You don’t need loads of fans to be an influencer

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You don’t need loads of fans to be an influencer

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The role of social media influencers has been expanding in recent years as businesses increasingly turn to the online stars to advertise new products.

But you don’t necessarily need millions of followers to land a big advertising deal - companies are increasingly turning to so-called small influencers to help them sell products to customers with specific interests.

As millennials and Generation Z emerge as major consumer groups, start-ups that sell products popular with people between the ages of 10 and 30 are on the hunt for these small influencers - social media stars that produce videos with a specific focus and have a dedicated group of loyal followers, regardless of how big their fan base is.

The trend is especially apparent in fields where word-of-mouth marketing is crucial, such as fashion, beauty, interior design and food.

Compared to mainstream influencers, these less-popular social media stars can be an inexpensive option to promote small brands, but the cooperation can potentially prove popular for both parties.

Unlike famous influencers that are already celebrities in their own right, small influencers are often still seen as regular people by their followers. By reaching out to one of these less-famous social media users, brands not only get to promote their product, but also gain points with followers who are happy to see the small influencer get some recognition.

“As mega influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers have already become celebrities, for start-ups whose priority is advertising their brand image, finding “average people” with no records can be a more effective marketing strategy,” analyzed Choi Ji-hye, a professor at the Consumption Trend Analysis Center at Seoul National University.

Used by 57 percent of Koreans aged between 15 and 25, fashion mobile app StyleShare launched its own private brand “Us” last month, selecting models with different characteristics and styles from its own pool of app users. Kim So-ra is one of them.

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From left: Live-streaming e-commerce start-up Grip. Interior design app Ohouse. Models from StyleShare brand Us including Kim So-ra, second from right, pose for a photo. [EACH COMPANY AND SOCIAL MEDIA]

Kim, who has always felt that her figure doesn’t live up to typical Korean beauty standards, is one example of a regular social media user transformed into an influencer.

“I wanted to show the world that people who have a body shape like me can also wear various types of clothes such as cropped tees or short skirts,” said Kim.

Blank Corporation, a digital marketing company that acts as an agency for influencers, held a competition for YouTube models called “High School Style Contest” last June. The contest was recorded and posted online, garnering 25 million views in total.

Yu Bi, a senior at Seoul Design High School, won one hundred million won ($84,100) in prize money along with a Mercedes Benz and was given the opportunity to launch his own fashion brand.

“With the spread of the so-called flex culture, which means ‘showing off’ among rappers, yearly sales of luxury goods among people in their 10s and 20s have surged 20 to 30 percent for the past three years,” said a spokesperson from Blank Corporation. “The time has come to find a fashion director that represents Gen Z.”

Live-streaming e-commerce start-up Grip, launched last February by a team made up of former employees of Naver and Kakao, is a platform that has essentially reinvented the home shopping television channel for the social media influencer age.

Grip sells food, clothes, buildings and vacation packages by repackaging them into more recognizable viral video formats, like selling food by having models eat it mukbang-style.

While about 500 companies are registered with Grip, 30 percent broadcast advertisements live with matching influencers. Models range from influencers contracted to Grip to rookies who made their influencer debut trough Grip and found success on the platform.

“More than 10,000 influencers are already in place in Chinese live-shopping platforms such as Taobao and Mogujie,” said Kim Hanna, CEO of Grip. “As the local social media commerce market is set to grow to around 106 trillion won by 2021, recruiting is underway to secure more sellers.”

One small influencer even released a book on his area of expertise.

Kang Dong-hyeok, an influencer well-known on Ohouse, an interior design app popular with people in their 20s and 30s, wrote a book last February about DIY interior design after compiling his posts on the app.

Besides Kang, other influencers on the app have 5,000 to 8,000 followers. When they upload interior design photos, items with attached links sell like hotcakes. With the help of these influencers with a “magic touch,” Ohouse’s current accumulated transaction volume currently stands at 250 billion won, up from 100 billion won in January.

Big companies have joined the trend. Naver plans to introduce an “influencer search” function starting later this year that provides search results related to influencers when users look for information about traveling and beauty.

Shilla Duty Free Store launched its own beauty review platform “Shilla Tipping” last year, recruiting 150 creators. Samsung C&T Fashion Group held an Instagram non-model contest from April to June this year, selecting eight normal people to model for its SPA brand 8seconds for three months.

But concerns over the potential risks related to influencer culture remain.

Last April, 33-year-old fashion, beauty and lifestyle influencer Im Ji-hyun, who had more than 810,000 followers, apologized for selling “moldy” pumpkin juice through her online shopping mall Imvely, promising refunds for the problematic product. However, after she backtracked on her promise to offer full refunds, the company faced a fierce backlash from customers, which ultimately lead to the business ending.

As witnessed by the so-called Imvely incident, companies take on a level of risk when hiring amateurs to promote products - newly made influencers may struggle with public scrutiny and not be able to manage themselves correctly.

Platforms that help create these influencers often don’t offer any support with the darker side of success, pointing out that any issues are personal matters.

Still, despite the risk, the low-cost and potential success of small influencers means brands aren’t likely to stop creating their own influencers any time soon.

“Efforts to discover small influencers will continue as their ability to disrupt the market is something conventional media or celebrities can’t offer, and allows companies to take control of the market at a low cost,” said Lee Eun-hee, professor of consumer science at Inha University.

BY KIM JUNG-MIN, KIM BYUNG-WOOK [kim.byungwook@joongang.co.kr]

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