By the year 2020, micro-influencers and their impeccably managed Instagram feeds will be worth $10 billion USD. Brands both minuscule and mighty are already allocating increasingly large portions of their marketing budgets to these social media mavens, banking on the power of likes, swipes, and taps to sell their products. This is a sign that brands are adapting to modern advancements and capitalising on Southeast Asia’s 402 million active social media users.

There’s nothing micro about it

Micro-influencers are classed as those who own accounts which command anywhere between 10k and 100k followers. Simply put, they are the world travellers, fitness gurus and addictingly relatable ‘girl-next-door’ types that promote their journeys, faults and flaws in an age that is over-saturated with perfection. They’re not celebrities, but make no mistake – there is nothing micro about their impact.

These influencers generate 11 times the ROI of traditional advertising. Compared to their celebrity counterparts, they are 10 times as effective at getting users to engage with their posts and thus try their featured products, and they cost considerably less than Kylie Jenner’s going rate of $1 million USD per post. This is indicative of a growing trend among younger consumers to renounce traditional advertising in favour of peer-to-peer recommendations, as the authenticity of icons and large corporate accounts is called into question.

Micro-influencers curate their feeds with their followers in mind, and the most successful ones only market products and services that align with their account and the interests of their audience. Thus, although they still earn up to $500 USD per post, users trust that their brand recommendations are based on genuine judgement, not the promise of pay-off.

The rise of the Instagram empire

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Trust, however, is only one part of the equation. To fully understand the rise of micro-influencers in the region, one must recognise Southeast Asia’s technological realities. In lieu of the computer-based online shopping habits of other countries, Southeast Asians primarily use mobile devices to access information – in fact, smartphone penetration in Asia surpasses 90%. Add in the one-two punch of unstable Internet connections and intermittent data, and, suddenly, spending a significant sum of money on short, data-friendly social media posts seems like an excellent strategy.  

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The question, then, is if we should be heralding the rise of the micro-influencer empire. Brands stand to benefit – clearly, ‘micro’ is the way to boost engagement and convert customers, as 82% of social media users say they are ‘highly likely’ to follow a recommendation made by a micro-influencer. Micro-influencers are being paid well to promote products and consumers don’t mind seeing the occasional advert from their favourite accounts.

However, not all micro-influencers play by the rules.

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There is an issue with influencer marketing. In short, the rules that are meant to inform and protect consumers are often disregarded. According to a survey conducted by BrandHero, 86% of influencer posts in Southeast Asia aren’t compliant with Facebook’s Branded Content Policies, which clearly state that branded content must be marked as such, whether the influencer receives money or free goods and services.

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From Thailand to Malaysia, Facebook’s maxim that branded content must be marked as such is repeatedly violated. In Singapore alone, research reveals that fewer than 16% of sponsored posts were properly tagged. At this point, followers can’t help but wonder if what is being said about the brand is true. In short, is the latest mascara really a must-try, or is this person just promoting it to get paid?

If Instagram has its way, consumers won’t be wondering much longer. They’re re-introducing “transparency and consistency” with their Branded Content Tool, which will “help creators disclose results of partnerships” by adding a short tagline beneath sponsored posts. In addition, they’ve incentivised its use by offering brands analytics they would otherwise struggle to obtain.

The final verdict

Southeast Asia’s micro-influencers are here to stay. Judging by their success, they’ve proven to brands that good marketing is too personal to be left up to celebrities and icon influencers – and to the technological reality that advertising must be short and sweet to succeed, they provide an answer.

As with any upheaval, the rise of micro-influencers presents us with new options. Rather than absorb advertisements unconsciously, consumers select which accounts they want to follow and feel more connected to the products they choose to buy. The greatest danger, some say, is going to a micro-influencer’s Instagram feed unarmed, lest their food posts make you walk to the nearest ice cream shop in the middle of the night.

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We must pause to consider the implications of that mindset. It makes sense to herald the rise of Southeast Asia’s social media marketers as the initial step toward decentralising influence, but trusting them to provide consumers with unfiltered authenticity could be a mistake.

After all, the illusion of reality that they introduce to our Instagram feeds can often be just that: a delusion. Micro-influencers promote products to get paid. So, go ahead and swipe, like, and buy what your favourite micro-influencer is selling. Just remember to scroll with scrutiny, because just like any billboard, advertisement, or celebrity endorsement, micro-influencing is still marketing.