Commentary: What you get if you drink the Kool-Aid of social media marketing
The Ministry of Finance’s move to tap on social media influencers has drawn the attention of Singapore’s online community – and there are lessons we can all learn from this episode, says Channel NewsAsia’s Lin Suling.
SINGAPORE: The world of social media can be harsh and unforgiving, with fans who are as critical as they may be loyal in following your footprint across various channels.
This may have been the message received by the Ministry of Finance this week when a move to tap on social media influencers to promote Budget 2018 drew the attention of the Singapore online community.
Netizens reading the news of the Finance Ministry’s effort to partner Instagrammers to “provide bite-sized educational information on the Budget” responded with mild amusement, even though the ministry clarified that it had done this too for Budget 2017.
Many wondered whether the campaign got maximum bang for the authorities’ buck; one influencer who did not want to be named said he received S$100 for putting up his Instagram post.
Even more mocked the social media influencers involved, picking on their grammatical faux pas and Photoshopped pictures, including one where an influencer was pictured holding a laptop near an HDB void deck.
In what scenario will one be using a laptop underneath an HDB block, one netizen asked. And more importantly, “what do they know about the Budget”, another reader wondered.
The episode will surely go down as one of the lessons to be learnt about what not to do when it comes to public engagement that we can all draw on.
Indeed, it sounds like a likely case study that new batches of civil servants will stew over in some introductory module at the Civil Service College.
To many netizens, the choice of social media influencers seems odd.
One social media influencer Celine Lim, better known as celinebleh on Instagram, has a slew of pictures of her appreciating the views in South Korea, China and Bintan, yet suddenly in one post, she quips about our Finance Minister speaking confidently about the nation.
Another Instagrammer Chelsea Teng, better known as cheowster, looks like she belongs in a fashion magazine, with pictures of her modelling for various brands filling her account. And yet last Tuesday (Jan 9), she announces to fans: "Great news – Budget 2018 is coming soon!"
That’s not to say that Instagram stars cannot have multifaceted personalities or have interests in a wide variety of issues. No doubt many have.
But Budget 2018 just doesn’t seem like their genre.
The issue is as much about the channel as it is about the messenger.
An Instagram post calling for followers to head down to a serious discussion on the upcoming Budget feels out of place on a channel used by its native audience to search for tips on where to find the best bingsu in town or what on-trend fashion accessories to pepper your Chinese New Year outfit with.
In this context, the Budget is just not one of those wares you expect to be peddled there. It just didn’t seem authentic.
With all the hype about the effectiveness of social media marketing in reaching Singaporean youths leading many organisations to shift their focus away from traditional ways of communications, it is understandable why authorities may have thought this approach attractive.
Indeed, the Finance Ministry wouldn’t be the first to fall into the trap of thinking this method to be a highly cost-efficient move, where easily available metrics showing statistics on how many followers and reactions each Instagrammer gather may satisfy shrewd bureaucrats wanting to squeeze more returns on investments.
Yet, what value is there in social marketing campaigns that prompt responses expressing admiration for Instagrammers' "make-up and editing game"?
When these conversations then spiral into discussions on harsh lighting and how to achieve the perfect pose, what returns exactly are we reaping on these social media marketing strategies?
ENGAGING YOUNGER PEOPLE THROUGH OTHER MEANS
Some say the Finance Ministry’s effort to engage social media influencers should be applauded and taken as a sign of sincerity in wanting to broaden engagement and tap on a vast spectrum of ideas to help shape policymaking.
But how much latitude is there to shape policy in the month leading up to Budget 2018, where most of the broad ideas on how we want to boost the economy and help households would arguably be already set out?
As the Government has a strong track record of diligent long-term planning, cynics are also already asking whether we can reasonably expect input and feedback at this stage, especially solicited via Instagram, to effectuate new policies, if that is what is needed.
It is no doubt heartening to see authorities give emphasis to new ways of engaging Singaporeans and urging them to come to dialogue sessions where more on what we can expect from the Budget will be discussed.
Indeed, it is encouraging to see the Finance Ministry paying attention to youth engagement and having the courage to cede creative freedom to social media influencers to craft their own messages.
But it might have been more productive if authorities had focused on the audience instead of the messenger in trying to reach out to youths on Budget 2018.
There are scores of examples where the Government has had success in communications – because it took time to understand its audience and what resonates with them.
Ads explaining the Pioneer Generation Package using mahjong references had been effective in helping pioneers understand a complex healthcare policy.
In the field of diplomacy and foreign policy, a video detailing a day in the life of K Shanmugam (then Foreign Affairs Minister in addition to being Law Minister) went viral when it was released on Facebook.
Its gritty, reality-television format gave young Singaporeans a peek behind the curtain. Many say they went away with a newfound appreciation of the challenges of the work inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Most university students have their eye on the job market and the skills they need to graduate with to score a good job, so the Budget is surely an issue they’re concerned with.
Would not a call for feedback about how young undergraduates are doing in their job search be a way of engaging them online? One imagines a Facebook Live with the Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, who can address frank questions of the day, can be engaging.
NO SHORTCUTS TO EARNING TRUST AND IMPACT
If anything, hopefully this episode underscores the limitations of bluntly applying social media influencers without an appreciation of their audiences – or thinking that enlisting a group of Instagram stars can be a quick, clever way to greater influence and impact among a millennial audience segment most of us are still trying to figure out.
There is much to lose. The way the message was hawked this time made it feel like it wasn’t generated ground-up but pushed downwards from the top.
There are no shortcuts to meaningful public engagement and there is no way around doing the hard groundwork in getting a better understanding of our youths.
Scoring a place in a person’s Instagram feed doesn’t mean you’ve secured a part of their mindshare.