FMA uses Instagram influencers. Surely not.

Instagram - which began as a simple photo-sharing app and was bought by Facebook in 2012 - has become an advertising behemoth. With more than 800 million users worldwide, it's hardly surprising to find Instagram "influencers" earning a living spruiking everything from detox tea (a glorified laxative) to McDonalds.

What is more startling is to find otherwise staid government agencies also making use of influencers to get their message across.

At a most basic level, Instagram influencers allow companies to get their brand out there in a world where it's all too easy to block pesky ads online. Whereas in the past your Instagram feed was full of friends and family members' life updates, now you get promotional messages too. "Guess what!?" screams candicekumai, emojis flowing. "You can shop my fave @danielwellington + we're giving away even more prizes + goodies... Matcha master that like the Japanese do." Whatever.

For influencers, Instagram is a lucrative source of income. Depending on their following, what they post, and how frequently, they can be paid tens of thousands of dollars for a sponsored post. These should be, but are often not, hashtagged #spon, #sp or #ad.

But recently, a different kind of ad has popped up in New Zealand Instagram feeds. Not a model promoting ice cream, or a rugby player selling watches. This time, influencers are promoting the Financial Markets Authority, the regulator which ensures finance-related companies operate within the law.

More specifically, the influencers are pushing the FMA's KiwiSaver health checker, which takes users through three questions designed to make them consider whether they are saving enough, and have their money in the fund which could bring the best return for their money.

Why use Instagram? Andrew Park, manager of external communications at the FMA, says the agency chose the social media platform because it's one of the best ways to find the specific audience it's worried about not reaching - young women aged between 18 and 30.

The FMA launched the KiwiSaver tool earlier this month, with a conventional media push via press releases and interviews. But Park says the agency is concerned that method was only promoting the tool to people who already know, and care, about what the FMA does.

"Instagram was selected as one of the most appropriate channels for reaching this specific audience and trying to start conversations about what is usually seen as a very dry and dull topic," Park says. "The simple fact is that our target audience, in this instance, don’t really frequent the business media pages, and they are much more likely to listen to a peer than to an FMA spokesperson."

Park says the agency's 2016 survey of how people read their KiwiSaver annual statements showed that just 21 percent of people read their statements thoroughly, with another 58 percent saying they briefly looked at them. That 58 percent was more likely to be female, and aged 18 to 29, and that group was also most likely to say they didn't remember getting a statement.

"Our research showed that this particular group were the least engaged in their KiwiSaver statements and the least likely to take any action when they read them," Park said. "We also felt that they had the most to gain from raising awareness about the information in their KiwiSaver statements this year."

Instagram was selected as one of the most appropriate channels for reaching this specific audience and trying to start conversations about what is usually seen as a very dry and dull topic.

The FMA paid $6,000 for an agency to research, source and sponsor three influencers and boost their social media posts, while a fourth influencer posted about the tool without being paid. The authority says this is part of a wider promotional campaign for the health checker that is running this month and next at the same time as annual statements are being delivered.

It's the first time the FMA has used Instagram to promote its products, and the agency is keen to see how it goes. It will run social media analytics at the end of the campaign and perhaps talk to KiwiSaver providers to see if it changes member behaviour.

However, this is not a first for any government agency using social media influencers to try to connect with young New Zealanders. The Electoral Commission worked with Kiwi YouTube star Jamie Curry during the 2017 election: she posted across her social media platforms, including Instagram.

And during the Census earlier this year, Statistics New Zealand paid a number of influencers, including All Black Jordie Barrett and comedian Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, to post encouraging people to participate, with the prospect of winning a portable speaker if they tagged their friends in a post on a specific Facebook page. Stats NZ says they're still in the process of evaluating the reach and impact that had.

Corporates are also getting in on the influencer game. AMP Financial Services, which manages some $21 billion in funds in New Zealand, has also just completed a trial on Instagram, encouraging people to use its KiwiSaver calculator.

Blair Vernon, AMP New Zealand’s managing director, says the campaign targeted men and woman aged between 19 and 29. The company worked with seven influencers - two women and five men. It reckons it was able to reach nearly 150,000 Kiwis, with 64 percent of that engagement with women and 38 percent with people aged between 18 and 24.

Vernon says AMP has increased its digital communications in the past couple of years, and expects to keep substantially investing in creating new digital tools, such as the calculator and its new chatbot, Alex.

"There are a growing number of all Kiwis who rely on social media for news, information and entertainment, so it’s a great way to connect with and support more New Zealanders. This is increasingly the case when it comes to Instagram," Vernon says.

Is this all above board? The Advertising Standards Authority issued a note in February, reiterating its expectation that influencers clearly flag when their posts are paid for, but says it can't act unless it receives a complaint. It's an industry which is young, but booming; Auckland-based influencer marketplace The Social Club claims to have 3,500 influencers with a global reach of 17.5 million people.

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