Anyone engaged in marketing in China could be forgiven for wanting to smash their head against the wall every time that KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) are brought up in conversation. Everyone knows how essential they are, how they’ve come to feature in virtually any campaign worth its salt, and how keeping track of which KOLs are hot right now is vital. But their sheer ubiquity, the way that they work their way into almost all campaign-related discussions, could drive a person mad from boredom. Not to mention, when you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. KOLs are not the solution to all marketing problems. Enter, KOCs.
KOCs (Key Opinion Customers) are a potential salve to the wounds of any tired marketing executive. While KOL marketing could be described as a blunt, brute-force approach to getting a campaign engaged with – shelling out cash to gain a huge hit of exposure – KOC marketing could be described as a more precise, granular approach – creating a multi-faceted ecosystem that generates brand interest over time. If KOL marketing has become the proverbial hammer, KOC marketing might likened to a chisel.
What are KOCs?
Some may liken KOCs to the more traditional idea of brand advocates. The friend who always buys Adidas shoes, refusing to wear anything else. The auntie who insists that Volvos are the safest cars to drive. The local hairdresser who will wax lyrical about how Vidal Sassoon conditioners have always left hair silky smooth.
Unlike KOLs, KOCs do not have gigantic online audiences, they are not paid to share their views, and they do not use products as a means to build their own personal brand. They are people with whom a potential new customer has close acquaintance, who speak and act on behalf of brands organically, exhibit brand loyalty, and express themselves authentically. While the reach of their influence might be drastically lower than that of KOLs, the depth of their influence far outstrips it. People trust the people they know.
How does the term KOC differ from that of brand advocate? First of all, when we talk about KOCs, we are implicitly referring to customers who will share their fondness and loyalty for a brand online. Second, KOCs are not recruited individually – the goal is to make as many customers into KOCs as possible. Third, strategies for KOC marketing involve motivating customers to perform specific high-value actions, but rarely directly telling them to.
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Organic or Contrived?
Whereas brand advocacy and KOL marketing strategies usually focus on getting specific people to do specific things, KOC marketing is mostly about targeting behaviours, not individuals. That is, the goal is to create and build upon a set of actions that people will ‘organically’ start making a habit of performing. Why might we put ‘organically’ in quotation marks? Because both the shape of those actions, and the motivation to perform them, are in part determined by the marketing strategy.
Motivations and Behaviours
Let’s consider motivations first. What motivates a customer to advocate for a brand? There is some motivation built into the purchase of a product or service itself. The customer might feel satisfied now having it, or perhaps they feel they need to justify having bought it, to themselves and others. Beyond this, though, brands may use tools to nudge, or incentivise, a recommendation.
One is personalization – Coca-Cola’s named bottle campaign was effective in this regard, but even better might be Zippo’s customizable lighters, as they create personalization that lasts.
Another is experiential marketing – creating an engagement, especially a physical one, to accompany a purchase, through an event or interactive installation. And, of course, straight-down-the-line customer service is always a winner in this domain. A caring post-sales department can make all the difference. Finally, loyalty and reward schemes might turn one-time recommendations into a pattern.
When it comes to the actual KOC behaviours that brands want to motivate, there is a real creative challenge. The chisel analogy used above? This is where the chisel is truly wielded. Once customers are incentivised to speak for the brand, the way in which they do so could drastically alter the efficacy of their advocacy, and therefore the campaign outcomes.
Brand managers do not have the creative control that they enjoy in more traditional campaigns here, but instead must co-create with anonymous customers. There’s a necessity to strike a balance between specific guidance – for instance, offering instructions on how exactly to share a brand online, or issuing a specific social media challenge – and generality – a vague call to action that allows more room for the KOC’s creativity to shine through.
In KOC marketing, creatives might have to put their personal preferences aside a little, or at least employ a high degree of flexibility, because the ultimate goal is retention. If the advocacy actions of customers aren’t exactly aligned with the creative vision set out at the onset of a campaign, this is usually going to be less important than whether or not those customers keep advocating. The most important thing here is retaining a customer, thereby converting them into a KOC. Once they’re converted KOC, then they are an asset that can be leveraged in multiple campaigns.
KOC marketing is a lesser-spoken-about, but incredibly effective tool for building brand interest and driving sales. It is all about playing the long-game, using specific tools to motivate and guide customers in their personal representations of a brand. It is the careful leverage of personal networks, and co-creative ideas. It is this specificity, this ability to tweak, that might be music to the ears of marketers who are tired of hearing KOLs proposed as the solution to everything. The days of KOLs are far from over, but KOC marketing might offer a complementary additive.
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