Insights The Rise of New Influencers… Insights for Brands in Asia

The virus is changing influencing as we know it. Brands may be slashing budgets and postponing campaigns, but social engagement is at an all time high as more consumers stay home.

Are influencers still relevant? In this piece we look at broad trends from social media, and explore the new ways brands and influencers in Asia are adjusting to the new normal. Social distancing and isolation are transforming both media buying and media consumption, and original content is driving engagement for brands looking to stay relevant and profitable in these challenging markets.

1. COVID has boosted social in unexpected ways, and changed the influencer game

Social media usage is at an all time high. A study of 25,000 consumers across 30 geographies, recorded engagement at 61% above previous periods. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are seeing a 50% uptick in messaging — in countries where the virus impact is most severe. Twitter has 23% more daily users than a year ago. Despite the Facebook backlash people are turning to social media for updates and connection.

Spending may have stalled but engagement has soared. With lower cost per click in the short-term, businesses are finding this a good time to invest in high engagement social channels. What’s different is how they’re using social media. Marketing and ads have given way to direct engagement — one-on-one interaction with other people via zoom and livestreaming. As always, video has the highest organic engagement across most platforms including Twitter.

2. New pockets of influence: building morale… and brand loyalty 

It’s true, events are cancelled, campaigns are cut. Sponsored content and luxury lifestyle influencers are finding themselves on the sidelines. Paid instagram influencers are losing on average 33% of their potential earnings as a result of COVID-19. But social engagement is up. We’re seeing unprecedented interest in trending categories: home decoration, cooking, fitness, entertainment, and health. Brands like Lululemon and Equinox are partnering with micro and macro influencers to build resilient, supportive communities — using the lockdown to their advantage even while physical locations stay closed.

The quarantine has opened up the doors to a new group of ‘domain experts’ to share their knowledge as more people are on the lookout for skills to learn and new ways to use their time productively. Influencers in many categories are pivoting their content to stay relatable to their audiences locked indoors.

3. IGTV, Interactivity — commerce and monetisation are top of mind for social platforms

Social platforms have stepped in — to help brands make the most of the shift to digital, and to help their struggling content creators. Facebook and Instagram have launched shops, and Snapchat introduced a new third-party app program Minis. Instagram launched IGTV ads, Facebook is trying out WhatsApp payments and Snapchat has a new video ad format.

Social media platforms recognise the role influencers play in driving engagement, and are making it easier for their top creators to make money (with or without brands). Much like YouTube, Instagram will now insert ads within influencer video content on IGTV if the content creator can capture and maintain audience interest. They’re also allowing content creators to sell custom badges valued at $0.99 to $4.99 to their followers. 

Plus there’s live shopping (similar to social platforms in China where creators and brands can tag products during live videos). Instagram is also expanding opportunities for creators who want to sell their own merchandise and updating its Brand Collabs Manager platform to help creators find potential brand partners more easily. It’s too early to tell if these monetisation levers succeed but there’s a clear trend towards making influencing a viable source of income for the people who have helped build and sustain these social platforms. 

Cashing In: Platforms are doing their bit to support creators, and grow audiences 

4. A reality check on budgets… where is my money best spent?

As marketers worldwide delay their campaigns and halt product launches, and consumers stay indoors, media budgets are transitioning from out-of-home (OOH), cinemas, events and in-store, toward digital, social media, influencers and TV.

There’s evidence to indicate that brands that market aggressively through a downturn have 256% higher sales than those that do not. Buyer appetites are shrinking in the short-term, but pragmatic leaders are using this time to lay the groundwork for future success. Strategies such as SEO and building engaged social communities are sensible investments that put brands in a good spot when their audiences are ready to spend again. 

All Digital Now: Brands redirect to social and video to build loyalty and engagement 

5. The Rise of DIY Creators — one-stop production shops yield higher ROIs for cost-conscious brands

With commercial photoshoots and campaigns on hiatus, digital creators with production skills are stepping in to fill the gap. Many brands have turned to influencers and everyday consumers to create ad content — and these “homemade” alternatives are finding success.

Big brands aren’t making as many big budget ads with expensive production. But YouTubers and ‘one-stop shop’ video and animation are yielding higher return on investment as brands discover they’re a lot cheaper.

Less aspirational, more authentic: The need for useful, considered content 

As the world comes to terms with the crisis, audiences are looking for authenticity — relatable content that reflects the realities of their everyday existence. Influencers and brands who have succeeded post-COVID understand this. The successful ones have been able to offer hope, and acknowledge the unvarnished truth — we are all in this together.

Closer home, when it comes to influencers and key opinion leaders, Asian consumers have very different views depending on their geography and age. And China marches to an entirely different beat, in many ways shaping trends that are only now emerging elsewhere. 

Things We Know Already: Livestreaming, Micro-KOLs, KOL-led brands, KOL incubators…

We’ve already covered a few key trends in our earlier piece on Chinese consumers. A quick recap on what’s been trending — livestreaming with ecommerce integration, micro-KOLs (key opinion leaders with ~10K-100K followers) who enjoy greater authenticity and engagement with higher return on investment. China’s ease of manufacturing has also meant that local opinion makers are creating their own brands to sell merchandise to their personal fanbases. Then there’s the rising popularity of social platforms Xiaohongshu/Little Red Book, QQ, Bilibili, Douyin and Kuaishou particularly suited to brands looking to target more niche audiences. Platforms are also exploring in-video search, putting products on centerstage and building new opportunities for cross-category collaboration between brands and opinion leaders.

Asia’s millennial consumers most likely to act on KOL recommendations

6. Influencers have power to wield in China and Philippines, less so in the rest of Asia

Influencer marketing has attracted a lot of attention over the past few years, but research highlights that not all consumers in Asia will use content provided by KOLs and influencers when making a considered purchase. The impact of KOLs differ by market and by age, for instance in China (53%) of consumers have made a purchase based on the recommendation of KOLs and influencers, this number falls to 34% in Hong Kong, and 20% in Japan. Millennials are most likely to find influencers on social media trustworthy (40%). South Korea and Japan are most resistant to influencer marketing, relying on the advice of experts and professionals over the claims of influencers.

7. Where Social Platforms are the Internet: How China Marches to a Different Beat

Social marketing is a bit of a complex science in China. Unlike other parts of the world, email marketing, websites, even search engines aren’t used as much as social media platforms.  

In China, WeChat has evolved from just chat to an entire ecosystem, replacing the necessity for a brand website and taking consumers through the product journey — giving brands an opportunity to gather valuable consumer data and retarget, and helping customers receive timely information about offers and discounts.

For most Western brands, understanding these differences is critical, and this means influencers still have an important role to play. Especially when it comes to creating culturally sensitive content that caters to China’s differentiated audiences: small tier/vs big tier, onshore vs offshore. Brands will have to trust their local experts and co-create to succeed on any of these emerging platforms. 

8. Tiny Brand Evangelists… Leverage Key Opinion Customers (KOCs) and Private Traffic

Until recently, influencers in China were most likely celebrities — singers, actors, and industry leaders, but with consumers growing increasingly skeptical of paid promotions, many domestic brands moved to building support more organically among everyday consumers who championed their products. Key Opinion Customers (KOCs) are the ones buying brands, they’re the ones telling friends and family they should too. They act as gatekeepers to private traffic: audiences and sales channels that are otherwise inaccessible to brands, without the help of KOCs. Brands like beauty retailer Perfect Diary and others are creating WeChat groups of KOCs to share brand news, then relying on their super fans to disseminate news through their own private channels.

These micro-micro-micro influencers are all about reliability and trust. KOCs are approachable and attainable and have much smaller followings, lending authenticity to brands in a way celebrity recommendations don’t. While KOCs aren’t replacing KOLs yet, they’re an opportunity for brands to target new user bases and create new foundations of trust between consumers and their brand.

9. Esports and Gaming: growing opportunities for targeted collaborations

In Asia as elsewhere, online games and esports are helping fill the gap in live sports. Video game usage is up 75% across the US, about 80% in China since COVID. This includes millions of students and adults staying indoors through periods of social distancing. 

The online gaming boom however is part of a longer-term trend that was already gaining momentum well before the virus hit. The global eSports market is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, expected to reach $1.79 billion in value by 2022 with Asia 

accounting for a substantial share. For a sense of scale, gaming fans represent 1/3 of the overall YouTube audience, and top female gaming YouTubers have followings of over 20 million subscribers. Gaming and esports influencers have highly engaged audiences (among men and women, millennials and Gen Zs) that brands can utilise as part of their marketing mix at relatively modest investment levels.

E-sports gain momentum: Growing audience for targeted brand messages

The Key Takeaway: Be Sensitive, Be Sensible, Be Useful

Many brands struggle with how sales-driven their messaging should be. The successful ones have one thing in common — they’re focused on adding value for their audiences. The most effective influencers at this time are the ones creating, being artists, being gamers, being authentic and promoting products and services they believe in.

Businesses may be in difficult place, but it’s also a time to showcase true brand values, to collaborate and reach out to consumers with useful, meaningful content. The Content Marketing Institute reported that 61% of B2B brands and 67% of B2Cs lack a documented content marketing plan. For brands, that’s a good place to begin. Focusing on channels, audiences and activities that lay the foundation for future success.