Buying influence in China – A beginner’s guide to KOLs

There’s no denying the power and influence of China’s Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).  The combination of Chinese consumers distrust of advertising messages and their preference for word-of-mouth marketing, has created the perfect environment for KOLs to thrive.


China’s KOLs have amassed huge power and influence in the market and many Western marketers are keen to leverage this to promote their brands, products and services.


However, understanding where to start in this complex and unique marketplace can prove to be an overwhelming and difficult exercise.


Why are KOLs so important?

Netizens in China spend more than eight hours per day online, on average. In fact, more than half of all WeChat users spend more than two hours a day on the social media app alone. Then consider the time spent on ecommerce, news, video streaming and other social media sites and it’s easy to understand how many marketing messages the average Chinese consumer is exposed to.


Against this backdrop, KOLs have built huge communities of followers who look to these influencers for trends, product recommendations and inspiration. As we have already said, KOLs wield considerable power, and borrowing a KOL’s influence and online community can provide a quick entry into the Chinese market or a significant increase in product sales.


The KOL market is huge, with some KOLs commanding audiences in the hundreds of millions and charging hefty fees for brand posts. However, there is, of course, a huge amount of influencers to choose from.


Becky Li (黎贝卡)

WeChat: @Miss_shopping_li

Followers: 1.6 million

Becki Li is a journalist-turned-fashion-blogger who is mainly based on WeChat. Her blogs and posts cover a wide range of topics including latest trends, fashion products, brand collaborations and fashion recommendations. She has collaborated with a variety of luxury brands, including Burberry, Giorgio Armani, Tiffany & Co. and even Mini Cooper.


Mi Zijun(大胃王密子君)

Sina Weibo: @密子君

Followers: 4 million

Chongqing native Mi Zijun is a Sina Weibo blogger who has gained fame for eating food: a lot of it, and very quickly.  Mi Zijun famously broadcasted herself finishing 10 cups of super spicy instant noodles within 16 minutes and 20 seconds, and wowed audiences by eating more than four kilograms of plain white rice in one sitting. Mi Zijun’s food feats has attracted large numbers of food and restaurants brands, which report a 10% increase in traffic following her promotions. She has also opened an online snack store at Taobao to sell products.


Lei La (蕾拉)

Sina Weibo: @蕾拉小姐

Followers: 4 million

Lei La is a blogger on Sina Weibo who posts about her travel experiences and she is one of the most popular KOLs in the travel industry. Her posts include her adventures across more than 50 countries, with followers raving about the quality of her images. Lei La first gained notoriety as the wife, and then ex-wife, of famous actor Chen He and following her divorce, she decided to travel the world, taking photos. She regularly collaborates with destination and hotel brands and her popularity helped her become the Chief Creative Officer at WeSafari, a social media platform dedicated to travel videos.


Selecting the right KOL for your brand

The positives of working with KOLs are clear to see, however, there are many factors to consider when engaging with KOLs.


It’s important to examine a number of elements and don’t select a KOL based on follower numbers alone. China’s social media industry, like the rest of the world, is prone to fake or zombie accounts and bots which can inflate follower numbers, much like on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


Marketers need to employ robust evaluation strategies to consider social media influencers, and China’s KOLs are no different. When selecting a KOL you must consider the ROI, the context and the content.


A meaningful brand ambassadorship is far more valuable than one or two expensive (and quickly forgotten) Instagram or Weibo posts. Also consider is the KOL currently in favour? Is their popularity on the rise, or the fall? You should also consider whether the KOL has a substantial content base or do they simply exist to serve brand endorsements? If the latter, Chinese audiences will soon tire of them and cripple your ROI.


Don’t forget to set real expectations of reach and influence and evaluate those at the end of the project. Be realistic, whilst most KOL engagements result in an increase in brand profile some are a slower ‘burn’ than others.


Consider the comments your KOL’s posts attract and ask whether this is the type of ‘cultural fit’ you require for your brand. How far reaching is their influence? You might find that your next KOL could be lurking in the comments’ panel, or a commentator could lead you to a new forum or social media page where your KOL does not have influence. Follow down these leads and potentially discover a new (and cheaper) KOL and community for your brand.


It is wise to consider a brand ambassadorship relationship with your KOLs that reflects naturally online. Chinese netizens are particularly cynical if they feel they are being manipulated and will quickly lose interest if anything feels official or set-up.


Once you understand the environment be prepared for it to change rapidly, as this is the reality in China.


Working with KOLs

In China’s active social media landscape, ensuring your brand stands out is vital, but faced with so much competition and noise, this can be a difficult task. Working with KOLs as part of your Chinese digital marketing strategy is an excellent way to ensure you target and engage with consumers.


However, like any element of the marketing mix, there are many elements to consider when engaging a KOL.

  • Brand fit – Does the KOL their areas of interest fit with the brand’s values and positioning?
  • Target Audience – Is the KOLs audience suitable for the brand? Do the audience demographics match the brand’s target audience?
  • Platform & formats – Does the KOLs platform and/or formats work for your brand and products?


Ultimately, the best way to ensure your KOL strategy is successful is to engage the services of a trusted Chinese digital agency.  Not only can your agency provide invaluable knowledge and expertise working with KOLs, they will also have price lists and established relationships.


Remember the ultimate rule of thumb, you get what you pay for. A cheap KOL is cheap for a reason, your KOL doesn’t have to have hundreds of millions of followers instead looks for KOLs that create quality content for an engaged and loyal audience.