You don’t need someone with a million followers on social media to make a big impact. In fact, sometimes the smaller a person’s following, the deeper the influence can be. According to a study done by social media marketing agency HelloSociety, micro-influencers (generally defined as people with anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 followers) receive 60 percent greater engagement on social media campaigns than the average macro-influencer. The same study found that micro-influencers are also 6.7 times more cost-efficient—great news for cash-strapped small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) looking to expand locally, nationally, and/or internationally.
What makes micro-influencers a good group to work with is not only the low cost (one 2016 survey found that 84 percent of them charge less than $250 per sponsored Instagram post), but also their ability to convert their followers into customers.
Charlie Gu, CEO of marketing agency Kollective Influence, says that micro-influencers often operate in niche segments (e.g., yoga and skincare, versus the more general health and beauty) and develop a loyal following in that segment. Gu explains that it’s because they are “very effective in not just leaving impressions, but really taking the time, depth, and effort” to educate their following on brands and products, and convert them into customers.
“The huge benefit of using micro-influencers is the depth of their connection with their followers,” Gu says. “They often have stronger bonds and ties, so their opinion matters more to their followers than a mass influencer’s.” The numbers certainly seem to support that statement: Another study shows that 82 percent of consumers are “highly likely” to follow a micro-influencer’s recommendation, compared to the 73 percent who would follow the average person’s recommendation.
For SMEs looking to expand into the Chinese market, micro-influencers are particularly useful due to Chinese consumers’ emphasis on peer recommendations. “Word-of-mouth is very important in China, in general,” Gu says. “That has a lot to do with consumer behavior. In China, friends and family have a disproportionately larger consumer impact than in Western countries.” That’s why using micro-influencers who have established close ties with their followers can be a great strategy for SMEs who are looking to expand overseas and need to maximize their marketing budget.
Thanks to the expansion of cross-border e-commerce and increased outbound Chinese tourism, Gu says it is more important than ever for brands to “use influencers in different markets to build that dialogue.”
Gu emphasizes that the term “micro-influencer” doesn’t apply just to people with social media followings, but also to regular people who are “opinion leaders” among their friends and family. He explains that targeting Chinese student groups is a good way for companies to expand their overseas presence because their international members often serve as influential brand advocates back in their home country. For instance, Gu worked with Japanese high-end beauty company Clé de Peau Beauté to attract the fuerdai (children of China’s newly wealthy) so his client could gain more insights into that consumer segment. “I know that Chinese students living overseas is an important consumer group [because] they’re the ones that try your product first,” Gu points out.
Because micro-influencers are, by definition, people with smaller followings, it can be difficult for SMEs to identify who to partner with. Although there are influencer databases that businesses can utilize, Gu says that the best way to find them is to monitor the dialogue that people are already having in public spaces.
“Look at what conversations are going on,” Gu suggests. “Whether by searching a certain type of hashtag, or looking at certain competitors, you’re able to identify these conversations online.” In China, these sorts of conversations are occurring not only on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, but also on discussion boards. “These conversations are very valuable because you can quickly identify who is influencing the crowd,” he adds.
When Gu worked with Clé de Peau Beauté to target the fuerdai, they specifically targeted Chinese students studying abroad in the United States, since they knew they were going to make up a significant portion of their target demographic. Gu says they actually partnered with a Boston-based college student group, which then also brought in local businesses to help sponsor the event. Clé de Peau organized a cocktail reception for the students to teach them about the brand’s heritage and inform them of upcoming product launches.
Gu also suggests reaching out to daigou, who are people who buy goods overseas for Chinese customers and are a type of micro-influencer. “They have a captive audience who are obviously interested in buying this merchandise,” he says. “They are constantly feeding [their customers] their personal curation through their social media platforms. They focus very much on conversion, so for a small, niche brand, if you want to drive immediate revenue, working with someone like the daigou will be much easier.”
Companies often make the mistake of being too eager for customer transactions when they reach out to influencers, Gu shares. “They say, ‘Here is my brand—do a post for me,’ without really taking the time to educate these influencers about their brand,” he says. Because there is a high level of trust between micro-influencers and their followers, providing micro-influencers with enough information is crucial to converting their followers into customers. Businesses, especially SMEs whose brands may be lesser known, should invest in teaching these influencers about the company or specific product. “The more they know about it [and] the more they connect with it, the more likely they will convert other consumers,” Gu adds.
A popular method for educating influencers on brands and products is to send them products to test out firsthand. For a more personal approach, Gu suggests hosting small-scale events for face-to-face interactions between brands and micro-influencers. Gu emphasizes that the focus should always be on the dialogue between the company and the consumer. “If you’re a small business, your reach of customers is restrained by your region—so then focus on influencers within your community, and have that dialogue and relationship with them directly through offline conversations.”
Of course, smaller businesses can’t afford to throw huge brand events on their own, but one way to cut down on costs is to partner with another larger, related organization. “It doesn’t make sense for the Pacific Asia Museum to hire an influencer to promote it,” Gu says as an example. “It makes much more sense for the museum to partner with local businesses to create a product itinerary that then brings in one influencer to talk about that experience.”
However, Gu advises against only relying on micro-influencers to boost brand awareness and to also dedicate budget to building up operational capacity to support any increase in demand. “You have to have a two-sided strategy,” he says. “You have to be prepared and build infrastructure to make sure you can have product available at these larger scales, and, at the same time, engage these core consumers at your home base.”