To say influencer marketing is a double-edged sword is truly an understatement, but when it comes to striking a collaborative relationship, brands may face many obstacles.
We’ve spoken to many marketers before about the risks faced with engaging influencers, but this time we are looking towards influencers to provide their side of the story.
Marketing’s Now Following column gets up close with social media personalities and celebrities to find out what more can be done to foster and strengthen the working relationship between influencers and marketers.
In this edition, we talk to the queen of influencers, Wendy Cheng, better known as Xiaxue about her experiences in the market since she started her online blog in 2003. Here she talks about evolving with different platforms and her top client pains.
She has worked with brands over the years such as ambassadorships with Datsumo Labo, Kao Merries, Tyre Queen and partnerships with Disney, Carragheen and L’Oreal to name a few.
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She is also a host on her own show on Clicknetwork titled Xiaxue’s Guide to Life. Most recently, Cheng set the media industry abuzz with her collaboration with television network E! Asia for an original production called Wendy versus the World, starring herself.
In a very candid interview, Cheng gets real about the industry, which has over the years grown more saturated with more new faces emerging to get a piece of the pie.
Marketing: How did you start out as an influencer?
I didn't really start out trying to be an influencer, it just sort of happened that way. When I started, blogging was new and YouTube wasn't even invented yet! I just started writing on a website like an online diary and people started reading.
After a while, someone I counted as my mentor approached me and told me I could make a career out of this. He’s an entrepreneur and a really good friend and I am so glad that he told me to try this out. He said:
Why are you paying for your clothes, nails and hair? People would love to give it to you for free in exchange for a mention on your blog, which you are already doing anyway for brands you pay for!
I was really young at the time at only 18 years old. So I didn’t know how to go about doing this. It’s kind of difficult to sell yourself when people didn't even know what blogs were - at the time.
Marketing: What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
It was very difficult to translate to the average business owner what gain you could give to them initially without them already seeing results from other people or businesses. Nobody was doing brand-influencer sponsorships at the time.
My mentor told me to create a portfolio of all the successful posts I have as well, who I am as well as the statistics of my blog, and give it to the businesses that I wanted sponsorship or money from. It was kind of painful at first because I felt very paiseh [embarrassed] to do it. I couldn't afford a manager at the time so I created my portfolio, and to my surprise, there were brands who would do my nails and hair for free, in that earlier era.
One of my first hair sponsorships was from Kimage. The people in charge were really nice – but I don’t think they valued me as their client or consumer of a product that they wanted because I was placed under the care of their “Academy”. I would get my hair done by students – but it was free and I do understand that it was an untried area for them. I also had a nails sponsorship.
Because I was so used to what traditional media placed as expectations, I actually told these brands that their engagement with me was an ambassadorship, just like how Fann Wong was for New Moon Abalone. Ambassadorships come with a certain expectation which goes beyond ads; you have to stand for the things the brand believes in.
So when I posted a controversial blog entry about handicap toilets, there was quite a lot of hoo-ha about it, and these brands I was working with actually dropped me. Those were the two first big ambassadorships I got dropped from – and that taught me a lesson.
Afterwards I was very careful about saying who I endorsed.
If a client wants an ambassadorship, they have to be prepared for the fact that I am a controversial person.
Marketing: How has the influencer/media landscape changed from then until now?
Definitely the speed of the Internet has changed and people are getting less patient.
In the past, I think audiences did not want to watch videos as much because of the bandwidth it took up, coupled with the internet being slow and laggy. But now, you can watch a YouTube video on train or wherever with 4G. It is quick and there are no problems with it.
So, I think people are just going towards things that are more content-heavy.
You can have more packed into a video, with audio and much more as audiences expect more of you than just text.
The fact that we are always on our smartphones as opposed to our computers changes things as well, it makes having a presence on apps very important – unless you are on an app you can’t really get those eyeballs because people just go on different apps. They don't want to go on Safari and click to read.
Marketing: How was the transition like from blogging to social media?
Personally for me, when the Instagram trend came about, was very easy for me at first because of Dash's [her son] pictures and everything. It was just growing, and I didn't really care about it. It felt so natural to me because I've always been so good at what I'm doing.
It's not arrogance, it's just that I understand that people are interested in my life and that's just the way it is and it will forever be that way.
But then I started to realise that my Instagram followers were tapering, sometimes they even dropped. So for a while I was a little depressed, thinking, "Okay, am I becoming obsolete? "
I saw what people were doing to gain followers. They were showing white colour feeds, really nice pictures and they put so much effort into the pictures and not about the caption, and I was thinking if I should pander to that.
And maybe for a while I did try. So, instead of just using my phone camera to take funny pictures and post, I would tell myself, no, people won't like that ugly picture. I would take my DSLR and post a good picture with good lighting and, as usual, I would spend a lot of time writing the caption but then I realised that nobody appreciates that.
Because my best was not good enough for this whole pretty girl, white feed thing. It's not my thing, it's not what I'm good at. So I decided not to pander to that anymore.
If my Instagram isn't growing, then so be it, because that's just not what I'm good at.
That's why I told myself to do what I'm good at. Why bother doing something you're not good at and trying to win over those who are already so good at it? I just decided to do YouTube videos, make-up videos, because I think that is something I can get money from because beauty brands are quite good at spending money.
I just told myself to try and blogging again. And since blogging is dead, I had to think of a new way to do it. Which is why I kind of started vlogging on YouTube.
Marketing: What are some of the challenges as an influencer today given that the market is very saturated?
Yeah, it's very annoying (laughs). It is very difficult for someone to stand out, particularly in a platform such as Instagram where very few things make you stand out. Instagram is very picture-centric, about beauty and stuff. So it's very saturated in that sense.
It's very difficult for a young person to be out there and be known. You just have to find a niche for yourself where you think you're better than anyone else and keep hammering out content.
Marketing: How hard is it to stay relevant in the eyes of marketers?
I think you just have to be kind of outrageous. You have to call attention to yourself and not be afraid of backlash. I think, I guess one good way is just to speak your mind, create controversy also?
But with the controversy you need be sincere about it. You need to have a point to make, and you need to know you're right and stand your ground.
You can't be someone like Steven Lim [local personality] who is kind of outrageous for the sake of being outrageous.
That way you get no respect, you get no fans. I mean, I'm sure he has a few fans, but most Singaporeans are not his fans. So, I think about somebody like Dee Kosh [influencer and local radio DJ], where he started as a YouTuber and, in all senses, he didn't seem like somebody who would succeed.
I mean, he's not traditionally good-looking, he's not - I wouldn't say he was cool, in a way also? I'm sure he is to his fans, but not in a traditional sense, not like a model-like kind of cool. But he spoke his mind, he constantly churned out content on his YouTube and he's really funny, so after a while people start to notice him, think he's interesting and start to watch him.
People used to hate him also but I think after a while he kind of had his own niche that he created for himself. And also, he hopped on traditional by going to 98.7FM to be a DJ. So I think that helps as well, bridging between traditional media to new.
Marketing: What are some client personalities you enjoy and dislike working with?
I like it when advertisers understand the risk that comes with advertising with influencers, and they don't come and whine about it afterwards when there is backlash or a bad comment.
I think it is very annoying when clients do that.
I prefer it when clients are able to weigh the pros and cons about engaging influencers and recognise that despite potential cons from bad comments, there are pros. It shows that the ad is engaging and people are looking at it.
It is also great when clients realise that giving influencers the liberty to do what we do best, instead of dictating it for us will push their content the furthest it possibly can.
For example, if right now Whisper asks me to do an ad where they want me to prance around in white pants in a field and stuff, that's just not going to work. That's just not me.
I'd want to do it in a funny way, not in a “women-empowering”, “running in a meadow” kind of way.
Clients need to understand to not just go for numbers but go for somebody suitable for your brand. And if they're not suitable, let them be themselves instead of pushing them into being this image you want them to be.
Marketing: For clients who are apprehensive about backlash or controversy, how do you help smooth things over when convincing them to work with you?
I would just say that it's time to grow up and that's what it's like in this era. Clients no longer have this safe hold where they can just place their ad on TV and not realise what people are saying about their ad, or not entertain the possibility that actually no one is watching it.
It takes a certain amount of courage to say, "This is the trend, I'm going to go with it. It's scary but there are good things that come out of it, too, and this is where everyone is heading towards and I just need to stop this fear.”
And they need to see also how other brands have leveraged this and managed to carve out success for themselves on new Internet platforms, so you just have to go with the times.
It's also okay to just say that you're a traditional business and you don't want to do this kind of advertising. But you can't say it is bad advertising just because there is backlash.
Marketing: What was the craziest thing a client has asked you to do?
There were clients who kind of told me to fake results when there weren't, I can't remember specific examples, I can only remember telling them, "No. F*ck off."
For example, if they say that this cream will reduce freckles and I put it on and it doesn't, I would say that maybe it didn't really make a huge difference. However, they will ask for you to brighten the images and make it lighter. They wouldn't call it a lie; they would call it an “exaggeration of results”. (laughs)
Marketing: Any funny boo-boos you have made so far in your career?
When clients actually ask us for an ad, we usually take the picture, write a caption and send it to the client for vetting. Most of the time the client would change small details, for example adding hashtags, using their brand name without the capitalisation, to name a few. These changes are fine as long as the essence of it is still what I truly meant from my heart.
However, there was one case when I sent my draft over through my manager, and my manager sent back the text on WhatsApp with "okay, client approves of this, please post now", followed by the caption. So I copy and pasted it and posted it wholesale.
People noticed it and were actually reporting it. And they were saying "What's going on? Are your captions not written by yourself?"
It's very easy to assume that when people don't know what's going on behind-the-scenes. They probably misunderstood that the entire caption was written by the client. And because I always stand up against these happenings, they just thought I was a hypocrite.
Marketing: Which platforms are clients more interested in?
I find clients more interested in Instagram – and it’s great that Instagram is constantly evolving and providing more options, from supporting videos to having multiple pictures. It gives clients a lot more on a platform which already has a large volume of users.
Clients also generally prefer platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. They do request for videos but videos cost a lot more. Hence, they don’t usually consider doing a video unless they have a huge budget of at least five digits to produce one.
However, I do find YouTube to be a great platform for brands because unlike Facebook and Instagram where things can get lost in a feed, videos stay put and are easily searchable. In that sense – I think YouTube is worth the money.
Marketing: We noticed you are now bringing more YouTube content. Do you get more engagement out of this platform?
I really do enjoy myself when I am writing a blog entry, but I also find that it is increasingly difficult to spend so much time on the computer just writing something. Maybe its times changing, or I am getting older and this causes a lot of backaches (laughs), or having my kid coming to bother me.
I also know that not many people are reading blogs, hence you get more reasons not to blog and less reasons to do so. Either way I felt that it was time to transition to video. I still write my blogposts, the only difference is that instead of just writing it out on text, I read it with a teleprompter on video.
It’s great because viewers are able to hear your tone of voice and see your facial expressions. This changes a lot of things and helps get the message across clearer. I also have an editor who is helping now, as opposed to past blog entries which were solely done by me and took up a fair amount of time. Having more people to help me definitely helped in allowing me to push out more content.
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Marketing: What do you think the next five years is going to look like for the influencer and media landscape?
I don't know. It's quite unpredictable. I don't know if it will ever go back again, because I feel like people are getting more and more stupid. But then again, I also see sometimes that people are interested in very long articles or long, rambling talking points on YouTube and stuff. These things get as many hits as just a stupid make-up video.
So who knows! But right now it just seems like people are growing more and more impatient, and more and more stupid.
You keep creating content that is just fast and easily digestible.
I think that nowadays, content is very clickbait-y. I don't know if the trend will die or not, but that's something. So I guess, if you're an influencer, you need to kind of observe what's going on and go with it.
Marketing: So what's next for you?
I don't know, man. The same guy who told me to go and start doing ads, he also said that that I needed to do it quickly because the window would close on me. Fast forward 14 years, here I am today. I've just been along for the ride and hoping it lasts forever and ever.