Earlier this month one of Singapore’s biggest telecoms, SingTel, finally put to bed a scandal that’s been plaguing the company for months. After the telco contracted Gushcloud, one of Singapore’s top online influencer agencies, to promote a SingTel mobile plan, Gushcloud’s network of influencers took to badmouthing the services of rival telcos StarHub and M1 online – whether at the direction of SingTel or Gushcloud has never been quite clear (though SingTel has denied responsibility). SingTel received a rap on the wrist from the government, and just this week Gushcloud announced they’d been acquired by a major South Korean marketing agency – an overall win for the company.
Lifestyle blogging is very big business in Singapore, and hundreds of online influencers in the city state are reshaping brand marketing there and carving out an entirely new professional niche for social-media savvy youth in Singapore, where top influencers can earn millions through corporate sponsorships and brand endorsements. And all it takes is an Instagram account and a fetish for selfies.
In this Asia Digital Life podcast I’m joined by Crystal Abidin, a researcher at the University of Western Australia who studies Singapore’s subculture of online influencers. Much of Crystal’s knowledge of all this comes from several months she spent working as an assistant to a top Instagrammer, so she’s got a fascinating insider’s perspective on Singapore’s celebrity blogging scene.
In the early days, around 2005, Abidin say today’s top influencers were merely run-of-the-mill bloggers, young women who wrote personal blogs and had big fan bases and, subsequently, attracted advertisers who wanted to post with them, have them endorse products and brands. “At that time, everyone wanted to be signed to an agency where all of this could be brokered for them,” she says. Hence the emergence of companies like Gushcloud and Nuffnang, who specialize in influencer marketing in Singapore.
But Abidin says it’s no longer accurate to think of many of these people as bloggers, as they’ve moved onto other platforms, especially Instagram, Twitter. Nor, she says, does the term “microcelebrities” — as they’re often dubbed in Singapore media — fit, as even the most successful of these women (and they’re almost all women) reflexively reject any notion of celebrity. Also, far from living hermetically sealed online-only lifestyles, they make a point of getting elbow-to-elbow with their fans and followers in real-world events at every chance; indeed, it’s an essential job requirement.
It’s most useful, Abidin feels, to think of the members of this subculture more broadly. “Really what they are is ‘influencers,’” she says. “Their main job is to influence people to make certain consumerist decisions.”
They are well known not because of what they do for a living but because of how they live: “They do a great job of curating personas and presentations of their lifestyle online, and they manage to bridge this offline as well when they meet up with their fans and their customers. So their main job is to use social media platforms to put products and services and brands out there to gain traction in the market.”
Several top influencers in Singapore have hundreds of thousands of followers. That’s especially significant, Abidin notes, “because these women aren’t schooled or formally trained in this. They’re not learning this from a consulting agency. It’s all DIY.”
In terms of business, several of them manage hundreds of sponsorship campaigns a year, many with blue chip companies such as Chanel and Canon. The health and wellness industries have recently become quite active players in this market as well. “Hospitals, gynecologists, dentists. We’ve seen completely sponsored childbirths, where sponsors help film the live birth of influencers’ babies, who then go on to have tons of endorsements themselves, everything from baby diaper brands to infant formula to clothing.
“It’s really an entire economy based on these women’s lives as they evolve from being an angsty schoolgirl to falling in love, getting married, and having a child, and every aspect of it can be monetized if the influencer so wishes.”
Further, many of these influencers now using their success online to propel themselves into other businesses — starting cafes, restaurants, fashion design businesses, for example, based on their online popularity.
Abidin estimates there are as many as 30,000 bloggers trying to make a living this way, though only a portion of them are what she calls “lifestyle bloggers.” “In my area of research I look specifically at lifestyle blogging, which is special because they’re not contained to a theme, and the content they put out is based on their actual life, as lived.”
The most lucrative platform for lifestyle blogging in Singapore right now is Instagram, where ads and endorsements can go for up to S$1,000 a pop. Though, Abidin says “advertisements” isn’t quite right — the proper word would be advertorial. “What these influencers do is to craft a very personal narrative based on their lives — therefore the ‘editorial’ part of the word — but at the same time try to make their inclusion of a paid product into this narrative as naturalized as possible. The point is to tell a story and show people how and why they believe in this product and how they use it in their daily life.”
The best of the best can rake in up to a million dollars in assets and profits in advertising deals, Abidin says.
Yet to a person they resist being labeled as “celebrities,” mainly for business reasons. “Once you’ve made that crossover, you’re no longer deemed accessible, intimate, or ordinary or everyday enough” for followers to relate to, she explains.
Abidin feels that the larger social impact these influencers are having in Singapore is underestimated, in some measure because these personalities are young, predominantly women, and because this is an intimate activity. But their influence extends beyond consumer choices. “Many for example have talked openly to their followers about alternative forms of sexual education. Even though these kinds of conversations are still on the fringe in a place like Singapore, many of these women end up shaping the lives and values of youths in Singapore by showing them alternatives they may not have access to or know about.”