Collaborations between brands and influencers to reach customers have become standard. But while these symbiotic relationships have normally thrived, concerns exist if an overstuffed bubble has formed. What’s more, recent events such as the COVID-19 global pandemic and protests in Hong Kong have sent ripples through the local influencer ecosystem. Simon Yuen talks to several influencers and agency experts to examine the risks and remaining potential of this part of the industry.
Online personalities have existed since the dawn of the web, but it has only been in the past decade of massive social platform growth that traditional celebrities and prominent figures have had to compete with content creators.
As this phenomenon first became apparent, marketers or their appointed agencies reacted by simply combing through social media accounts, looking for individuals with an impressive follower count. Once identified, marketers would then have to spend hours trawling through the individual digital histories of these preferred influencers to determine if they were brand-safe.
“Multiply this by the number of influencers that a brand needed in a single campaign, and it became an arduous process,” says Kosuke Sogo, CEO of AnyMind Group.
Kosuke Sogo, CEO of AnyMind Group
“Marketers might not have any visibility into an influencer’s followers, [knowledge of] the actual audiences that marketers wanted to reach, or what the followers would do after seeing the posts.”
Since that time, influencers, marketers, and agencies have greatly improved and streamlined their methods. One of the biggest results of that has been a huge increase in the number of influencers, and the marketing agencies and platforms that support them, each touting their own uniqueness.
Sogo explains: “Another key change is the perception of influencer marketing. Early on, influencer marketing was perceived to be a once-in-a-year activity or a guerrilla marketing tactic. This has evolved over recent years, with brands even activating always-on campaigns, which is why there is more scrutiny and questions about influencer marketing, and it’s similar to how programmatic matured in Asia.”
These changes ultimately led to the same conclusion: making influencer marketing an easier process and providing marketers with more insights. Now, according to Business Insider Intelligence, the influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth up to US$15 billion by 2022. And to put that growth into perspective, that’s almost double the 2019 figure of US$8 billion.
“I didn’t intend to be an influencer. I started off by sharing my daily photos and styles on Instagram, and then eventually gained a certain amount of followers who liked my photos and then ‘entered’ the industry,” Travis Li says.
Travis Li is a Hong Kong-based fashion and lifestyle influencer
A Hong Kong-based fashion and lifestyle influencer, he tells Marketing the path to becoming an influencer isn’t difficult, it’s staying relevant.
“Followers now expect to see more sides of you. For example, you have to be a lot more versatile and creative in terms of styles and the content that you are creating,” he says.
Influencers need to work hard to remain popular, but the industry has a low threshold for joining. From either an influencer or agency perspective, the industry is still solid.
“Social media is still an important part of most people’s lives. Brands usually choose influencers who match their styles or brand image for collaboration or paid partnerships, while each influencer is unique.” Li says.
Sogo also doesn’t think there is a bubble in the industry. He says that AnyMind Group currently works closely with influencers, not just to monetise their content, but also educate and coach them for further growth in terms of content development, branding, and more.
Other initiatives the group is working on include offering opportunities for influencers to produce and sell their branded merchandise to followers more easily.
John Kerr, CEO of Edelman Singapore, agrees the influencer marketing industry still has much potential to tap into.
Kerr explains: “There is no bubble and I see influencer marketing spend being less impacted than other ad formats apart from searches. Given the size of addressable audiences, and time spent versus other media formats, social influencer partnerships and investment seem underweight.”
John Kerr, CEO of Edelman Singapore
These voices reveal a general consensus that the influencer industry, and its relationship with brands, still has plenty of room to grow. But as they are also keen to point out, things are still far from perfect in the land of like and subscribe. Kerr spotlights some of the biggest issues.
“Validating audiences and engagement metrics, failure to control the final content to ensure appropriateness, brand safety in making sure the influencer and their history do not pose risk, along with difficulties in forming an exclusive partnership with influencers, are some of the common challenges.”
Measuring the effectiveness of influencer marketing has also been a challenge. Marketers and agency platforms have been working hard to better measure the contributions and value of influencers.
Yet, Lara Jefferies, managing director of the agency PLUG, says there are currently a lot of tools for brands to use to assess and understand how to run effective influencer marketing campaigns and what KPIs to put against them.
“A lot of progress has been made, but for brands that are hugely ROI-driven it’s an ongoing discussion. For influencers, this is really important and to be effective they need to be able to show brands who their audiences are, how engaged they are in the content, and whether they have genuine followers,” she says.
The key element moving forward is to tie in influencer marketing to business results, displaying direct attributable revenue from influencer marketing activities. Strategies need to be created that convince audiences rather than just act as promotions, and present actual outcomes apart from post-engagement or reach.
Lara Jefferies, managing director of PLUG
As for what part influencers will play in that future, Jefferies posits: “They should play a longer game and align themselves with brands with similar values. This symbiotic relationship will allow them to thrive and will make them into true brand ambassadors rather than occasional event visitors. For brands, this will mean they can get more from influencers than just an occasional post. Further to this, I’m sure we’ll be seeing platforms improving their metrics, and technologies that examine demographics will also become more accurate.”
Authenticity is another issue that marketers and agencies face. In markets such as the US, Europe, Australia, and the UK, influencers have a responsibility to declare paid posts or sponsored products to encourage full transparency. Though this has not yet officially come into force in Hong Kong, it’s a movement of which local brands are taking note.
“Authenticity is something we’ve all heard a lot of regarding influencer marketing over the years,” Jefferies says.
“Brands want to have an authentic relationship with the influencers they work with and vice versa. That often means a longer term partnership with someone who is a genuine fan of the brand and whose followers will be genuinely interested in the content they create.
“For influencers, part of this authenticity process is finding and honing their own unique voice, being selective with the brands they collaborate with, and creating authentic and relevant content.”
Although certain standards would be good for both brands and influencers, barriers such as technological limitations mean it will be difficult to set up a regional or international institution to regulate influencers.
“I don’t think it’s necessary [to set up a regulatory body], but it may actually be useful for influencers in terms of showing and standardising values. Some influencers have agents to help make them more ‘marketable’, but a lot of others don’t,” Jefferies says.
Right now the entire world is struggling from the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes the entire marketing industry, with brands having squeezed their budgets, which has inevitably affected influencers.
And though all of them agree the current pandemic has severely impacted this part of the marketing industry, there are still opportunities ahead.
Jefferies explains: “Many influencers have also used this time wisely and have been creating and producing more appropriate and engaging content for their followers. Alongside just numbers, brands are impressed by quality and engaging content – so time spent wisely at home will definitely yield dividends after the pandemic. Imagination will prevail.”
During the pandemic – restricted by social distancing measures – many influencers are running out of the content sources they need to keep themselves exposed to audiences. To hold the attention of their following, some influencers have pivoted to create content that relates to the current state of their lives.
“Business has not been so good in recent months. The entire influencer market has literally been frozen up. I wasn’t as busy as previous months, but it is good for me to slow down and spend some time at home with my family, and produce some lifestyle photos instead of chasing after paid jobs,” lifestyle influencer Wendee Hunt tells Marketing.
Wendee Hunt, lifestyle influencer
Influencers have to think about how they want to position themselves, and who they are as a brand, with consideration being made to how many of the changes they institute will remain in place post-pandemic. They might become more confident in stepping outside their comfort zones and experiment with home-made videos, from cooking and exercising to fashion and beauty, across different platforms.
One example is former Japanese international footballer Keisuke Honda. He has recently been uploading videos about taking on outdoor challenges from his fans, his journey as a professional footballer, and a message that he would like to give to the world from Brazil, where he is continuing his career as a footballer.
But regardless of any industry evolution or worldwide event, one major danger for brands working with influencers will likely always remain: choosing the wrong one. Though it’s tempting for brands to work with a hot prospect, an inappropriate influencer will only put a brand at risk through their unexpected actions.
For example, on 16 November 2019, Hong Kong-based influencer Mingjai launched a Facebook live broadcast. During the stream, he voiced his opinions regarding Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. His stance was not well-received by audiences and since then the number of likes on his official Facebook page have dropped from around 370,000 to just over 242,000 at the time of writing. At the same time, his YouTube channel lost more than 100,000 subscribers.
But it wasn’t just Mingjai’s own social stock that took a hit. Columbia Sportswear, one of the companies that collaborated with Mingjai at that time, was caught in the aftershock. Netizens flocked to the company’s Facebook page to leave angry comments towards the brand due to association.
The “Is your brand safe with influencers?” report published by Zolar (a society for authentic influencers from Generation Z founded by New Media Group) has some guidance on the matter. It advises that brands that want to avoid safety problems and optimise campaign performance should maintain trust among audiences, influencers, and the brands themselves.