started shifting its focus to videos. Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri has been clear that it no longer will be a photo-sharing app but more inclined towards video after seeing the success of its rivals TikTok and YouTube.

On October 5, the Information reported that making Meta’s Facebook and Instagram into shopping destinations has failed and Meta has been slowly scaling back many of its shopping features.

Not ideal for small sellers?

Sampad Swain, co-founder of Instamojo, which works with independent sellers and direct-to-consumer brands, said that social media like Facebook or Instagram is usually a good starting point but scaling a business via these channels becomes difficult.

“For sellers who are clocking sales for Rs 40,000-50,000, Instagram is perfect. But once you start doing sales of Rs 10-30 lakh a year, Instagram or Facebook will not work anymore,” says Swain.

Managing inventory, payment disputes and customer relationship management are some of the common issues sellers face when selling via social channels.

“Instagram is like a billboard through which you can get traffic to your store. But if you want to create a brand you will have to have your digital store or go through a marketplace. Both will have their pros and cons,” adds Swain.

Depending on the product one needs to decide whether it should be sold on marketplaces or directly to the consumer. For instance, consumers who are buying electronics will prefer to buy a branded product from the marketplace while for a niche brand, it would be easier to reach out to customers directly.

Meanwhile, Vayath of Kala Kutir is now busy building her own website. As of now, she isn’t worried about logistics as many like Instamojo, are helping these businesses to solve these hassles.

First Published on Oct 28, 2022 11:24 AM