The proliferation of KOLs all over China’s social media is threatening to cause ‘influencer fatigue’ among audiences. We consulted some experts in the field to identify new trends brands can draw on to reanimate their ideas about KOL marketing this year, ensuring they remain fresh and deliver optimum results.
1. KOLs to LOLs
“Don’t laugh out loud—switch from looking for key opinion leaders (KOLs) to local opinion leaders (LOLs),” says Lee Folland, head of research at Reuter Communications, headquartered in Shanghai. 2019 is the year to work with a variety of smaller influencers, known as ‘local opinion leaders’ or ‘micro influencers’, rather than one big (expensive) KOL in China. Folland points out that it’s not only about selecting those with a certain kind of WeChat, Weibo or Xiaohongshu following. Local Opinion Leaders also means figures in culture—and subculture.
“Graffiti artists may not post an ‘eyes look down to the right’ KOL pose on Weibo every day, but some have cultivated a following that strongly resonates with a younger audience,” he says. “Peking Opera figures might not seem like the recognised version of a ‘KOL’, but as proven with Swire Hotels’ The House Collective campaign, ‘My Story My House’, cultural icons relate and communicate with luxury Chinese consumers in a genuine way with obvious cultural linkage.”
While LOLs and micro influencers might have smaller followings, their engagement and social selling conversion rates tend to be higher. “A lot of the big influencers are overexposed, very expensive and they also tend to go hand in hand with the whole fake data situation,” says Miranda Tan, CEO at Robin8. “We’re seeing that a lot of brands prefer to go for middle-tier KOLs, or micro influencers, that although might not have as many followers they tend to have higher engagement rates and more conversion.”
Other advantages of working with micro influencers is that they are generally more affordable — and more flexible in the content they produce. In the general shift towards LOLs and greater localisation, brands are diversifying beyond major platforms like Weibo and WeChat to platforms like Little Red Book and Bilibili, as well as apps like DouYin and Kuaishou.
“I see a lot of brands localising content for each city. Local and niche micro influencers are really big in China right now. Brands are increasingly looking for lower-tier city influencers as well as middle and micro influencers,” says Tan.
2. International influencers and expats
More and more Chinese brands are working with international influencers to promote to the domestic market. Typically, they will work with western influencers to post content on Instagram and then have Chinese influencers repost that content through the brand’s domestic social media channel. The brands believe having western influencers interested in the brand helps to add credibility and elevate their campaigns.
“Every brand is trying to identify new angles to generate interest and that’s why more Chinese brands are looking beyond the border to work with western talent,” says Charlie Gu, CEO of Kollective Influence and a cross-border influencer marketing expert. “Western influencers are still considered to be more authentic and their content tends to be a little bit more appealing than what they see from Chinese influencers.”
We’re also starting to see a lot more expats entering the KOL space as China experts, such
as top French food influencer Antoine Bunel and the German influencer known only as ‘Thomas’—who goes by the Chinese handle “Ah Fu”.
“Their own fascination with China is driving them,” says Tan. “There are expat KOLs who are experts in cooking or in travel or gaming and a lot of them have built a huge following as experts in China on certain topics.”
3. Male cosmetic stars
The trend of younger Chinese men using cosmetics is one that can’t be ignored. Spearheaded by China’s immensely popular ‘Little Fresh Meat’ (a term used to describe androgynous young male stars), makeup for men is increasingly sought-after and is spawning its own set of male cosmetic stars. Foreign firms like La Mer and Aesop, for example, work with video bloggers such as Lan Haoyi, known as Lan Pu Lan online, to promote their products to his nearly 1.4 million followers. As Tan sees it: “We’re seeing more men in the media wearing makeup. This will naturally become the norm.”
Furthermore, experts like Miranda Tan say that male cosmetic stars and members of the wider LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community are a very loyal customer group, with huge consumption power and massive influence.
“China is very traditional, but at the same time if you look at entertainment it seems to be very accepting,” says Tan. “The LGBTI community is a huge target audience and one that is super-loyal. I do see a rise in men who are KOLs that are into makeup, fashion and skincare. A lot of these guys, particularly in fashion, are the experts; they are the tastemakers. They know what’s hot and what looks good and that’s a huge trend we’re seeing more of recently—this community is not to be overlooked.”
CASE STUDY: MR. BAGS’ RECORD-BREAKING COLLABORATION WITH TOD’S
Liang Tao (梁韜), better known as Mr. Bags (@Bags包先生) on Weibo, has become a legend in the KOL industry. Perhaps more than any other, his successful series of collaborations with luxury fashion brands illustrates the massive influence over consumption behaviour and social trends that KOLs can have. He is a prime example of the increasing trend of male fashion or cosmetic KOLs becoming tastemakers and having significant sway over shopping habits in China.
Tao separates himself from other fashion influencers by being heavily involved with the product design process. In his second collaboration with Tod’s, he created 500 limited-edition “Wave” backpacks leveraging his instincts for design and insights gained from his followers, which number more than five million on Weibo and 850,000 on WeChat. Capitalising on his influence on fans’ shopping behaviour and appetite for limited-edition designs, the handbags, which were each priced at RMB10,800 (about US$1,600), sold out within six minutes.
While the majority of KOL marketing takes place online, experts say that not giving due attention to offline KOL marketing is a missed opportunity. As evidenced by the likes of Mr. Bags attending an offline fan meeting at Tod’s Henglong store in Shanghai, brands are increasingly tapping KOLs to do pop-up and in-store events, with great success. “Offline engagement provides a real opportunity for influencers to connect with their followers and for brands to connect with their customers,” says Charlie Gu. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
5. Friends of the brand
It’s becoming more common for brands to work with influencers that are considered ‘friends of
the brand’. This involves the influencer posting content with products on a more regular basis; it’s integrated into their lifestyle rather than featured as a hard advert. The posts tend to be more organic and more believable for the followers and this way of working gives influencers greater flexibility around sharing the content.
“Before, brands would do one-off engagements based on campaigns, but I think realising that there is an interest in the authenticity of the content, hard advertising is not very appealing and so brands are looking to soften their approach a little bit,” says Gu.
Folland adds that while the scale of KOLs’ Weibo reach is seductive, only thinking of views is a mistake. He says it’s key for brands to work together with KOLs and include them as part of the brand family. “Invite them to everything related – the showroom, the factory, the sourcing, the people. The people are most important as the human element brings originality, passion and sense of something meaningful to viewers.”
CASE STUDY: LOUIS VUITTON AND GOGOBOI SHOW HOW AN INNOVATIVE ‘INTERACTIVE’ COLLABORATION CAN BRING IN THE NUMBERS
To promote the ‘Volez Voguez Voyagez’ exhibition by Louis Vuitton in Shanghai last December, the brand launched an interactive video game showing Gogoboi — one of China’s most popular and influential fashion bloggers — exploring the exhibition. The video was shown on a vertical screen in H5 format, providing immersive experiences. Followers were able to explore the exhibition with Gogoboi. They could help choose his route, such as going left or right, allowing viewers a stronger sense of participation.
A link to the interactive video game was posted on Gogoboi’s public WeChat account. Within 48 hours of being posted, the interactive game had reached more than 40 million people and the related content was read more than 7.5 million times. Over 300,000 followers clicked the link. In addition, over 1,000 people signed up to participate in the exhibition’s offline event in January. Louis Vuitton has worked with Gogoboi a few times before, including inviting him to attend its Paris fashion shows and to be a take-over host of the brand’s Chinese social media. To further promote the exhibition, LV also worked with other top influencers to hold fan meetups at the event.
Talk China with Campaign at Digital360Festival
Digital360Festival is Campaign's flagship event in China, where we'll be hosting senior figures from across the industry to share their expertise on all the latest hot topics from the region.
It will be held on March 28 in Shanghai. For all information, please visit www.digital360festival.com.