KOL (Key Opinion Leader) Marketing in China 2017

From choosing a restaurant for a date to getting a doctor’s appointment, many of us now fully depend on digital solutions for all our plans in life. These solutions come in the form of search engines, apps, social media platforms, online stores and many other guises. The use of such solutions is particularly widespread in China. Its 700 million netizens make it the world’s largest social media market, where people are free to develop their startup ideas, have a healthy, open attitude towards innovation, and embrace everything new and progressive!

But where do we go when there are just too many choices? We of course seek the advice of a friend or colleague, but we may also seek out the views of a well-respected person who has first hand knowledge or experience of what it is we want to try or do. This type of person is known as a KOL (Key Opinion Leader), an influential figure whose main job is to share his opinion on subjects he is experienced in. He may be a ‘shopping maniac’, a columnist, a fashion diva, a blogger, a chef, a humorous individual, a professional in his field, or it may consist of a group of people sharing the same knowledge.

KOLs in China are found easily on Weibo, WeChat, Youku, Meipai, Douban, LOFT etc. and can come in useful for any type of industry or business.

Just ten years ago the term KOL was little known, but now netizens everywhere are fully familiar with it, and China is certainly no exception.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Chinese market is that it is falling behind when it comes to innovation and marketing. In fact, China is one of the most progressive countries with regards to the technological and digital world, where KOL marketing/influencer marketing in China started developing almost a decade ago, with the advent of Sina Weibo in 2009. Today, the most followed accounts on Weibo have more than 90 million followers, with celebrities racking up the highest numbers of followers.

When it comes to lifestyle, humour, fashion, make-up and other daily life themes, the numbers are still counted in millions:

1. 苏芩(SuQin) – a writer with over 50m followers

2. 热门搞笑排行榜 (Popular funny list) – a privately managed humor channel with over 36m followers

3. 999道私房菜 (999 channels of private kitchen)- a privately managed food channel with over 13m followers 

The Chinese also spend the third largest amount of time per day in front of screens (data from 2014).

So what is KOL marketing, and why is everyone talking about it? 

KOL marketing is one of the most effective ways for a brand to connect with its target audience. It could be as straightforward as paying an influencer to endorse a brand to followers, or something a little more unexpected such as attracting an influencer and having some sort of cooperation with the brand, that not necessarily includes any remuneration (it could be a co-branding project, charity project, free sampling etc. depending on the size of the brand and the influencer). Of course the last one mentioned here is unlikely to be done by super popular influencers with tens of millions of followers or brands like Pepsi. Yet nowadays big brands tend to work with “middle” layer influencers, instead of top end Chinese actors and singers whose demands are becoming too high.

Official Weibo account of Chinese actress and fashion icon Fan PingPing


Why is it effective in China? 

Most Chinese people are not so trusting of information given by official institutions, so they look for advice elsewhere. They go to friends or search for advice online. This is one of the reasons why word of mouth is the most trusted way of marketing in China. This applies to words that are coming from the mouths (or should we say pages) of KOL’s, and brands have arrived just in time to take advantage of that. Of course there are other factors that come to mind when choosing the right KOL – not only their main audience, but also their activity and the number of fake accounts following them. The optimum KOL in China is not the one who has the most followers, but one who has a high rate of interaction with their audience, while of course maintaining a fairly sizeable following.

In China when you start hearing about something new it often means you are probably already too late to the party, but when it comes to KOL marketing, this is not the case at all.

According to most brands who have used this marketing strategy – KOL/influencer marketing is one of the most effective ways to engage with an audience. Keep in mind that this is just part of a wider overall digital marketing strategy of a brand.

So it seems there is still time, and the possibilities are varied. If China is a potential market for your brand or service, KOL marketing could be a great way to support your digital marketing strategy, to educate and influence millions of potential buyers, and to make sure your story will be heard.

Kate CHERNAVINAKOL (Key Opinion Leader) Marketing in China 2017