Influencer marketing is a relationship game, and nowhere has the game been more intensely played than in China. On the most surface level, key opinion leaders (KOLs) only exist because of their fans and they are invariably valued by their number of followers. Chinese mega KOL Zhang Dayi, for example, has over 5.3 million followers on her Weibo account, while "micro-influencers" might have between 10,000 and 20,000 followers.
The performance of influencers is closely related to their engagement with their followers. While common metrics for digital campaigns, such as CPC, CPM and CPE, apply, benchmarks such as number of shares, likes and comments determine the reach and traffic generated by KOLs. Beyond that, third-party tracking firms such as AdMaster use two different sets of metrics to assess the quality of engagement on Weibo and WeChat, while consumer intelligence firm Bomoda has recently released a report on the commercial impact of KOLs in China.
AdMaster's evaluation criteria for KOLs
Speaking at an influencer-marketing conference organised by AdMaster in Shanghai last month, Ben Xu, vice president of Weiboyi, the KOL database and advertising platform, said the worst thing that brands can do on social media is to talk about themselves. “The talking must be done by the KOLs, people who are on the same wavelength as the audience,” said Xu. “Fans are already aware that it is paid endorsement, but they are willing to engage provided that the content is good.”
In fact, the relationship between KOLs and their fans is rather intriguing. For example, some die-hard followers go the extra length of creating fake accounts to boost the numbers of their favourite KOLs, on top of machine-enabled bots.
According to a white paper on influencer marketing released by AdMaster in May, 69 percent of KOLs evaluated by its system engaged in fraudulent practices. Maggie Wong, vice president, commercial strategy and ecommerce, AdMaster, said fraudulent fan accounts can be identified by digits on the profile IDs, an abnormally low number of people following the accounts, abnormal activities such as more than 20 posts in a day, as well as spikes in the KOL’s followers before a campaign begins. “Each of the KOLs would have their own following, but if their fan base is fake, and you work with more than one such KOL, then the money spent would have been wasted because reach is most important for brands when they work with KOLs,” said Wang.
Meanwhile, a comparison of data on WeChat’s reading rate during a campaign period in Q3 last year to its average reading rate shows that sports-related KOLs were the most suspicious in terms of fraud, with a 555-percent disparity rate. Overall, AdMaster’s database shows that entertainment and gossip-related accounts have the most high-quality and genuine fans, while KOLs who post about their daily lives demonstrate better quality engagement with their fans.
“To be honest, there is less emphasis on conversion rate when it comes to influencer marketing unless it is requested by clients," Wang said. "It is usually bigger clients who are more keen to measure the conversion rates of KOLs."
Furthermore, WeChat’s walled garden remains a barrier to transparency, although AdMaster has an API collaboration with Weibo, Wang stated. “Ideally, KOLs should open up their content for vendors to add tags, but few of them are willing to do that,” she said.
Weiboyi’s Xu pointed out that a high sharing rate on social media does not necessarily lead to conversions. “During the Singles’ Day Sales, few consumers shared about the live-streaming by Tmall, yet many were buying,” said Xu. Meanwhile, live-streaming platform Meipai has introduced tag link functions that allow selected KOLs to post product links on their videos.
A well-documented case study on conversions has been Maybelline's live-streaming session on Taobao last year, which featured celebrity Angelababy and a number of KOLs trying on new lipsticks. The brand managed to sell 10,000 lipsticks during the event through an embedded link to Maybelline's Tmall store.
KOLs remain a driving force that few brands can afford to ignore. According to Wang, 93 percent of campaigns evaluated by AdMaster used KOLs. “Those that don’t use KOLs are themselves media (or publishers) and can attract their own audience," she said, "most brands would need KOLs.”
The white paper published by AdMaster shows that bookings for auto KOLs on Weibo increased by 746 percent in 2016, followed by KOLs related to food and beverages (290 percent) and beauty (116 percent). On WeChat, demand for beauty-related KOLs increased by 360 percent during the Singles Day sales in November.
The bigger question for brands has been which KOL to work with, and it has in turn given rise to a cottage industry of agencies that help brands to work with KOLs. Data analytics from firms such as AdMaster and Parklu have indexed data of more than 10,000 KOLs by different categories as well as rankings of their effectiveness based on their aggregate scores. “Some KOLs may have lower engagement rates, but their posts are shared at multiple levels," Wang said. "This can boost their overall score and make them more effective KOLs."
While continous evaluation would help brands to better manage the KOLs, Weiboyi's Xu said that the relationship between both parties should be more fluid, unlike that with brand ambassadors. "If the brand has different goals, it is better to choose the KOL according to its goal and engage in short-term collaborations," said Xu. "If the brand looks to entrench its presence among a certain segment of consumers, then a long-term collaboration could be better."
"It has become increasingly expensive for KOLs to operate their brands, and a lot of rules are about revenue generation for Weibo," Whaley said. "As a KOL, if you want to have reach, you need to pay to play." Even then, WeChat far exceeds Weibo, with a three times larger user base, although Weibo has seen a revival in the past two years due to the popularity of live-streaming and its Weibo Story feature.
"Weibo is a boring social platform that is not very good for content, it is horrible for video and functions more like an commerce and communication tool," said Whaley. Nevertheless, both platfroms serve their own functions, as data from AdMaster between September 2015 and March this year shows that KOLs related to mom and baby care products show better performance on Weibo, while beauty KOLs performed better on WeChat.
Whaley said that Weibo works better for broad discovery of a new brand, while WeChat is more suited for niche targeting. "There are also a few interesting things going on with Meipai with cllickable tags, place-over videos and ecommerce links," Whaley said. "It has seen more uptake in how its content is distributed, and it is more algorithimically controlled, but its user base is smaller than both Weibo and WeChat."
Disclosure: AdMaster hosted the reporter for the conference.