Breaking the internet, Chinese style

CHINA INNOVATION 2016: How brands are tapping China’s unique influencer marketing environment.

Fashion forward: Internet celebrities GoGoBoi and Aikelili (top left) have teamed up to guest curate a cover of the digital style magazine Vogue Me (bottom left); video blogger ‘Papi’ Jiang Yilei (top right) regularly draws audiences in the millions for her live-streaming acerbic monologues.
Fashion forward: Internet celebrities GoGoBoi and Aikelili (top left) have teamed up to guest curate a cover of the digital style magazine Vogue Me (bottom left); video blogger ‘Papi’ Jiang Yilei (top right) regularly draws audiences in the millions for her live-streaming acerbic monologues.

Andy Warhol famously said in 1968: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol was one of his era’s great KOLs — notably the guy who made Campbell Soup more than just a product on the shelf. 

Fast forward to Shanghai in 2014. “KOLs are often more effective at creating digital content,” said Jacquelyn Wu, China marketing director for — you guessed it — Campbell Soup. 

KOLs, or key opinion leaders, come complete with their own audience that already trusts them, so there is a great value proposition for brands. 

In fact, asserts Ivy Wong, founder and CEO at VS Media, China’s KOLs can deliver “the highest ROI of any marketing platform in the world”. Say, when a celebrity influencer posts about a certain brand on their Weibo page, the post can reach a fan base 1,800 times greater than the brand’s own, and achieve engagement up to 6,000 times more, according to a report by L2. This amplification effect is a hundredfold of what could be achieved in the West.

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Working with ‘moneyball’ influencers, or wanghong (internet stars), is certainly innovative in China, conversations among the nation’s marketers have shifted from whether a brand should work with an influencer to how much they should pay them.

For some influencers, prices and customer acquisition costs can run to eye-watering levels. GoGoBoi, a fashion influencer, for example, charges Rmb130,000 (US$19,500) for a single post. Such high-flyers are putting the sustainability of the KOL market, including entire workforces backing each KOL, in doubt.

Internet celebrity Aikelili shows off an invitation from Chanel on his video channel.

How do you know who’s the real deal? Who will have more than 15 minutes of fame, and make a good partner for your brand?

The consensus among agencies Campaign spoke with for this article was that the future lies in matchmaking between brands and KOLs. We’re finding that’s an industrial-scale task as the influencer market heats up. 

Theoretically, KOLs should be very measurable in China where ecommerce and social platforms are tightly integrated, but different platforms have different standards.

“KOL decision-making in China is still largely based on ‘feel’ or reliant upon basic evaluation tools,” says Brian Buchwald, CEO of Bomoda. That less-scientific approach may be changing as a range of third-party tools developed by foreign firms help brands decide who makes the grade.

According to Chloe Reuter, founder and CEO of Reuter Communications, some brands are essentially turning KOLs into commissioned salespeople with sales targets. “A lot of KOLs are pretty stressed about [this kind of approach],” says Reuter. Instead, she advises brands to view their investments into influencers in the same light as public relations and events, where the real value may be indirect, but the activity is leading consumers down the path to sales.

Exacerbating the issue is the simple fact that it takes time for influencer activity to show an impact on sales. On the other hand, reach is the easiest to measure, but also the easiest to fake. Therefore, reach alone (measured through subscriber numbers or article views on the KOL’s account) is one of the least reliable metrics, and needs to be combined with engagement.

“There’s a difference between having tremendous reach and having tremendous influence,” points out Kim Leitzes, founder of ParkLU.

The typical metric used is interactions (likes, comments and shares) divided by views. Tread with caution, warns Alexis Bonhomme, co-founder and general manager of Curiosity China: what looks good may in fact be fake. “If the engagement rate is above 1 percent, it might be an indication that the KOL account is not legit,” he says. Tencent’s recent purge of fake views left a lot of brands looking embarrassed, but it’s still hard to tell fake views from real.

“A lot of the time, fake followers are showing up from Henan, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang and Guangdong provinces,” says Bonhomme. “If on Monday at 8.30am, I get suddenly 500 followers, all from Guangdong, I smell a rat. The growth is not logical, not human.”

Robin8 co-founder, Hassan Miah also advises caution. “Given the amount of click fraud and inflated follower numbers,” he says, “the best way to analyse the data is by reviewing multiple sources of data over time.” 

Observing trends enables you to gauge a KOL’s growth potential, and also to ensure the legitimacy of data associated with him or her. 

Buchwald names a number of “meta-statistics” that Bomoda uses to assess KOLs: “increase in popularity, increase in purchase intent, growth in transactions, growth of high-quality followers, longevity of KOL effect”. 

Depth of influence

There is no unified ‘score’ such as Klout in the West — which many in the industry argue is oversimplified — so effective monitoring will depend on the brand’s particular goals. Different KOLs can serve different marketing purposes for a brand, depending on its audience, goals and market stage. If the brand is new to the market, launching a new product or undergoing a brand revival, the choice will be different. 

“There are KOLs who share everything about their lives and those who curate [on a particular topic],” says Leitzes. “We’ve found the ones who tend to curate more have more purchase influence. Someone you like because they’re funny may not be the one you’d trust for baby product advice.”

Joyce Lemon has risen to online stardom on the back of her popular makeup tutorial videos. 

There’s also the strength of a long-term partnership, Reuter points out. “I’d much rather create a long-term collaborative relationship with [a KOL] who falls in love with the brand.” 

But Robin8’s Miah suggests brands need to stay agile and not stick to a single influencer purely out of loyalty. Rather than a single A-grade star, they should select a mix of “long-tail KOLs” who are actually truly influential ‘superfans’ of the brand. 

This means managing the expectations of clients, which brings up another question: what’s the lifespan of a KOL? Will today’s hot-shot be tomorrow’s has-been? 

“A mediocre KOL’s lifespan could be very short, like a few months or a few weeks,” says Kantar Media CIC’s Linda Xu, adding that a hot WeChat post will normally only stay hot for up to 72 hours. 

Because KOLs have to be smart and adapt quickly, so do marketers. Curiosity’s Bonhomme adds that “understanding who is doing what is clearly a must when marketers want to innovate”. They should look for tools for themselves and not just rely on internal Powerpoint reports, as is common in China’s marketing departments. 

Campaign China

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