Influencer marketing in Asia

In South Korea, over 2 trillion South Korean won (KRW, or $2.4 billion USD) was spent on advertising on mobile platforms last year, surpassing that of advertising on cable TV - 1.8 trillion KRW - for the first time. While Instagram influencers in the US charge up to $100,000 USD for a sponsored post, industry insiders say brands in South Korea pay from 100,000 KRW to more than 2 million KRW for a single social media post, depending on the loyalty of the person’s followers.

Beauty and fashion brands are at the forefront of using social media influencers who have millions of followers. We sat down with Jude Kim, who runs Global Business Development at The SMC in Seoul, Korea and serves clients like Google and eBay, and asked him for his vision regarding the Asian (kol/influencer) market.

Interview by Thomas van de Meer

Could you briefly introduce the SMC to us?

SMC started out as a two man company back in 2009 when SMS marketing and social media marketing was pretty new. In Korea, no corporations or companies had their own blogs. We pitched to Hewlett Packard Korea and they loved the idea and then we started a Naver blog. Naver is like the Google of Korea. And it was a hit. Other people were consuming the content on their blogs and they received a lot of awards for it. Other brands started looking at it then too and there were a lot of incoming inquiries saying ‘hey we want a blog too’, so that’s how the company started getting bigger. From a 10 person company to a 20 person company. Then Facebook marketing kind of blew up in Korea in 2010- ish, 11-ish. It was still foreign to local brands but companies that were kind of adventurous and liked to take more risks activated Facebook to try and branch out. That’s how we pivoted from just blog marketing to SMS. We have been kind of evolving into a digital marketing agency for about the last 2 years. Content marketing is our bread and butter. We create about 20,000 videos a year. If we’re counting images and other content too, volume-wise and net worth-wise, we make the most content for brands in Korea.

How big is your pool of creatives within the company?

We have about 250 creative planners, content planners or template planners. They handle the operations of the channels and they work with 150-200 content producers. They shoot the content or edit the content. So filmmakers, developers, photographers, designers. A group of around 150-200 people.

What’s the value of influencers for the SMC? How do you see the place of influencer marketing in the Korean market?

Our clients know me as someone who’s involved in the global side of our business, so I have had a lot of inquiries regarding clients wanting to utilize Instagrammers from Northern America or South America. My answer was always: I don’t know. I didn’t have the network and I would just kind of guide them to a different direction for resources. This was before I knew you guys of course. But what I’ve been hearing from everyone is that there’s no global contact for Korea like The Cirqle that they can easily find and use. They don’t think it’s possible to work with one agency and reach North, Main, and South East Asia, as well as China. I think this is a great opportunity for us to let brands in Korea know there’s a service that you could use, that allows you to do this in real-time. I think there’s tremendous value in that.

But what about QR codes? That’s something that I see as an innovation that the western world has not really caught up with yet but you guys are very, very familiar with. How does that impact the influencer industry?

QR codes are hardly utilized in Korea. We have our own kind of mobile culture, which is fundamentally different from the one in China. QR codes are everything over there. I personally feel that QR codes are going to be really important eventually in South East Asia. I think it’s ingrained in our digital culture. In Korea, there was the traditional evolution of Desktop PC to digital phones. But for example, in China, the country skipped the notebook and PC and just went from using landlines to smartphones entirely. I think that’s why some features

like QR codes and mobile wallets are more appealing to Chinese people than to Koreans.

Do you see mobile phone behavior in APAC that you don’t see anywhere else in the region, as you guys are often the quickest to adapt the latest technologies?

People in Korea expect to have an online connection everywhere they go. In subways, mountains, up in the sky, wherever. If they don’t have an internet connection, they’re like ‘what the hell, what’s wrong with this place?’ But then in the United States, if you go on a subway, or in Europe for that matter, you don’t have any service and people are not complaining because it’s normal. That landscape is different. I also feel the power of Naver, especially in Korea, is too strong. All the shopping is done through Naver, all the searches are done through Naver and even food is ordered through Naver. For example, my wife does this often: she would get introduced to an item and she would immediately go on Naver. Even though she first saw it on eBay or Amazon, she would go back to Naver and search that item. Naver has a automated feature called Naver Shop. Naver Shop arranges all the different prices and registered SKU’s from different sales channels into one easy-to-use feature called Zinger Shopping. So you can just look at it, click on the lowest price and buy it. This means people don’t have real loyalty to any one sales channel in South-Korea, except Naver. No dedication to open a specific site like Amazon or eBay. Maybe some people in the U.S. prefer to buy everything on Amazon or some other online shops, but you don’t see that in Korea. They will just buy the lowest priced item through Naver.

Do you think influencers play a big part in driving e-commerce for retail stores?

Maybe a direct conversion might not be the best way to grade how effective influencer marketing is. Although, you still get the whole [marketing] package, branding, brand awareness and brand sentiment and beautiful pieces of content. I think it all plays a part in the entire purchasing process. I strongly believe that each of these different outlets for channels and content should be used. Any contact point a brand can utilise with their potential customers should be used. Influencers obviously form one of those key contact points that brands use to connect consistently and consequently with potential customers. That’s why it’s really important to push out a brand guide, that is consistent across all the channels a brand is on. So if you’re missing out on the influencer side of the marketing funnel, it is a huge missing piece from a brands perspective to reach potential customers.

Why did you decide to partner with The Cirqle?

I think you guys have the best service and I personally like the design of the platform. Thomas was huge for me (Managing Director of The Cirqle Asia). He’s a pleasure to work with he gave us excellent support. I introduced Alex (CEO of SMC) to The Cirqle platform and he was immediately really happy and said ‘let’s do this, let’s do this!’ He was really excited for us. We really value your platform. I’ve seen other MCS agencies and other network companies that have such networks but they don’t have their own solution like you guys. So that’s a huge advantage.