KOL Marketing: The Key to Success on Chinese Social Media

Dragon Social Limited
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KOL Marketing is one of the most effective marketing methods in China. Learn why it’s so popular and how to take advantage of it here!

If you plan on entering the Chinese market, KOL marketing is something you really need to know about. KOL marketing, or influencer marketing, is a soft-selling strategy where influencers become communicators between a brand and its target audience. It leverages word of mouth to achieve promotional effects.

KOL Marketing: What Is It and Why Should I Care?

Traditionally, KOLs, which stands for Key Opinion Leaders, refers to those who possess expert knowledge on a given subject matter. Usually, referring to professionals within their respective fields. Traditional KOLs are not based online and they do not interact with their audience on a regular basis.

In KOL marketing, a KOL or influencer has a broader meaning than just a professional. They refer to people who exert influence over others’ opinions. There isn’t a strict definition for opinion leaders. Yet, most key opinion leaders are either Chinese celebrities or popular social media users who have created viral content and developed a large following on various social media websites. They are columnists, socialites, fashionistas, and bloggers that have developed massive digital audiences.

Graphic showing which social media platforms KOLs operate on in China.

KOLs operate on nearly every social media platform in China.

Many are experts in their respective fields who provide advice, instructions, reviews, etc. through a variety of digital mediums. There are Chinese KOLs actively posting about almost any topic you can imagine. Sports, video games, fashion, food, traveling, luxury goods, cars, etc. are all topics that you’ll find Chinese influencers discussing.

KOLs can have millions of followers who take their advice and actively engage with the content they create. The influence these figures wield can be considerable and working together with them can help create significant buzz for companies and their products.

Cover photo for one of Jeffree Star’s Videos

Cover Photo for one of Jeffree Star’s Videos.

If you’re a frequent YouTube user, you can probably think of a few people who could be considered a KOL by this definition. On YouTube, there are people like Pewdiepie and Jeffree Star who have millions of followers. Their popularity has been used by companies all around the world to create successful advertising campaigns. While most Western countries call these people influencers, it’s incredibly similar to the KOL phenomenon in Asia.

The Benefits of KOL Marketing

KOL marketing is everywhere, but what exactly sets KOL marketing apart from all the other marketing channels? Why would a brand choose to work with KOLs over more traditional channels like banner advertising or search engine marketing? Let’s take a look at the unique benefits of KOL marketing.

#1 KOL Marketing Builds Trust

Because KOLs have established trust with their audience, they can be more convincing than traditional advertisements or branded content. A Mediakix survey conducted at the end of 2018 found that 49% of consumers depend on KOLs’ recommendations for their purchase decisions. The numbers are even higher for Millennials and those in Gen-Z!

Brands can leverage the trust and word of mouth to their advantage. Third-party reviews or mentions are incredibly important for any business and can be even more effective when coming from an influencer a user knows and trusts. As most of China’s population maintains a healthy distrust of information distributed through traditional marketing channels, KOLs provide a form of advertising that can be seen as more genuine and trustworthy.

Pop art style marketing graphic

Word Of Mouth can be hard to generate but has proven to be one of the most effective ways to build trust and brand recognition.

#2 KOLs Have a Homogeneous Audience

Compared to mass media, KOLs have a more focused audience group. For example, followers of a beauty account are clearly interested in beauty. It is easier to reach a more targeted audience with KOL marketing as compared to other channels.

KOLs have an unprecedented ability to connect to specific segments of consumers based on demographics and lifestyle choices. While you might not be able to drill down into demographics and psychographics as deeply as would be able to with paid advertising, you can get a good idea of a KOL’s audience by taking a look through the types of posts they create and the engagement they receive from their followers.

A graph demonstrating the quality of traffic from KOL marketing vs other sources

Often, KOLs themselves can gauge the likes and dislikes of their audience, so speaking to them can also provide valuable insights into how to launch a successful campaign. From the previously mentioned survey by Mediakix, 71% of marketers say the quality of customers and traffic from KOL marketing is better than other sources.

#3 KOL Marketing Has a Strong ROI

Every business should ensure that they set relevant KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) before engaging in any KOL marketing campaign. Total reach, sales conversion, and click-through rate are common examples of KPIs for measuring the performance of KOL marketing. Choosing the right KOL to reach your target audience can help you to achieve these KPIs and deliver significant ROI (Return on Investment) for your business.

Overall, 89% of businesses say their ROI from KOL marketing is comparable to or even better than other marketing channels according to Mediakix.

Graph showing the ROI from KOL marketing compared to other channels

#4 KOL Marketing Can Take Advantage of Location-Based Technology to Improve Reach

On Instagram, for example, influencers can add location labels to posts. KOLs may document offline events, do reviews and show off exclusive in-store products on a range of platforms to further improve their reach.

Tiktok users can click on location tags and discover other videos taken at the same place. For Xiaohongshu, the ‘Nearby’ function enables users to search only for content that has been tagged with a location in the proximity. This creates an online entertainment and experiential channel for consumers that is linked to their own physical location.

Xiahongshu and TikTok offer geographic location hashtags to spread your content on a local level.

Xiahongshu and TikTok both offer geographic location hashtags to spread your content on a local level.

Location-based technology combined with KOL marketing is an interesting feature that can improve exposure and boost online-to-offline conversion for businesses.

#5 KOL Marketing Can Be More Affordable Than a Celebrity Endorsement

The fee that influencers charge for collaborations varies hugely. The more followers the influencer has, the more expensive it is likely to be. Of course, the size of a fan base is not the only indicator for pricing. Past engagement rate, click rate, and conversion rate are all important KPIs that determine a KOL’s price. How much a KOL likes a brand or its products can also have a significant impact on the price of working with a KOL.

While KOL marketing is relatively new, celebrity endorsements and the appointment of brand ambassadors have been marketing strategies used by companies around the world for decades. Working with celebrities in this manner is notoriously expensive and is something that is only available to large, often multinational, brands.

A gif showing a duck in a top hat and sunglasses throwing money into the air

Unless you have a lot (and we mean a lot) of money laying around celebrity endorsements are usually unavailable to smaller businesses.

While there is no standardized pricing system for KOL marketing, it can be significantly cheaper than working with celebrities. Although KOLs with larger followings might charge prices similar to those of celebrities, working with smaller KOLs is something even small businesses can afford to do.

Types of Content for KOL Marketing in China

There are two main types of content for KOL marketing in China: user-generated content (UGC), alternatively known as user-created content (UCC), and promotional material.

For UGC, influencers create their own content, where marketers may provide them with a product, a key message or a theme. While the materials given are varied, content formats are usually predetermined by businesses for consistency.

Promotional materials are content created by marketers and reposted by influencers, like campaign posters or event outlines. In this case, if the business chooses to work with multiple influencers, each influencer will have the same content in the same format.

2 graphics showing images representing user generated content and ads

The Most Common Content Formats Used for KOL Marketing in China

Platforms for KOL marketing in China are quite different from those in the West as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are banned. The platforms can be split into three major categories, differentiated by content formats: blogging, short videos, and live-streaming.

Three graphics representing blogging, short videos and live streaming.

#1 Blogging platforms refer to those with mainly textual and graphical content, namely Weibo, WeChat, and Zhihu. Contents on these platforms are mostly UGC, like testimonials and product reviews. The majority of influencers operate on these types of platforms but others are steadily gaining ground.

Two shots of a screen on Weibo and WeChat

Content on Weibo and WeChat is usually composed of text and graphics. While there are ways to get videos on these platforms it isn’t as common.

#2 Short video platforms are usually for value creation and brand awareness, or product seeding. Compared to traditional advertisements, it is a more indirect channel for raising the audience’s interest in the product. Businesses can create tutorials, promo-videos, or in-depth reviews on these platforms to arouse user interest and answer questions.

Different platforms have different video length limits. For instance, Tiktok has a limit of 15 seconds for each video while Xiaohongshu allows up to 1 minute. You might wonder, why do platforms have such short limits?

Posting short videos on Xiaohongshu is a popular promotion method for Chinese fashion KOLs.

Posting short videos on Xiaohongshu is a popular promotion method for Chinese fashion KOLs.

According to contentmarketing.com, 58% of smartphone users watch short videos (less than 5 mins) every day. China’s short video market is even more robust with 78% of all internet users watching short videos in 2019! Short videos are all the rage and have become an important tool to capture user attention in our increasingly fragmented lives.

#3 Live-streaming platforms are the closest possible alternative to in-store shopping for users online. Influencers can have a real-time demonstration of the functionalities and specifications of a product in greater detail. At the same time, the audience can raise questions to the influencers to eliminate any doubts they have before making a purchase. This makes it one of the most effective methods for driving sales.

Douyu, a Chinese live streaming platform

Live Streaming has been all the rage for the past few years in China. Douyu shown above has been so successful it recently listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in July 2019!

The Top KOL Marketing Platforms in China

#1. Weibo: The Chinese Twitter

Weibo is the Chinese version of Twitter. With a large and stable user base, KOL marketing on Weibo helps raise brand awareness. According to a report by Weibo with iResearch, 53.9% of all the influencers’ followers are aged under 25.

If your business targets a younger audience, Weibo might be the platform for you. Weibo is a highly visual platform so ensuring that you have high-quality visuals as well as interesting content is very important for success on the platform.

For more on KOL marketing on Weibo check out one of our related posts below!

4 Astonishing Weibo KOL Marketing Trends To Know (2019)

Four Weibo KOL marketing trends

#2 WeChat: The #1 Social Media in China

WeChat is an all-in-one platform in China, offering everything from messaging to e-payments. KOLs on WeChat are more like bloggers. The content they post is longer and is usually made up of a combination of text and visuals. WeChat KOLs post regularly with most of them either contributing to or managing their own WeChat Official Account. KOL marketing on WeChat is better for more informative content as users are more willing to read.

One unique feature that WeChat offers is KOL advertising. This allows brands to place banner advertisements within the content of a KOL’s posts. Brands must negotiate with KOLs individually to purchase this form of WeChat advertising.

KOL marketing trends on WeChat

#3 Xiaohongshu (RED): Where Reviews & Social Media Meets E-Commerce

Xiaohongshu influencers are a bit more varied when it comes to the types of content that they share. KOLs on Xiaohongshu mostly share personal stories, testimonials, product reviews, or even live-streams. The authentic and relatable content makes it a suitable platform for building brand awareness, trust, and increasing sales.

Like Weibo, Xiaohongshu has a young audience with over 70% of Xiaohongshu’s users being born in post-1990s. However, unlike Weibo Xiaohongshu has a user base that is almost entirely female, with a report from iResearch claiming that over 80% of Xiaohongshu users are female.

For more information on XiaoHongShu check out one of our related posts below:

The Best Guide To XiaoHongShu Marketing: How to Sell to Gen-Z & Millenials 

KOL marketing trends on Xiaohongshu

#4 Tiktok: The Fastest Growing Social Media Platform

Tiktok is the #1 short video platform in China, and the first Chinese social media platform to gain any traction abroad. Videos on TikTok have a strict limit on their length, the longest allowed being only 15 seconds!

Due to how short the videos are, content posted on the platform is often seen quickly and has a high potential to go viral. KOL marketing on Tiktok is like viral marketing, better for raising brand awareness and promoting events as opposed to driving sales. Tiktok has an even younger audience when compared to Xiaohongshu and Weibo with 50% of its users being born post-1995.

KOL marketing trends on Tiktok

#5 Kuaishou: The #2 Short Video Platform in China

Kuaishou is now the second-largest video platform. While it shares many of the features of TikTok, it also added live-streaming to the platform. As the purchase cycle digitalizes, live-streaming is becoming more essential to capturing online sales in China. The user demographics of Kuaishou are similar to those of Tiktok, with the major difference being that Kuaishou is more popular outside of Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities.

While you may be tempted to skip this one in favor of TikTok, Kuaishou is not a platform to be ignored. On 4 July 2019, Chinese artist Aaron Kwok Fu Shing collaborated with Kuaishou KOL Simba (Account ID on Kuaishou:188888880) on live streaming. The total number of viewers recorded exceeded 1.1million and total sales recorded from the streaming was as high as 4 million.

KOL marketing trends on Kuaishou

How to Choose the Right KOL for Your Business

The five tiers of influencers are divided by the number of followers.

A pyramid chart showing five tiers of influencers

Many brands choose to work with a mix of KOLs at different levels to measure ROI and determine their strategy going forward.

There are five main criteria businesses should consider before making their KOL selection:

#1 Relevance refers to the similarities between your target audience and the influencer’s fan base. Looking into the KOL’s follower demographics can be a great way to determine if a KOL is a good fit for your business. Like all other marketing strategies, KOL marketing is more effective if it reaches the right audience.

#2 Reach is the promotional effect of an influencer’s content. For instance, total views and shares. Reach is highly dependent on the number of followers a KOL has and the overall quality of their followers. Content will have also have a better reach if the influencer includes more relevant keywords and posts during peak traffic hours.

gif showing a man typing very quickly on a computer keyboard

#3 Engagement is the interaction between the influencer and their audience. How many followers comment on the posts, how frequently or how quickly does the influencer reply? All of these factors increase a user’s trust in an influencer. When the audience has more trust in an influencer, the promotions will be more effective.

#4 Influence is the actual return for the business from KOL marketing. Sales conversion is the most common measurement, with an average rate of 1-5% for most KOLs.

#5 Consistency refers to maintaining a consistent image for your business. The influencer will be your communicator, his or her image should align with your brand image. For example, a company for protein powder should look for an influencer with a healthy and sporty image. An influencer that is inconsistent or behaves erratically can be damaging for a brand so it’s important to choose influencers who value their own image and maintain consistency.

Five key metrics that should be observed before launching any KOL marketing campaigns

These 5 key metrics should be observed before launching any KOL marketing campaigns.

These criteria are just for reference. KOL marketing is flexible, so don’t be limited by the norms! Always try to work with influencers from different backgrounds, genders, or niches for a more unique impression.

For example, makeup brands usually prefer to work with female influencers. However, MAC collaborated with male artist Zhang Yixing and other micro-influencers in one of their campaigns with outstanding results!

To maximize promotional effects, multi-tiered KOL marketing is a common practice. Collaborating with both big and small influencers can optimize the reach of your campaign. For more on the rise of nano-influencers check out our blog below on the latest trends in Chinese digital marketing. 

How Much Should I Spend on KOL Marketing?

If there is no standard pricing system for KOL marketing, how can you estimate the budget? In general, there are four ways to pay an influencer: product sponsorship, one-off payment, cost-per-click (CPC), and sales commission.

For product sponsorship, you simply give away products to influencers for them to try and use in their videos. This is a very common practice in the Western world, but a bit less so in China. You’ll often see influencers on YouTube operating under this model. Some influencers will even put a tag like ‘Not paid to mention’ because only the products are sponsored and they are not paid to mention the product publicly.

Maybelline sent these gift sets to hundreds of KOLs in China to promote the item for Chinese New Year

Maybelline sent these gift sets to hundreds of KOLs in China to promote the item for Chinese New Year

A one-off payment is the simplest way to pay an influencer. After discussing and settling all the arrangements, you pay a lump sum to the KOL. There is no need to worry about the varying costs for KOL marketing in this case. This is one of the most commonly used methods in China, especially for mid-high level influencers (sometimes they’ll even ask for a lump sum + sales commission).

CPC payment is the first of the two performance-based payment methods. The KOL charges the customer for every click made through a trackable link, meaning you will only know the total payment after the campaign has been completed. For budgeting purposes, you can estimate the total cost with the past averages.

Percentage of sales is another performance-based payment. Based on the total sales volume, a certain percentage of it will go to the influencer. This motivates the KOL to drive sales and is common for businesses focusing on sales conversion. This is another common payment method used for KOL marketing in China and is often combined with the one-off payment method for higher tier KOLs.

Even for the same tier of influencers, the price range can be wide. It is always best to negotiate with the influencer and take reference from past charges. Also, do a little marketing math to try and predict the ROI based on KPIs provided by the KOL. If the math doesn’t add up then chances are it won’t be a good move for your business

Here are some reference figures on KOL marketing:

In terms of cost, Weibo is the cheapest and Tiktok is the most expensive.

The cost-per-view on a WeChat article is 0.5 to 1.5 RMB. On average, a WeChat post costs up to 55 times more than a Weibo post.

While WeChat posts are more costly than Weibo posts, they have a far higher click-through-rate (CTR).

A table showing cost figures for KOL marketing on Weibo, WeChat, Tiktok and Xiaohongshu

How Can I Get in Contact with KOLs?

First, reach out to the influencers directly. If you don’t know where to start, try looking up hashtags or keywords on different social media platforms. On Instagram, the search results are usually ranked according to relevance and popularity. This method is more suitable for finding mega-influencers.

Second, contact them through influencer agencies. These agencies usually have a well-established KOL network, offering one-stop KOL marketing services. They are more experienced in communicating with influencers but there might be an agency fee in addition to payment for the KOL.

An animated gif showing two people shaking hands

Things to Know Before You Get Started with KOL Marketing

#1 Consumers Behave Differently Online

Traditionally, consumer behavior follows an AIDMA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Memory Action) model.  This model is linear with the first two stages being the same for both online and offline consumers. Digital consumers have now shifted to a non-linear AISAS model (Attention, Interest, Search, Action, Share), where consumers can repeat or skip steps.

This has made predicting consumer behavior more difficult but does come with additional benefits, one of which being that consumers now share their experiences online. These customer reviews are important channels for increasing the exposure of your brand and building trust.

According to a report by TrustRadius, 84% of consumers trust peer’s online reviews. Because Word of Mouth is so powerful, you want to make sure people talk about the good things. KOL marketing is a great way to establish a positive brand image.

If you’d like to know more about Chinese consumer behavior check out the blog below:

Chinese Consumer Behavior: 7 Key Features For Brands To Know

The two most common models used to explain consumer behavior with the AISAS model being an evolution of the AIDMA model.

These are the two most common models used to explain consumer behavior with the AISAS model being an evolution of the AIDMA model.

#2 KOL Marketing Is a Form of Experiential Marketing

Experiential marketing is about creating a positive customer experience. By creating a positive customer experience brands are able to associate positive emotions with their brand in a consumer’s mind. Unlike conventional marketing, you want to engage consumers in as many ways as possible. Positive user experience can lead to higher top-of-mind awareness for potential customers and increased brand loyalty for existing customers.

While KOL promotion might be a form of experiential marketing you’ll want to make sure that the experience continues once a conversion is made or the campaign comes to an end for your target customers. For example, launching an amazing promotional campaign that leads users to a poorly designed landing page will not go over well.

#3 KOL Marketing Is a Soft-Selling Strategy

Conventional marketing approaches are hard selling and tend to put more pressure on the audience. KOL marketing is a more subtle, low-pressure and more persuasive selling approach. It is easier for potential customers to give your product a real look without feeling pressured, making it less likely to push them away.

Two Examples of Chinese Kols and Why They’re So Successful

#1 李佳琦 Li Jiaqi

Li Jiaqi is a male beauty influencer with 27 million followers on Tiktok and 6.15 million followers on Xiaohongshu. He first began his streaming career on Taobao and his popularity grew exponentially when he began posting on Xiaohongshu.

During this event, he sold 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes! Li Jiaqi also has a personal record of selling 14,000 lipsticks in one minute during a live-stream on Taobao. During the Double-11 Shopping Festival in 2018, Li Jiaqi live-streamed with Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, on Tiktok.

Li Jiaqi’s success can be credited to the following reasons:

#1. Li Jiaqi is a professional makeup artist. For instance, he can always give a precise description of lipstick colors or what skin tone would suit a color the best. His professional knowledge increases his credibility and the audience is willing to trust his recommendations.

Li Jiaqi applying make-up to models

#2. Li Jiaqi has a personal style and is consistent with it. While streaming, he always has a lot of expressions, like ‘OH MY GOD’ or ‘This is a MUST-have’. Some may say he is too dramatic, but it is his signature. Li Jiaqi’s consistent editing style and dramatic tone successfully captured a loyal audience.

Li Jiaqi holding a lipstick

Li Jiaqi’s campaigns have become a textbook example of how KOL marketing can lead to success.

#3. He is a male influencer. Most of the influencers in the beauty industry are female, making him stand out in the KOL industry. Hearing comments from a male is convincing to the female audience because if a guy says the color looks good on them, they are more likely to buy the product. For the male audience, it is rare for them to find a male influencer sharing about beauty or even makeup products, which makes him incredibly popular with men interested in these products.

If you were to ask the Chinese netizens to name the top beauty influencers, Li Jiaqi would probably top the list.

 Zhang Dayi, Eve, a KOL#2 张大奕 Zhang Dayi, Eve

Zhang Dayi, better known as Eve, is considered to be the No.1 influencer in Chinese e-commerce, with 11.18 million followers on Weibo. Eve was a model for fashion magazines and her career kicked off when she won champion in Taobao’s Best-looking Bare Face Competition.

Eve was listed in TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet 2018 among other superstars like US President Donald Trump, Korean Boys Group BTS, and American Singer Ariana Grande.

Eve gained her popularity in June 2016 when she recorded total sales of 20 million RMB and 410 thousand total views during a 2-hour live stream on Taobao. She has continued to make astonishing sales since. She is now the CMO of Ruhnn Holding, a KOL agency, that was recently listed on the US stock market.

Eve celebrating after listing her company on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Eve celebrating after listing her company on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Eve’s good looks are no doubt a competitive advantage, but her likable style is also a key reason for her success. Followers take notice of how she styled basic clothing items and forms a habit of doing so. Gradually, Eve has developed an incredibly loyal fan base.

To take advantage of this, Eve shares her clothing of the day with the hashtag #ootd (outfit of the day) with product links in the posts. This redirects traffic from and to her Taobao shop, boosting reach and conversions.

Key Takeaways from Case Studies:

#1 Personal Style Matters

Find an influencer with a memorable or refreshing characteristic. It helps the audience to remember your brand better. If the influencers you work with do not have a personal style, people are not going to recall them or your brand.

Influencers come and go, especially in China, so make sure you choose someone with unique characteristics that is likely to stick around!

#2 Try to Post Regularly to Maintain a Loyal Audience

If the influencers do not engage with their followers regularly, it is unlikely that they will trust them. The KOLs should also have balanced content. Apart from promotional content, there should also be original content. Otherwise, they lose credibility.

It’s common to see KOLs fall out of favor in China due to being overly promotional, so check their post history to make sure they aren’t overdoing it!

 Zhang Dayi, Eve, a KOL

Eve has her own personal brand that reflects who she is which has led to her success as a KOL.

The Future Development of KOL Marketing

In China, the overall CTR for display advertisements is only 0.12%. The average CTR for Google Ads on the display network across all industries is also only 0.46%. To cope with low CTR numbers, many businesses have been going for more soft-selling strategies like KOL marketing.

Display advertising has seen declining click-through rates as compared to KOL marketing.

Display advertising has seen declining click-through rates as compared to KOL marketing.

In the last three years, the number of google searches for ‘influencer marketing’ has grown 1500%. The KOL marketing industry is set to reach 10 billion by 2020 according to Influencer Marketing Hub. There’s even an influencer marketing agency listed on the Nasdaq!

KOL marketing, or influencer marketing, has yet to reach its full potential. It is a new marketing approach not just in China, but on a global scale. Find out more about KOL marketing in our blogs below!