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China Marketing, Digital Marketing, Growth Campaigns

The CMO's Guide to China KOL Marketing

Five Things Global CMOs Need to Know about KOL Marketing in China.

Influencer or Key Opinion Leader (KOL) marketing has rapidly become a core pillar of any China marketing strategy, with the China KOL economy now valued at almost USD $9 billion. But the China KOL landscape, like most aspects of China marketing, is very different to how things work for the rest of the world.

Part of the reason for the popularity of China KOL marketing is that the digital ad platforms are not as targeted as, for example, Facebook, so this pushes the campaigns to engage with KOLs. The KOLs themselves are also spread across multiple platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), Pinduoduo, etc, all with different target audiences. B2B KOLs will most likely be high-profile experts or commentators on their chosen field and will enjoy all the credibility that comes with it.

So, to help you make informed decisions about the KOL tactics of your China marketing strategy, here are 5 things Global CMOs need to know.

Look Who’s Talking

‘KOL’ is a broad term and it’s important to understand the different levels of KOL that are out there. Most China marketing specialists break the landscape down into 3 ‘tiers’. Tier 1 KOLs will typically have 1 to 2 million followers with each post averaging 200K to 1 million views. Tier 2 KOLs will have around 200,000 to 500,000 followers and average 50K to 200K views per post. Finally, Tier 3 KOLs can have between 5,000 and 50,000 followers, averaging 2K to 30K views for each post. Tier 1s are more likely to be celebrity influencers or KOLs who have monetized their social media channels and can make huge numbers of sales, one example being fashion blogger Becky Li who famously sold 100 Mini Cooper cars in 4 minutes during one of her live stream events.

Recent years have also seen what some consider to be a 4th tier emerging which has been labeled KOC, or Key Opinion Consumer. These are usually social media users who are ordinary people who have a small number of followers, but whose followers have a significant amount of trust in their opinion, and who can therefore be very influential for sales. This trust has developed because of the KOCs genuine desire to test and review the products they are interested in. This rise has been encouraged by platforms such as Xiaohongshu whose algorithms rank posts according to their quality which in turn pushes genuine reviews higher up the feed.

Money Talks

There is no hiding the fact that KOL marketing can be expensive, especially for B2C marketers looking to work with top tier KOLs. Access to their millions of followers comes at a price. And while some of the industry-specific influencers that B2B marketers are more interested in do cost considerably less, hitching your China marketing spend entirely to the KOL bandwagon will likely lead to a disappointing ROI. Which leads me to the next point….

Finding Value

Identifying and quantifying the value that your KOL marketing is contributing to your campaign is a challenge, particularly for B2B marketers, and particularly when reach and engagement figures can be a little opaque. It’s important to set KPIs upfront and appreciate that working with a KOL with a big fanbase doesn’t automatically make for a successful campaign. If your product is niche or you are looking to reach a smaller amount of decision-makers, KOLs with smaller audiences are likely to be more relevant and impactful despite small numbers of followers. A good way to benchmark KOLs and assess their value is to borrow a metric from traditional media campaigns. Cost per thousand (CPM) helps marketers to work out how much their campaign activities are costing per thousand people reached. Like most of these things, it is not an exact science, but it does help CMOs measure the performance of their KOL marketing and benchmark it against their other China marketing activities.

For e-commerce KOLs, it can be a little easier to measure ROI as ultimately you can track sales via each channel. But there are a few pitfalls to be wary of here, as you will see in the below section on “spotting the fakes.”

Blurred Lines

There is a wider conversation to be had on making a distinction between paid and earnt media here in China and that is something I will cover in more detail in the future. But for the purpose of this topic, it’s worth noting that the social media channel of a well-known journalist or even publication can be considered a KOL. Sometimes this is also the individual accounts of senior editorial personal. Putting it simply, your KOL marketing might include an agreement with a key media title/journalist to cover your products on their social media channel in exchange for a fee.

Spotting the fakes

Fake KOL and influencers have been a problem for the marketing industry all over in the world, with stories of fake follower numbers, staged engagement and ‘click’ farms to be found everywhere. China is no different.

The simplest way to spot how legit a KOL fanbase is to review previous content, paying attention to any comments left by followers, how the KOL responds or engages with followers, and so. You can also capture a bit more insight as to what the KOLs fanbase is interested in, the types of products or services they discuss, maybe even what their gripes are, and so on.

Access to previous performance of e-commerce campaigns is also critical – watch out though, the cheaters are smart: purchasing their own products to boost sales (and returning them afterward) and leaving thousands of comments through click farms are common tactics to be vigilant of.

If all the comments are perfunctory, always positive, if most of the comments are blocked, or sometimes not even related to the conversation, then alarm bells should be ringing. This should also be done over an extended period of time. If all the comments are coming from similar KOLs it is possible that they are all helping each other out to boost numbers and therefore the fee they can charge, and ultimately this will have a negative impact on your ROI.

There are also social media listening services and specialist KOL agencies that will help you tell the difference between a genuine KOL and a fake, but all will charge a fee for their services themselves. In some cases the agencies will want to steer you towards a KOL that is on their roster or a persona that they have developed in-house. This might be the way to go for your campaign but doing the due diligence covered above first anyway is going to put you in a more informed negotiation position.

KOLs play a huge part in the China marketing landscape and are very much here to stay. Whether yours is a B2B or B2C campaign, they can be a valuable marketing tool to have at your disposal and part of any well-rounded campaign. They are not, and never will be, a silver marketing bullet, however, and knowing what you are investing in before you make decisions is key.

If you’d like to chat about some of your own China KOL experiences or share positive (and not so positive) case studies, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or ping me a message.


If you want to find out more about how to make your China marketing strategy more effective, or to bring your brand up to speed on the latest China digital marketing tactics, you can download our latest ebook, The CMO's Guide to China Marketing: 10 Top Tips for Your International Brand. Just click on the image below.

The CMO's Guide to China Marketing: 10 Top Tips for Your International Brand

Part of the reason for the popularity of China KOL marketing is that the digital ad platforms are not as targeted as, for example, Facebook, so this pushes the campaigns to engage with KOLs.

- Steven Proud

Global Marketing Director, Brandigo

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