Like with just about everywhere else on the planet, influencer marketing is all the rage over here and it’s a play we regularly use at this PR agency in Japan. This trend is showing no signs of stopping now that the number of active users on Instagram finally overtook Facebook at the end of 2018. Despite there being more eyes on social media than ever before, navigating the local market’s many nuances is not exactly an easy task even for the most astute of marketers. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve compiled the following insights for influencer marketing that we’ve uncovered during our many dealings with influencers. These will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that we’ve seen some international companies slip into when trying to incorporate influencers into their communication strategies.

Before delving into the discussion on influencers themselves, allow us to begin by first setting the stage. Due to many long-held cultural tenets, Japan has a very different social media climate than the West. First and foremost, Japanese tend to highly prize anonymity online and often shy away from being active on platforms that outright require them to use their real identity. Because of this cultural quirk, platforms such as Facebook endured extreme difficulties when first trying to break into the market. When Japanese do make use of these platforms, they tend to limit the scope of their postings to only what they would be comfortable with their boss seeing. Case in point, many Japanese use Facebook solely to connect and network with others in their industry, just as those in western countries do with Linkedin.

Japan’s cultural idiosyncrasies have major ramifications for influencer marketing and social media in general. This is most noticeable with online engagement. In stark contrast to what one might expect in the West, posts in Japan just don’t get that many likes or comments. This is largely due to the aforementioned inclination towards being anonymous online. By liking or commenting on a post, a user is essentially “vetting” that piece of content. Since many Japanese people are quite concerned with their public personas, there is an unconscious resistance to liking everything under the sun. Likewise, leaving negative feedback also requires someone to put themselves out there, so many people just refrain from posting altogether. Because of this discrepancy, each and every engagement carries far more weight than it might in other countries.

This disposition towards privacy greatly affects influencer marketing. Due to the cultural headwinds against engaging on social media, many influencers appear at first glance as if they aren’t really worthwhile investments (at least when using the standard 5% engagement rate benchmark used overseas). For example, it’s common to see an account on Instagram with 150,000 followers that only gets a thousand likes or so. Normally, a 1 – 2% engagement rate like this would be a huge red flag that something is off (i.e., the account is shadow banned or has purchased fake followers). This isn’t actually the case here in Japan though. Rather than being uninterested in the content, Japanese users on social media are just far more judicious with their likes and comments than their counterparts overseas. Without looking deeply at the data, it’s quite easy to be misled by vanity metrics like engagement.

Young Japanese women happily browsing her smartphone in a living room in an apartment.

One upside to this systemic headwind against engaging on social media is that when users do actually partake in the discussion, it means that they really resonated with the content. Likes, comments and especially shares on social media in Japan mean much more than they do elsewhere. If a piece of content can manage to overcome the inertia spawned from users’ proclivity towards anonymity, the creative can be said to be an unequivocal success. That said, the challenge for content creators is coming up with posts that spark engagement while also placating to the public’s preference to remain anonymous. Though Japan may have its own unique social media ecosystem, the engagement-based algorithms that run the platforms are the same worldwide.

Understand also that the quirks of the local influencer marketing game don’t end just with this penchant for privacy online. Though there are countless more cultural nuances, one major difference that foreign brand managers often fail to realize is that the Japanese user base is much, much smaller than that of the English-speaking market. Accounts with only 60,000 followers or so here reach a much higher percentage of the population than a similarly sized account that is posting content in English. Furthermore, accounts that post in Japanese tend to only have followers who live here due to the poor local English levels, whereas many accounts posting in English have followers from all over the globe.

One other misstep that many green marketers often make is forgetting that each follower represents a bigger portion of the Japanese user base. For example, an Instagram account with only 60,000 followers reaches 0.3% of the total Japanese user population. When compared to an account from the United States for example, the Japanese one has more than five or six times the effective reach (at least in terms of what percentage of the total user base it reaches). Likewise, many of the followers of an account hailing from English speaking countries are likely to be from several locations, so this number is even further skewed.

This brings us to yet another difference about using influencers in Japan, talent management agencies. While it’s deserving of its own article, know for now that most of the accounts that are large enough to have impressive numbers belong to celebrities. In almost all cases, these famous individuals are micromanaged by talent agencies such as Johnny & Associates. Expectedly, the costs associated with partnering with an influencer often shoot through the roof. Note that in some cases like the fashion world, even some tiny accounts can have agencies behind them as the influencer accounts belong to models used by women’s fashion and beauty magazines.

A person of ambiguous sex is lying on the floor in their room next to their bed and TV and browsing social media on their smartphone.

When compared to the West, you should know that Japan has relatively few big social media stars who have come up organically on the platforms. The most followed accounts here almost always belong to celebrities such as Watanabe Naomi (one of Japan’s top stars with 8.9 million followers on Instagram as of 2019). While there are of course exceptions such as Tokai On Air, in most cases, these individuals have syphoned the attention they already had elsewhere to amass their following. Anyone who is appearing on Japanese television for example almost assuredly has a talent agency behind them and such influencers are often comically expensive for the reach you get.

What this all means is that it’s far more cost effective to go for smaller influencers who have not yet been snatched up by talent agencies. In Japan, many people below the 100,000 follower mark on Instagram have not yet been signed by a management firm. To get the same level of reach, this strategy often requires instead going for a numbers approach, but it at least allows for less of the available budget to go to middlemen. Locally, there tends to be a going rate of 3-6 yen per follower on Instagram (plus expenses) when going through talent agencies. However, a lot of smaller and independent influencers, many of whom often have much higher engagement rates, are actually willing to promote a brand for free or in exchange for products if the company is a right fit.

Even in the cases where an influencer does need to be compensated financially, those without managers are willing to accept costs lower than the going rate. This allows for savvy marketers who do their research to procure some seriously underpriced impressions. As an example in our own work, we’ve had an instance where we were able to get Instagrammers with upwards of 75,000 followers to post about a luxury event for only around 10,000 yen (about 95 US dollars) a piece. Were we to have contracted these individuals through an agency, we’d be out anywhere between 225,000 and 450,000 yen (between about 2,090 and 4,180 US dollars) per post. What’s more, had we instead been looking to invite one of Japan’s famous ”tarento” personalities, this number could easily end up being many fold higher, but often times, the increase in reach is not enough to justify the cost.

While independent influencers do tend to be cheaper, it’s also important to note that many non-celebrity influencers in Japan are not as well-versed with how to promote brands as their more famous counterparts. In the case of legitimate stars, these folks have years of experience working with brands for TV commercials and PR events. They intimately understand how to highlight a company’s goods in a way that best converts, but this isn’t always the case with smaller influencers. While some do have ample experience working with brands to promote products, services and destinations, others are shockingly green in this regard. Many brands have rushed headlong into influencer marketing without taking the proper precautions and the results are sometimes ugly.

What’s a marketer to do? It helps by starting with your ideal post in mind before even thinking about assigning someone. By doing so, it becomes easier to set things up from the get-go in a way that leads the influencer to create the type of content desired by the brand in question. Say a company is looking to invite an Instagrammer to an event and has negotiated behind the scenes for them to post about it that day. Unless due diligence has been done to ensure that there’s something photogenic enough at the gathering to be worth posting, often times the influencer is just going to default to yet another #OOTD post. This is a lose-lose scenario as it does little for the brand nor does it help the influencer create something fresh and appealing.

A proper use of influencer marketing would first take into account the needs of the content creators themselves. Doing so makes it far easier for whomever a brand partners with to make something that has real impact. Put another way, you need to help them help you. If you’re partnering with an Instagrammer, you need to double check that there is something eye-catching for them to shoot, otherwise you’re not going to get good results from the partnership. Likewise, if you’re using YouTubers, you need to be aware of the inherent requirements for producing video content as these greatly affect the pace and tempo of the day’s schedule.

Young Japanese woman taking a selfie on a bridge somewhere

This is not something that is entirely unique to Japan and applies to influencers from all over the world, but individuals over here who are not professionally managed often have a poor grasp of how to best produce results on their own. This can easily be chalked up to a lack of experience on the part of influencers when it comes to promoting products as well as a systemic poor understanding locally of how to make proper use of content creators. Compared to the West, understanding of the algorithms that powers social media is still low in Japan. This is especially true among top decision makers who are often older and lacking critical context due to never having made a social media account themselves.

Note that Japan also has far less stringent regulations than other markets. There’s no official watchdog here like the Federal Trade Commission or the Advertising Standards Authority. Though Japan does have some industry organizations like the The Word of Mouth Japan Marketing Association, these entities actually have no legal authority. Without the might of the law on their side, many unscrupulous marketers simply opt to not enforce the need for disclosure. Technically, the hashtag for transparency here is #PR, but there are numerous cases of obvious influencer deals that omit it. To avoid the possibility of consumer backlash though, it is best to always include disclosure obligations when drafting an influencer’s contract.

Know that while at first glance, it might seem like influencers are not worth the hassle, this is simply not true. Currently, influencers in Japan are a real bargain if you’re careful to weed out those who are directly managed by talent agencies. In fact, rarely do you see attention this underpriced in what is one of the world’s most congested media markets. A one-page advertisement in a popular women’s magazine can easily run upwards from 15 thousand to 20 thousand US dollars. Similarly sized audiences can be reached via influencer marketing for a fraction of the cost. While there’s merit to being in traditional media for credibility’s sake, you just can’t beat the cost per impression of influencer marketing here in Japan.


About the Author

Donny Kimball is a digital strategist and growth hacker at Kyodo PR who specializes in tourism promotion. A PhD. candidate at Sophia University who grew up in Japan, he blogs about social media strategy and how customer behavior is changing.

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