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Waking up to social influencers

The Singapore Government has long been on social media but appears to be only now waking up to the potential influence of influencers.

Last week, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) made known that it had paid influencers to help raise awareness of the Year of Climate Action.

Some of the influencers posted photos of themselves with remote controls showing a temperature of 25 deg C, which would have been ironic back in January when temperatures in some parts of Singapore dipped to almost 21 deg C.

Another influencer posed with a bicycle and in the photo caption, wrote that he was reducing his carbon footprint.

The MEWR campaign comes after the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said last month that it had mobilised an influencer army to plug Budget 2018.

Social media influencers and one of the most important national policies of the year - what could go wrong?

Well, for starters, one of the influencers actually called the ministry "Sg govt of finance" in a post.

(Clockwise from top left) Social media influencers Cheng Kai Ting, Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng were among the more than 50 influencers hired by the Ministry of Finance to promote the Budget process.
(Clockwise from top left) Social media influencers Cheng Kai Ting, Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng were among the more than 50 influencers hired by the Ministry of Finance to promote the Budget process. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

The campaigns engaged those who are known as micro-influencers which, by one definition, includes accounts with a following of between 1,000 and 100,000 on social media.

The truth is, one wouldn't typically associate social media influencers with politics and policies - at least not in this country.

In fact, you're more likely to see an influencer pose with a cat going meow, than one with a sponsored post for MEWR.

Okay, that was a low-hanging joke. But you know what else is low-hanging? The tactic of using influencers to disperse content.

Social media influencers bring with them "eyeballs" and a ready audience, and it's easy to tap their reach.

 

"The use of micro-influencers helps us to amplify our message beyond the platforms that we own," the MEWR spokesman said in a telling statement.

It suggests that ministries now believe they need the help of influencers to get their messages to certain groups, namely those on social media who see no need to read the news or visit the ministries' websites and Facebook pages.

In a Fortune interview, Mr Mike Heller, founder of social media influencer marketing agency Talent Resources, called the advent of influencers "a major disruption" in marketing.

What drives this disruption is the tendency of some consumers to trust influencers more than conventional advertisements or celebrity endorsements.

In my view, this may signal the end of the era of big brand names and a shift towards a new era of personalities.

Nowadays, younger audiences, like those on Instagram, want to know who is speaking to them. They follow personalities they can identify with.

What they seek is an individual to whom they can channel their attention, and not just a faceless logo spouting jargon, or an unreachable celebrity speaking down to them.

Perhaps this itself is a product of social media, which has provided people with a window into other people's lives like never before, and cultivated a habit of wanting and expecting familiarity.

In the case of MEWR and MOF, the influencers they chose -which included property agents and stay-at-home mums - seem to portray the everyday Singaporean, and that is what makes them relatable.

Young people do not like news packed with government-speak and jargon. It is confusing and it cures insomnia. Influencers provide government agencies with a channel through which to present their work in relatable terms. These influencers are people their followers identify with and are more likely to pay attention to.

However, it is also true that influencers can be vain, self-serving and lazy. Social media is a curated gallery for people to display only certain aspects of their lives.

Its users prize convenience; most of them want only to scroll and double tap on their smartphones. I, for one, do not believe that social media swiping translates to real-world action, at least on a subject people feel apathetic towards.

So just how much of the two ministries' influencer outreach is likely to translate into meaningful engagement? My sense is they may garner some "likes", and maybe a comment here and there. But to actually get people to go out and air their views at a feedback booth? That's a tough one, MOF.

I guess there is a trade-off here between meaningful engagement - involving activities such as policy discussions - and reach, especially to people with no prior awareness of the policies in question.

This step that the Government has taken to keep up with the times is inevitable.

While traditional big brand names may possess both clout and credibility, they may now lack the ability to penetrate all segments of society. By hiring influencers, MOF can at least be sure that a few more millennials now know of the Budget's existence, even if they do not take part in discussions on it.

The famous question goes: If a tree falls in a forest but no one's there to hear it, did it really fall?

Now the question some ministries seem to be grappling with is: If a policy is announced but no influencer posts about it, was it really announced?

To some segments of Singapore society, the answer may well be "no".

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Waking up to social influencers'. Print Edition | Subscribe