How are KOLs evolving in China?

In the West we call them influencers, but in China, KOLs – or Key Opinion Leaders – are in a league of their own, with some of the biggest earning millions of dollars every year from lucrative sponsorship deals with brands.

The power of Chinese KOLs

KOLs have an extremely high degree of power in digital China, in a nation where shoppers are predominantly online and keen to follow the opinions and recommendations of people that they trust.

KOLs operate across all of China’s social media platforms, such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Little Red Book and the multitude of smaller and topic-specific platforms (many of which dwarf Western equivalents!)

Chinese customers trust and respect their chosen KOLs and use them to make purchasing decisions to a far greater degree in the West; offering brands highly tailored and flexible routes to sponsorship arrangements.

Remember, Chinese online shoppers also value online advertising in a way that Western customers do not, so the combination of KOL sponsored content supported by targeted online advertising is a powerful one indeed!

So how is the role of the KOL evolving in China, and what does this mean to Western brands?

1. They aren’t going anywhere!

Far from falling out of fashion, KOLs are becoming more important than ever to marketers. This is because they continue to reinforce the values of trust, integrity, value, and authenticity to Chinese online shoppers. Research suggests that emerging Chinese Gen Z buyers also place great emphasis on these values and that they are more inclined to follow and engage with a KOL’s recommendations – whether a mass or micro-influencer – than a brand itself.

2. Micro-KOLs are on the rise

This is similar to a trend being seen in the West, where more niche online influencers are being sought by brands. This is because Micro-KOLs tend to have a richer and more meaningful level of engagement with their followers (who are also more likely to be real people, rather than bots or spam accounts!) Brands recognise that the depth of these relationships can create highly engaged and motivated customers, such as the Apple fanboy (or girl).

3. KOCs are the next big thing…

Many marketers in China are now creating strategies for Key Opinion Customers (KOCs) who act as brand evangelists. These influencers already buy products and services from a brand and share their positive feedback to their own network – encouraging them to do the same. This type of private traffic is growing, and it allows brands to use KOCs to garner sales from private, online networks – such as a WeChat group. Brands can create KOC groups on social media platforms, share promotions and other forms of content with them, and allow their ‘superfans’ to share it on to their own networks.

4. Video is growing

The use of video content is already huge, but Chinese social media platforms are always innovating and rolling out new features and technologies. For example, Douyin has developed in-video search capabilities, and KOLs are experimenting with different types of video on growing social media platforms such as Bilibili, Xiaohongshu, and Kuaishou, as well as Weibo and WeChat.

5. Experiential marketing matters more than ever

Brands operating in China have already spent vast sums on acquiring customers – and now they are looking to retain them via increasingly personalised, highly targeted, and engaging experiential content. These unique digital encounters – delivered via KOLs and KOCs – help to create a sense of relationship between brands and consumers, with the intention of creating ongoing loyalty. Innovative experiential marketing campaigns will matter more than ever – often with the help of Chinese digital marketing agencies who have the insight and experience needed to tackle this challenging and rapidly evolving field of specialist marketing.

6. KOLs are still live streaming

Livestreaming is still a big KOL trend, especially for important shopping events such as Singles Day on Alibaba. This year, the November event will see around 2,000 KOLs live streaming promotional content with eCommerce integration for seamless customer experiences and purchases.

7. Brands are choosing KOLs more carefully

Many brands are now making more conscious decisions about the KOLs that they use, and getting recommendations from Chinese digital marketing agencies, who can help to quantify their value and likely returns from any sponsorship arrangements. With thousands of KOLs to choose from, across all industries and at all levels in the social-media eco-system, these choices can be difficult and need to be made with ready data in order to obtain the right ROI. Similarly, brands will need to have clear objectives in mind from their KOL relationships before they progress into a partnership; ascertaining whether they are seeking to build long-term brand positioning or more immediate sales.

8. KOLs are using intermediaries

The KOL landscape, and its underlying digital ecosystem, is continuing to evolve. As a result, many brands are now keen to use agencies and intermediaries to select and partner with the right KOL. Some brands have been burned in the past by paying large amounts for sponsorship arrangements that didn’t yield intended results, and as a result, most are now using specialist digital marketing agencies to improve ROI.

9. The approach depends on the platform

A Chinese marketing agency will tell you that the approach a brand should take to engage with a KOL will depend on the influencer and the platform. For example, on Little Red Book, KOL collaboration will begin with brands gifting their products to influencers (including celebrities) who will decide which products to promote with free exposure. If this is successful, the brand may approach the influencer to arrange a paid campaign.