As with old-school selling, influencers must master the art of the deal, but authenticity issues arise.

This article was first published by The Straits Times

Social media influencers are often viewed as glamorous figures, effortlessly raking in fame and fortune with a smartphone in hand. Yet, beneath the surface lies a reality obscured by filters and carefully curated lifestyles. 

As the influencer marketing industry in South-east Asia skyrockets, the fact is, the influencer is essentially a salesperson, orchestrating a business behind the scenes.

The story of 22-year-old Joshua Chua paints a picture of the allure of influencer life. With over half a million subscribers on YouTube, Mr Chua (@squashyboy), who makes videos about custom keyboards, is living the dream. He has even enjoyed a sponsored trip to Germany and worked with lucrative, recognisable brands.

Mr Chua has no plans for applying for a conventional full-time job when he finishes National Service. For now, he is drawn by the allure of a life based around his interests, and wants to focus on monetising his online presence. This means creating content that in turn creates a target audience to sell goods and services to. 

And yet, while career influencers are lauded as modern-day celebrities, the gritty reality is that they have to navigate the complexities of marketing and persuasion, and the particular challenges of doing this in the digital age. Above all, influencers like Mr Chua must ask themselves: How comfortable are you with selling? 

How they make their money

Successful influencing boils down to follower count and engagement levels. A decent influencer must cultivate diverse revenue streams that include affiliate marketing, selling spin-off digital products and partnerships with brands. 

Those with smaller but highly engaged follower bases of 1,000 to 10,000 – the nano influencers –  rely on their deep connections with niche audiences to promote products through affiliate links. Micro-influencers, with larger followings of 10,000 to 100,000, cultivate larger loyal communities, making them attractive partners for brands seeking endorsements.

Macro influencers, boasting significant reach  – 100,000 to 1 million – command substantial earnings per post and can leverage on their influence to sell digital products like ebooks or online courses. Earnings per post range from $500 to $10,000, depending on their reach and influence. 

Mid-tier influencers fall in between, earning between $75 to over $3,000 per post, translating to an estimated monthly income of $4,000 to $6,000.

On average, influencers in Singapore earn $58,413 a year, according to Campus Magazine, highlighting the lucrative nature of the influencer industry. No wonder that in Singapore, the influencer marketing industry was predicted to hit US$93 million (S$125 million) in 2023. That same figure for South-east Asia for 2024 is predicted to be US$2.59 billion.

The challenges of being Head of Sales

To thrive in the influencer industry, individuals must possess a unique blend of skills, including authenticity, creativity and adaptability. Influencers act as the CEO and Head of Sales of their personal brands. 

There are similarities between the anxieties of influencer life and traditional sales roles, such as the need to secure deals and meet performance targets. 

In the influencer context, sales involve cold-calling to get more brands to work with them. 

This is a challenge for influencers who see sales as something uncomfortable and “icky”. To some, selling publicly looks desperate. They rather have their work speak for itself. The idea that they have to find sponsors or promote their work to see monetary results is not something they can digest easily.  

Yet, the reality is that like traditional salesmen, influencers need to be both compelling storytellers and strong negotiators, collaborating with brands and negotiating partnerships. Clinching a deal requires an understanding of the value of their platform, creativity over their offerings and ways to establish a mutually beneficial relationship.

Still, selling online is getting harder. Take social media algorithm changes, which can significantly impact an influencer’s income and reach. If there are changes to how content is filtered, ranked and recommended, this can redirect a follower away from an influencer.  

Overnight, a follower could find themselves without their loyal audience – immediately affecting their appeal to brands they endorse.

Additionally, influencers must continuously adapt their content to meet evolving audience preferences, adding to the pressure to maintain relevance and engagement.

Yet, unlike traditional salespeople who represent a specific company or product, influencers must carefully manage their personal brand and reputation across multiple platforms. They also bear the burden of mass scrutiny and criticism, as their every move is subject to public opinion and social media backlash. One wrong move, word or friend could get them cancelled.

As well, influencers lack the job security and benefits associated with traditional employment, adding to the uncertainty of their career path.

This, and the unpredictability of revenue streams, creates income anxiety. Indeed, Mr Chua said he faces this anxiety when his content doesn’t hit a certain mark within the first few hours of a post. 

Promoting yourself

Influencers face ethical quandaries in navigating the blurred lines between promotion and authenticity. Instances of influencers peddling questionable products or promoting sketchy investments highlight the moral complexities inherent in the industry. 

Trust is the currency influencers trade in. After all, people say relatability and authenticity are the top two traits they look out for in following fashion influencers, according to a 2024 McKinsey 2024 consumer survey.

To tackle these situations, influencers have to ensure the promoted product or service aligns with their personal brand values.This is difficult if sponsored partnerships are a primary source of income and brands want a say in how their products are marketed.

One way to avoid this conundrum is to look for your own deals instead of relying on partnerships to come to you. Influencer Siu-li Wee, marketing and partnerships head at marketing agency SpoonX, deals with all levels of influencers. She notes that one way to get better-suited partnerships is to do digital door-knocking with desired clients and brands.

Even this is getting harder. On most platforms, you can send direct messages to followers. But messages to accounts that do not follow you might require the recipient to accept your request first, The chance of this increases if you personalise messages to intended recipients, even if you do not actually know them.

Reinforcing your personal brand can help. Some, like content creator JingJin Liu and career strategist Adrian Choo, have turned to LinkedIn and other platforms outside the usual Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to connect with a business audience.

Ms Liu, the CEO & founder of education platform ZaZaZu, went to LinkedIn after her content pieces around sexual wellbeing and female empowerment were banned on Facebook and Instagram. That is because LinkedIn has a dedicated editorial team that looks into the context of the content and weighs it up, before deciding to flag it as inappropriate. On LinkedIn, she touched on the topic and talked about it from a women’s rights perspective while challenging the traditional norms around it. Her follower count has since ballooned to a fan base of 25,000.

LinkedIn, as a social media platform set up initially for people to establish professional networks, share their CVs and find their next job, lends itself better to business development and thought leadership – where influencers sell themselves. Indeed, Ms Liu and Mr Choo use LinkedIn to forge meaningful connections with decision-makers and showcase their expertise in specific industries. 

Micro-influencers like them are emerging as a powerful force, wielding influence over niche communities. They have a smaller but more energetic base. Their ability to cultivate connections with their audience makes them increasingly sought after by brands, challenging the dominance of mega influencers. However, because LinkedIn has a professional networking emphasis, one challenge is being able to monetise content, which is not an issue with other platforms.

Let’s face it, influencing is about selling. Little surprise, then, that when I asked Mr Chua if he would consider moving into a full-time sales role after National Service, he said that he was open to the idea, although he hadn’t given it deep thought.

About the Author Vivek Iyyani
Vivek Iyyani is the Founder of Millennial Minds, a content marketing agency that is specialised in marketing to Millennials & Gen Zs. He is the author of Engaging Millennials (Singapore Book Awards Best Professional Title Top 5 Nominee 2022), The Millennial Leader (Winner of Singapore Book Awards Best Professional Title 2023) and Marketing to Millennials. He has been invited to share on top news channels such as CNBC, Channel NewsAsia, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Vasantham and Tamil Murasu on the topic of Millennials & Multi-generational Workforce.
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