Why the right micro-influencer strategy can create big returns for your brand

While influencers and KOLs have become a dominant force in social media marketing, don’t discount the ability of micro- and nano-influencers to generate powerful and authentic word-of-mouth for your brand.

They’re all over your Instagram feed. They’re on YouTube. Facebook. TikTok. Even podcasts.

Call them influencers, or KOLs — whatever you call them, they’re the ones who’ve spent the better part of the last decade completely reshaping the way we (and the younger generations that follow them) shop and discover the things we love online. They tell us what to buy, how to wear it, style it, shoot it, and even what to caption it.

Like the actors, musicians, athletes, models and other famous pitchmen that came before them, they represent a classic, winning formula for brands: put the product next to a recognisable face that a large segment of the population trusts, admires and wants to emulate.

The idea goes: If a global superstar like George Clooney likes to drink a certain tequila, then George Clooney’s fans ought to drink this certain tequila, as well. They might even get some of that Hollywood charm and `to rub off on them, just by sipping it.

However, when bloggers and vloggers started to become the most talked-about fixtures in the beauty world and in the front rows at fashion week, we began to witness a seismic shift in the economy of influence.

Suddenly, these “regular” folks had risen among the crowd, offering a perspective that felt more real, more authentic, more “just like us” than the polished A-listers we had always known and loved. In fact, they weren’t celebrities in the traditional sense at all — many of them simply had a subject, like fashion, fitness or food, that they were passionate about, combined with a willingness to share that passion with the world.

Through social media networks, we could watch them grow their audience and sharpen their #aesthetic and hone a personal brand as they became full-blown, Capital-I Influencers, and it was hard not to feel both simultaneously a part of that growth, and also, a sense that it could be any one of us, too.
We wanted to know what they wore, what they ate, where they shopped, how they relaxed — brands noticed this, and quickly took advantage. So did social networks, and e-commerce platforms, and of course, the influencers themselves. The result? More influencers. More hashtags. More collabs. And why not? Fame, fortune, and an endless supply of products you love? Who wouldn’t want that?

While year after year brought new questions, with thought leaders and op-eds asking if we had reached “peak influencer”, it’s become increasingly clear that there is little chance of ever going back.

In fact, what we’ve seen is another seismic shift as the influencers and KOLs themselves have gone from the relatable outsiders to globally recognised celebrities in their own right. While their reach has grown, so has their price tag, pushing the limits for which brands even can afford to work with them, and perhaps reducing some of the relatability that earned them so many fans in the first place.

But in a world where brands put influencers first in their digital marketing strategies and everyone wants you to like, comment and subscribe, a new market, made of micro-influencers and nano-influencers, has been rapidly emerging to make opinion leaders of us all. It may just be the one your brand needs in the year ahead.

What makes a micro-influencer?

When it comes to micro- and nano-influencers, it’s all about the numbers. While marketers differ on the specifics, the majority tend to agree that nano-influencers hover around 1,000 to 10,000 followers, while the micro-influencers live in the 10,000 to 100,000 followers range. Once you break that 100K mark, it’s safe to say you’ve entered KOL territory. 

“In our four years, some of our micro-influencers have turned into KOLs,” says Vin Ng, business development director for Spread-it, Hong Kong’s largest micro-influencer platform.

“We don’t say, ‘Okay, you have 100,000 followers now, you’re no longer a micro-influencer’, because now we actually develop KOL as well. But as long as they’re in our app, willing to join campaigns, willing to stay active, we are more than happy to have them there.”

According to Ng, there are three keys that make someone an ideal micro-influencer: First, the content they put out is actually authentic to the individual, their personality, their interests. Second is photo quality, because being able to shoot the brand or campaign being featured in a positive way is crucial.
And finally, their profile itself. They need to be active on social media, and it should go without saying, but in a time when anyone can buy followers to boost their reputation, those followers need to be real — something Spread-it verifies for its clients.

Authenticity is everything

It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with KOLs, micro-influencers, nano-influencers, or anybody speaking on behalf of your brand, authenticity should be at the core of your messaging.

Likewise, the up-and-coming young consumers who have been marketed to their entire lives are much better at spotting when they’re being sold a bag of half-truths — which goes back to the same issue of massive, celebrity level KOLs who might call “Brand A” their favorite lipstick one day, and “Brand Y” their favorite the next.

While some brands don’t mind, and even enjoy being associated with an influencer willing to deliver that sort of glowing praise, others looking to build a community around their products and the people who love them might find more trust working with users with a smaller platform.

Ng notes that among Spread-it’s network of micro-influencers (or “Spreadians”, as they’re called), their research has shown that reach rate is actually much higher for users with fewer than 10,000 followers, and the highest engagement rates happen on profiles between the 1,000 and 5,000 follower mark.

It makes sense; a user with a smaller following will have an easier time interacting with commenters, as a result, those in their “community” will feel a closer association with the influencer, as they’ve grown together. Ideally, those positive associations carry over to the brands they promote.
Another key for authenticity is for brands to trust the micro-influencers to create the content. Over 75% of Spread-it users say the top thing they value when working with a brand is creative freedom.

Don’t ditch KOLs

One thing that Ng notes when it comes to influencer marketing is that all boats rise, whether you’re working with micro- or nano-level influencers and KOLs alike. Going micro doesn’t mean having to ditch the big names; if you have the budget, it’s always better to work with both.

Ng thinks of it like an iceberg, where one top-tier influencer or celebrity can give your campaign an instant hit of visibility and credibility, but all those smaller profiles down below are going to give it the bulk and substance that resonates from one individual to another.

“Micro-influencers aren’t here to replace KOLs, because they won’t, and vice versa, KOLs couldn’t replace micro-influencers,” he says. “It’s like a one plus one equals three kind of thing. With micro-influencers plus a high value KOL, you can create a better campaign and achieve KPI a lot more.”

Tapping into China

With China’s rapid economic and social bounceback amid the ongoing global pandemic, more and more brands are feeling a sense of urgency when it comes to breaking into that market — one with a completely different set of rules and platforms when it comes to social media and how influence works.
Ashley Galina Dudarenok is the founder of Alarice & ChoZan, specializing in digital marketing and strategy for brands in the Chinese market. Her 500+ page quarterly report on all things marketing in China is highly respected, and offers insights for brands who want to do exactly that.

When it comes to breaking into China’s influencer market, Dudarenok is firm: It won’t be cheap.

“You can’t enter China with $10,000 US and expect to succeed,” she says. Brands are playing a whole different ballgame with influencers there, many of whom have even launched their own brands to control all elements of the business in-house.

Ng agrees. “If you ask me how I see the China market, I say it’s going to be huge for the next ten years. But the question I always ask is ‘How much budget do you have?’ With a lot of budget, you can do a lot of things.”

Influencer marketing has evolved quickly in China, and with influencer incubators becoming a regular step to a career in the country,, there is a larger crop of “micro-KOLs” available for brands who wish to sell themselves across platforms like WeChat, Douyin, and Taobao.

In her book, Working with Bloggers, Influencers and KOLs, Dudarenok notes that micro-KOLs are “attractive to younger consumers who see themselves as more independent and less prone to the influence of commercial interests and personalities.”

However, it’s true in China as it is elsewhere that it’s a combination of top-tier, mid-tier and micro-KOLs that offers the best solution, so, be prepared to spend.

Prepare to go live

If other markets should take anything away from China, it’s the success that the country has had for the last three years through livestreaming. Turning the 11.11 Single’s Day holiday into a series of livestreamed events across multiple days, Alibaba’s 2020 Global Shopping Festival generated RMB498 billion, or US$74.1 billion. Not bad for a down year.

China’s livestream success inspired Spread-it to launch the Live Streaming Academy, training brands and aspiring influencers alike on the ins and outs of going live. From what Ng sees currently, just because someone is a great influencer who can post great content, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best at earning live sales.

“We believe that by using specifically trained livestreamers for live is much more interactive, and the result is actually a lot better,” says Ng. “They’re not too well known, they don’t have a lot of followers on IG or Facebook, but they are really fun, really interactive — basically, they’re really good at sales.”
With live sales events continuing to drive massive sales numbers in China and more and more live events popping up in Hong Kong, it’s the next place marketers should be looking when it comes to selling their brand.

Regardless of when and how commerce rebounds in Hong Kong, between the next generation of livestream-ready micro-influencers and a whole crop of niche, authentic content creators with engaged communities ready to work, brands looking to make the biggest impact might find the solution lies in thinking small.

This article was first published on the print edition of MARKETING-INTERACTIVE.