Enter KOCs, or Key Opinion Customers, a potential salve to the wounds of any tired marketing executive. KOC marketing takes the form of product seeding to regular customers who have built a following on the basis of their dependable product reviews. While KOL marketing could be described as a blunt, brute-force approach to getting brand engagement – 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 be 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.
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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What is the difference between KOL and KOC marketing?
While similarly named, KOL and KOC marketing are actually different, complementary marketing strategies.
KOL marketing leverages the massive followings of KOLs to amplify brand exposure across broad markets.
- KOLs are aspirational figures. They impart their cultural cachet onto brands they work with.
- Most KOLs earn their living working with brands on a professional level and have strong marketing expertise for their target markets.
- Followers are not as loyal and brand endorsements are not seen as authentic
- Individual rates for KOLs can be very expensive
KOC marketing starts with product seeding, which leads to organic engagement with the brand.
- KOCs are relatable figures. They are end users and intimately understand the mindsets of fellow consumers.
- As KOCs are not paid, KOC marketing is a low-cost marketing strategy.
- With far fewer followers than KOLs, individual KOCs have limited reach
- KOCs are average consumers and since they aren’t paid, brands have less control over how individual KOCs promote/review their product.
Is KOC Marketing Effective?
While we can talk about the theoretical benefits of this marketing strategy, it’s more useful to explore case-studies of how KOC marketing is used on the ground by both giant and small companies. In fact, KOC marketing can be effectively employed by businesses of any size. Let’s first explore some of the more prominent examples:
Proya’s marketing strategy for their viral “Bubble Mask” product perfectly encapsulates how marketing campaigns can effectively utilize KOC and KOL marketing in tandem. Upon launch, Proya employed a pyramid strategy. They first worked with top-level KOLs like Austin Li, China’s “lipstick king”, and mainstream celebrities like singer/actress Annie Yi to grow brand exposure and raise brand profile. In the next level down, they worked with topic-specific KOLs in various content verticals to disseminate product knowledge across markets.
At the base level of the pyramid, Proya worked with over 2000 individual KOCs to promote the brand on a more granular level. For this step, they identified customers who were already clearly enthusiastic about the Bubble Mask and would have a more direct influence on their social circles regarding purchasing decisions.
The success of this campaign was unquestionable – in 2019, the Bubble Mask was first on Douyin’s official product recommendation list and Proya’s Tmall flagship store sold over 200 million RMB in products during the annual双十一 Singles Day shopping festival.
Seen as a “brand for mothers” in China, Olay initiated a brand campaign on Xiaohongshu to rebrand themselves for a younger generation. The campaign encouraged young student KOCs to speak from their perspective about Olay’s anti-aging products. Many KOCs created posts on skincare routines for fellow students, reviewing which Olay products could help them retain youthful skin. This campaign successfully helped Olay establish a younger brand image on Xiaohongshu, sparking increased engagement with a younger subset of consumers.
To gear up for the annual Singles Day shopping festival, Lancôme set up a KOC campaign on Xiaohongshu. Encouraging KOCs to provide genuine feedback on their products combined with information on discounts, the campaign succeeded in driving sales during the festival. Furthermore, Lancôme also helped connect smaller KOCs with larger KOCs in the campaign network. This boosted engagement between KOCs, which helped create a snowball effect of increased organic discussion and engagement with the brand across the platform.
Pechoin launched the #Pechoin invites you to create a dream# campaign on Kuaishou. Through product seeding to various KOCs working in diverse professions, they drove strong initial engagement to their campaign, spreading their brand image in an organic and grassroots manner.
Does KOC marketing apply to smaller businesses?
While the above case-studies revolve around how large companies have successfully leveraged KOC marketing, small companies stand to benefit immensely from this strategy. For a small business or brand that has just begun their journey in the Chinese market, KOC campaigns are an indispensable marketing tool. Not only is it feasible to run on a shoestring budget, it also helps grow brand awareness and consumer trust very organically.
Below are what small business owner have to say about the results of their KOC campaigns:
Maria, Marketing Manager at AMATime.
“When we first entered the Chinese market, we had a very limited budget. We worked with HI-COM to create a marketing campaign that could work around our budgetary constraints. Instead of hiring expensive influencers, HI-COM offered to promote our products by implementing a KOC campaign on Xiaohongshu and a community marketing campaign on WeChat.
With the help of only 10 KOCs, we were able to attract over 700 customers and funnel 230 highly targeted potential customers in our groups on WeChat. We have seen first-hand the high ROIs KOC marketing can offer and we have been very satisfied with the results.”
Do KOCs have an influence on customer decisions?
To paint a holistic picture of KOC marketing, it’s also important to understand the KOC trend from the perspective of consumers.
“Back when I was still in school, I would often watch livestreams of my favourite celebrities and make purchasing decisions based on the products they were promoting. With ecommerce being already so developed, there wasn’t much friction in making impulse purchases. Eventually, I realized I had to slow down as many of the products I bought ended up falling far below my expectations.
Seeing my bad purchasing habits, my friends recommended me a few accounts on Xiaohongshu who have a good track record of providing reliable reviews of products. People running those accounts weren’t celebrities or KOLs, just regular people documenting their experiences with different products. Today I always do my research first before purchasing. I’ve also learned to really read deep into the review section of various products to gauge genuine user experiences.”
“I’m more of a careful shopper than most. Whenever I buy something from a shop, I need to know everything about the product. I rarely care about celebrity endorsements or follow famous bloggers, since everything they promote is all sponsored content. They won’t actually do a critical assessment of the product they’re promoting.
I rather trust reviews from real customers. I can be loyal to some brands, but only if their products are genuinely good. In our group chat, my close friends and I are always recommending each other skincare products we’ve tried out.”
Which platforms in China are good for KOC marketing?
With so many social media platforms in China with their own niches, it’s important to understand the social media landscape before deciding which platform(s) to execute your KOC marketing campaign on:
Originally designed as a product review platform, Xiaohongshu is one of the best platforms for KOC marketing. Its algorithm is designed to rank content by user engagement as opposed to follower count, dampening the potential advantages of KOLs with large follower counts while providing opportunities for new accounts to thrive based off of quality content.
With a demographic that skews young, upwardly mobile, and female, it’s filled with various KOCs reviewing everything from fashion and lifestyle products to food and beverage locations. When savvy young Chinese consumers want to learn more about a product or service, they turn to Xiaohongshu.
WeChat, which has long replaced texting in China, is the largest social media platform in China. Its presence is felt everywhere in daily life. For any brand, having an official account on WeChat is a must.
There are many ways to promote content on WeChat. Brands can run official accounts and create mini-programs to create loyalty programs. Brands can also create WeChat groups to connect with consumers on a more personal level.
In addition, many individual bloggers also run personal official accounts to promote their own content to reach a wide audience. KOC marketing can take advantage of the influence these individual bloggers have within their social circles.
A user review platform for mostly brick and mortar B2C businesses, Dianping is geared towards businesses operating in the entertainment, F&B, and hospitality industries in China. With built in discount promotion functions and a vibrant community of reviewers, Dianping is the go-to platform for Chinese people when looking for places to go out to.
On Dianping, top reviewers are awarded the V达人or “V expert” label. These KOCs have a strong record of leaving in-depth reviews that platform users trust. KOC marketing campaigns on Dianping work by attracting V experts to establishments to provide exposure and hype.
Douyin is the Chinese counterpart to Tik Tok. The demographics of the platform skew young and urban, with a heavily Gen Z userbase. With its short video format and promotion algorithms tilted in favor of engagement, Douyin is well-suited for viral marketing. It also has native e-commerce features, making it a social e-commerce platform.
KOC marketing on Douyin taps into the viral nature of UGC. By working with various KOCs on the platform and setting up engaging brand hashtag challenges to encourage user engagement, your brand can build organic, grassroots hype for your brand without the marketing coming off as forced.
How to Get Started with Your KOC Marketing Campaign?
We first need to understand that there are two types of KOCs. Organic KOCs have a genuine enthusiasm for your brand and products and are motivated by past satisfaction, post-purchase rationalization, or other emotion/psychological reinforcements to share your brand on their social media. The other kind are KOCs that have to be convinced, usually through incentives of free products.
Below, we talk about some best practises for initiating your KOC marketing campaign:
Ask for feedback
KOC marketing relies on being in touch with your customer base. What better way than just to ask them directly? Give your audience a chance to leave reviews or ask for their opinion via polls and surveys. Not only will you gain valuable insight into your target market, but consumers will feel respected. After collecting this information, it becomes easier to identify potential KOCs. Choose your KOC candidates from customers who have a strong history of providing in-depth reviews and a pre-existing follower base.
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.
Product seeding is a great way to organically grow your brand presence in a grassroots manner. After you have identified KOCs and other potential figures who resonate with your product, reach out and offer to send them gifts from your brand. This encourages these KOCs to review your products and engage with your brand via social media posts. It also opens to the door for building stronger relationships with these customers and their social circles.
Featuring KOC voices in marketing campaigns
While KOL marketing campaigns can reach a wider audience, KOC voices come across as much more genuine and relatable. Work with KOCs that your brand has already established a strong relationship with to craft a more down to earth marketing campaign catered towards their specific social circles. These campaigns help create a more grassroots and approachable image of your brand.
Hosting livestreams with KOCs
In this approach, you can either invite KOCs onto livestreams from your brand’s channel or provide them products to review on their own livestreams. Where this differs from KOL livestreams is that the focus is less on the personalities themselves but rather on providing audiences product knowledge from an end-user perspective. Having non-professionals on livestreams further provides raw authenticity to your brand.
Inviting KOC to focus groups
Much like the first point, asking your consumer base about their opinions provides incredible insight into your target market and brand’s position in that market. Most likely your KOCs have experience with many other brands in your market. Paired with your working relationship with them and their plentiful experience with your products, they are able to act as consultants for your brand. Invite them to your focus groups to provide you unbiased, critical insights into your brand from a third-party point of view when designing new products or marketing 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.
HI-COM is a multilingual communication agency dedicated to providing China-specific social media communication and e-commerce marketing services to businesses around the world. Working with more than 100 brands, HI-COM is the go-to partner of companies that want to enter China market! Contact us for your free consultation today!