Can influencers create the right Budget buzz?

Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers (from top) Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding th
Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers Shanel Lim (above), Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding that it wanted to "encourage youth participation in the overall Budget process".PHOTOS: #SGBUDGET2018/ INSTAGRAM
Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers (from top) Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding th
Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers Shanel Lim, Royce Lee (above) and Chelsea Teng on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding that it wanted to "encourage youth participation in the overall Budget process".PHOTOS: #SGBUDGET2018/ INSTAGRAM
Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers (from top) Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding th
Screenshots of posts on Budget 2018 by influencers Shanel Lim, Royce Lee and Chelsea Teng (above) on their Instagram pages. The Ministry of Finance said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding that it wanted to "encourage youth participation in the overall Budget process".PHOTOS: #SGBUDGET2018/ INSTAGRAM

Critics say they may not be the best people to raise awareness

They have helped cafe owners to draw in the crowds by posting pictures of food on Instagram and have sold lipsticks and eyeshadows with videos of themselves using the make-up.

But are social media influencers the best people to help raise awareness of government policies and programmes? Not to the critics of a recent campaign by the Ministry of Finance (MOF), which tapped this new breed of marketers who endorse products and services on their social media channels.

The move to hire 50 or so influencers through marketing firm StarNgage to promote the Budget process has generated debate on whether the strategy is effective and if taxpayers' money is well spent.

The ministry said this was part of its outreach efforts, adding that "given the significance of the Budget to all Singaporeans, MOF employs a mix of communication channels and platforms", including holding dialogues and collecting feedback in high-traffic areas.

But people have lampooned some of the social media posts, such as one in which an influencer called the MOF the "Sg govt of finance".

Others pointed out that the posts on the Budget are out of place among the influencers' regular posts on, for instance, exercise routines, overseas holidays and pets. They asked if these influencers even knew anything about finance.

For the MOF campaign, the ministry worked with a group known as "micro-influencers". A spokesman described them as "personable everyday individuals, with at least 1,000 followers on social media".

Ms Evangeline Leong, director of influencer marketing technology platform Kobe, said micro-influencers typically have fewer than 100,000 followers.

Mr Dennis Toh, co-founder of public relations agency The Influencer Network, said they can command $100 to $800 a post.

According to an invite sent out by StarNgage for the MOF campaign, each influencer could be paid up to $100 at the end of the campaign.

This is affordable relative to what the ministry would have had to pay for a TV or print advertisement, said Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon of the National University of Singapore Business School.

The MOF said the Instagram campaign is part of its overall public communications for Budget 2018, adding that it wanted to "encourage youth participation in the overall Budget process".

"It is important for us to continually update and refresh our approach, based on reach and effectiveness, and to try new channels and platforms," said its spokesman.

Ms Cheryl Chan, an MP who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry, said it seemed the MOF was trying to use as many different avenues as possible to direct people to the Government's feedback points.

"These individuals, being media influencers, have a following ," she said. "Having them put up a post is better than us putting up an advertisement or banner in one location, as it may not reach as many people, and as many youth."

The ministry, which has also worked with business and community groups to raise awareness of the Budget, among other things, expects to reach 225,000 Instagram users through the campaign.

While some have questioned if this is possible, with the micro-influencers having only 1,300 to 35,000 followers, StarNgage chief community officer Terrence Ngu said the campaign has exceeded the target, based on insights from Instagram.

The number of followers that micro-influencers have may be small, said Ms Leong, but they are typically first-or second-degree friends. This translates to higher engagement rates, meaning a follower is more likely to click on a link that was shared or post a comment, she said.

Prof Ang said others who have reached celebrity status may have been used in so many publicity campaigns that their following, though large, may not be as committed.

 
 

Most of the posts put up for the MOF campaign, though, have not attracted more than a few hundred "likes", with even fewer comments.

A micro-influencer involved in the campaign, Ms Chelsea Teng, is unfazed. "Despite the criticism received, there were people who approached us to find out more about the campaign, which I thought was great," said the 24-year-old, who works in the events industry.

In her post, she asked followers to join her at a listening point and share their views with the Government. She told The Sunday Times: "Prior research was done to ensure we had sufficient knowledge on the topic before sharing on our socials."

Experts said that for such campaigns to work, the messages have to be seen as genuine.

Prof Ang said: "Having an influencer who has a business background or who has discussed more cerebral issues before would be more appropriate."

Ms Fiona Cher, 27, a blogger known as SG Budget Babe, who has written posts sponsored by the Ministry of National Development, said she takes on such jobs only if the message a client wants is something she would already write or say even if she were not paid to do so.

Noting that other campaigns have also come under fire, such as one for a KrisFlyer UOB card last April in which the influencers involved were slammed for lacking product knowledge, she said: "With brands being criticised for their lack of authenticity, the Government needs to tread even more carefully."

Prof Ang said: "If the influencer's personality is not a fit... then the buzz becomes about the misalignment instead of the Budget process."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Can influencers create the right Budget buzz?'. Print Edition | Subscribe