A coming of age for KOLs

Influencer marketing in China is a crowded place. For KOLs the good news is that interest is unlikely to ebb soon. The bad news? Brands are getting wiser and more discerning.

Still young, but growing up fast: Clockwise from left: Zhang Dayi at Super Star on Weibo; Mr. Bags and Fendi; Vin and Lancome
Still young, but growing up fast: Clockwise from left: Zhang Dayi at Super Star on Weibo; Mr. Bags and Fendi; Vin and Lancome

In the age of live streaming, everyone can be a celebrity…internet celebrity, that is, or wang hong,‬ as the social media stars are known in China.

As Wang Fan, the social media director of Carat China puts it, internet celebritydom thrives because of the audience. “The prerequisite of being a wang hong is knowing what your audience likes, and feed them with the content that reflects your personal style,” says Wang. The successful ones have become key opinion leaders (KOLs) in their own right, making a lucrative career out of their huge following on Weibo and WeChat by touting brands on their social posts. A rather enviable vocation, one might say?

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Nevertheless, numbers could tell a different story. A report released by consumer intelligence firm Bomoda a few months ago ranks Chinese KOLs by their influences on purchase intent based on the quality of their social posts.  Singer-actor Xu Wen Zhou occupies the bottom of the barrel when it comes to sales motivation despite having over 5 million followers on Weibo and scoring full marks on Bomoda’s social influence rankings. Bomoda’s verdict: Xu’s posts on his lifestyle bear little connection to the brands he endorses; while posts that contain a slew of hashtags bring few desirable outcomes for brands.

Cherie opened a Taobao shop while at university and has nearly 4 million Weibo fans.

Unlike showbiz celebrities, KOLs are more pliable in their approach towards content collaboration and that explains their appeal with brands. Being mostly of the millennial generation, the KOLs do not shy away from reinvention and have made quick transitions from text, photo, to video and live streaming. The more successful and entrepreneurial ones have also set up their own content production teams while some have also ventured into ecommerce, either launching their own products or partner with brands to sell on platforms such as Taobao and WeChat. 

The need to adapt

There’s a reason behind this need for high-speed evolution.  Competition is intense due to the sheer number of KOLs in China—in Darwinian terms, it’s survival of the fittest on overdrive. 

Brian Buchwald, co-founder and CEO of Bomoda, notes that there is continuing interest in KOLS, but the caveat is brands are getting more choosy.  “Many firms that previously had not engaged influencers now recognize that it is nearly impossible to meet marketing expectations without them,” says Buchwald.  “However, the larger brands who have been partnering with KOLs for some time are now exercising greater discernment in their choices of whom to partner with and how.” 

The competition drives KOLs to experiment with new styles and scenarios in a bid to stay popular. But Buchwalds predicts that a few gimmicks will be outdated soon. 

“Certain trends like partnering between two KOLs as ‘besties’ or faux couples or leveraging on young male KOLs (‮$‬pآA‮&‬طfresh meat in Mandarin slang) to target the female demographic are likely to come and go as consumers become desensitised to their proliferation and fresh becomes stale,” he says.

Teen idol: Yang Mi, one of China’s most influential on Weibo

Meanwhile, desperation may lead to some to dabble in fraud. The industry experts spoken to agreed that KOLs who engage in such practices will be exposed sooner or later.  “It’s once bitten, twice shy for brands as comparison of data from different campaigns or even brands could reveal tell-tale signs of inflated figures in following and engagement,” says Zhao. “Moreover, it would be challenging for the KOLs to fake the number of reach everytime for large volume of content they are expected to come out with.” 

Likewise, Buchwald compares bots and click-farms to steroids. “The benefit will be ephemeral and the crash imminent. KOLs who artificially inflate their awareness and engagement metrics will perform particularly poorly when those numbers are compared to the quality of their engagement and purchase intent,” he says. 

At the risk of sounding self-serving, Buchwald urges brands to partner with technology or solutions providers to weed out KOLs who engage in unsavoury practices. “Sharing this information with the marketplace will be helpful. It is not dissimilar from advertising. Whitelisting of publishers and sharing of standards from one publisher to the next and among advertisers is a good thing,” he says, noting it could grow the pie for all players

Brands and the numbers game

So in an overheated KOL market with questionable data and new gimmicks popping up each week, how can brands still choose and use KOLs effectively?

Wang cautions that the report card on KOLs should not be just based on cold hard numbers such as engagement metrics and conversions. In fact, sometimes brands could find more value in choosing a less popular influencer.

“Rankings are over-simplifications. The greater implication for brands is that KOLs who are at their peak carry a higher risk especially in long-term collaborations,” says Wang. “There is more potential with rising influencers as brands could ride on their growing following.”

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‘Sweet’ sells… Zhang Dayi’s Taobao fashion site

THE CAMERA DOESN’T LIE

As social media fuels the rise of influencer marketing in recent years, netizens are more privy to the daily lives of the celebrities than ever. There is certainly no doubt that fans find their favourite KOLs likeable, although it is helpful to find out why to ensure a longer shelf life. This question occupies the mind of Zhang Dayi, the mega Chinese KOL who reportedly earned $46 million in a year from endorsement deals and her self-branded ecommerce store.

“Sometimes I turn to my team, and they tell me that I am very genuine,” Zhang told media on the sideline of an Alibaba event last July. “In the eyes of most people, KOLs are fake. Sure, you can look good on photos but fans have been able to judge for themselves through live streaming and real-time interaction with the KOLs. So being genuine helps to build trust and rapport with fans, and it will make your brand endorsement more relatable,” she added.

While Zhang stressed that what you see is what you get with her, the 28-year-old admitted that the ideal Chinese female KOL falls into the girl-next-door type with a “sweet” appearance. 

Zhang was also frank that being a successful KOL was not a one-woman show. “My team and I are always keen on exploring new platforms, look at the traffic stream and data to achieve better audience targeting,” she said. As for now, Zhang is not losing sleep over other uncontrollable factors such as the approaching big 3-0. “My fans will grow older along with me. But that is even better as they will have a higher spending power, and I already have plans to open a lifestyle store to diversify my clothing business,” she quipped.

In fact, Wang points out that microinfluencers, typically those with a following of less than 10,000, may bring amplification benefits for the simple reason that they are cheaper to work with and brands can afford to hire more of them. “

Certainly the influencer management agencies see it that way. It may require time and investment, but Sky Zhao, COO of influencer management agency Mamakol sees the potential in working with novices. “While we don’t usually sign on with KOLs who start from zero, we will help those under our wing to establish connections with brands, get them to attend more events and gain more exposure,” he says. 

But rather than betting on a simple popularity contest, some brands and agencies need to take a step back and look more closely at the data to learn about ways to better leverage the influence of the KOLs. “

Data, for all its flaws, can be used for so much more than straight traffic counts. 

“Brands must get smart about what their goals are for engaging a KOL. Is it brand awareness, brand positioning, building brand loyalty or purchase intent? Each of these have underlying trackable metrics that can and should be measured. But today, most brands target the bare minimum,” says Buchwald. 

Content and platforms are key

It’s hard for KOLs to predict what brands will want from, hence the gimmicks and trial-and-errors on different platforms to find new audience.  But given all the competition out there, Wang advises KOLs to focus on their strength – content.  

Doing that means KOLs should not let brands interfere, he explains. “The reason KOLs are popular is because their fans like what they are offering…their originality (think Papi Jiang’s rapid fire rant). Giving brands too much say on content will dilute their style and make the content less shareable, it will be a loss for both the influencers and brands,” says Wang. 

Echoing Wang’s view, Zhao points out that publishers and platforms have been relying on the content by KOLs to drive traffic. “Content from KOLs are more valuable because audience trust their reviews, whether it is paid or not. Even ecommerce sites such as Taobao and JD.com are aware that content is an effective way to keep audience on the site,” says Zhao. 

Having said that, “it is not enough to just have good content if the KOLs have few avenues to market it, since brands are less likely to engage directly with the KOLs,” Zhao notes. 

He says many KOLs make err by not developing strong partnerships with platforms. “Each platform tries to groom their own KOLs, but they (KOLs) must also learn to play by the rules. They do not fully comprehend the regulations set by the platform and what it wants to push and sell,” says Zhao. Microblogging site Weibo, for instance, has unlisted rules for KOLs.  Zhao adds the complexity of rules make it hard for KOLs to succeed on all platforms. 

China’s crazed KOL market may be hard to top, but those with unique content appealing to the right platforms are likely to attract brand name interest.

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