KOL marketing in China

Guide to KOL marketing in China

In 2020, out of a population of 1.41 billion, China had 989 million Internet users, which is 70.4 percent of the population, an increase of 9.2 percent of from 2019. Additionally, according to CNNIC, 31.3 percent of internet users live in rural areas, an increase of 5 percent from 2019. Although the number of urban users occupies 68.7% of the total, it decreased by 5 percent from 2019.  986 million individuals use mobile phones for their internet use, which is 99.7 percent of internet users.

KOL marketing in China has moved from text & photos to livestreaming, short videos, and social commerce. Since there is an increase of internet users, the targeted audiences of this special branch of influencer marketing visit more channels as well, allowing brands to have the opportunity to cover higher amounts of target audiences. Trends of faster urbanization and fragmented segmentation are evident. 

What is a KOL?

KOL stands for Key Opinion Leader. Key opinion leaders are spokesperson, brand ambassador, or thought leader. They provide their opinions on points of view, estimations, beliefs, judgments, and attitudes toward a product or brand to the public.  KOLs are rising in popularity because of online to offline marketing, or O2O marketing.

KOLs engage with their followers by cultivating a relationship and therefore reliability. They exhibit the ability to make things trendy, widen a brand’s audience, and increase brand awareness, drawing customers from online channels to physical stores to make purchases. Word of Mouth (WOM) is incredibly significant in affecting Chinese consumers’ decision-making, and influencers and influencer marketing impact about 20 to 50 percent of purchasing decisions.

KOL Market value in 2021

In 2021, the KOL market value supposed to reach 340 billion yuan according to Frost&Sullivan. Influencer marketing works very well in China and there has been a growth in the number of KOLs on Weibo. Top-Tier KOLs increased by 23 percent, Mid-Tier KOLs grew by 51 percent, and the total number of followers on Weibo increased by 25 percent, about 600 million in 2020.

KOL categories and types

KOL level mapping helps decide which Chinese influencers to partner with KOL marketing in China
Source: Daxue Consulting, KOL level mapping helps decide which Chinese influencers to partner with

Chinese KOLs can be divided into segments: 1) Stars, celebrities; 2) bloggers, and 3) Wang Hong. On a more micro-scale than Wang Hong are KOCs (Key Opinion Consumers) which can also be leveraged for marketing purposes. Learn more about KOC marketing here.

The first segment includes big-name stars and celebrities such as Yifeng Lee, who are attitude oriented, often times delivering powerful and valued opinions, direction, or holds a certain attitude distinct to them. The second segment pertains to bloggers who demonstrate expertise in a related field. They deliver an impression of credible knowledge. Lastly, there is a segment containing Wang Hongs. Wang Hongs are KOLs; however, it is also important to know that there is a differentiation between the two. Wang Hongs are Internet celebrities that are product oriented and popular because of their appearance, whereas KOLs are popular for their opinions. As for Wanghongs, there are four basic types, namely self-media wanghongs (Papi jiang), topic wanghongs (Feng jie), Tao wanghongs (Xueli) and live stream wanghongs (Lijiaqi).

KOL demographics

KOLs of the post-80s and 90s generations seems to be prevailing the market with a high education. Individuals born during this time make up 86 percent of KOLs. Those born before the 1980s and after 2000 only makeup 15 percent. The majority of KOLs has completed junior college, have a bachelor’s degree or masters, showing that higher education levels are prominent among KOLs. Lower education levels, that of high school and below or higher than master’s are not very prominent. The majority of KOLs seem to be located in first-tier cities with second-tier cities close behind.

iResearch, Daxue Consulting Analysis, a majority of Chinese KOLs were born in the 80’s

Data source: Weibo, iResearch, Daxue Consulting Analysis, a majority of Chinese KOLs were born in the 80’s
iResearch, Daxue Consulting Analysis, a majority of Chinese KOLs have pursued higher education  KOL marketing in China

Data source: Weibo, iResearch, Daxue Consulting Analysis, a majority of Chinese KOLs have pursued higher education
Chinese KOLs gender distribution is relatively even

Data source: Weibo, Daxue Consulting Analysis, Chinese KOLs gender distribution is relatively even
most Chinese KOLs are from large cities

Data source: Weibo, Daxue Consulting Analysis, most Chinese KOLs are from large cities

KOL target audience 

KOL advertising in China targets individuals of the post-80s to 00s generation, especially post-90s to 00s internet users, who live in all types of cities. The user group continues to demonstrate a youthful trend, and the proportion of post-90s to 00s is close to 80% in Weibo. Consumers decide on whom to follow based on the KOL’s type of content and topic. 

KOL follower demographics 

The main target audience of influencer marketing in China is the 90s and 95s-00s generations. Compared to older generations, the younger generations have the highest interactions on Weibo, especially with celebrities. They are more susceptible to the influence of KOLs and celebrities with high engagement with them. They also display a higher interest in things like cosmetics, clothes and cuisine, and focus on topics like celebrity related news and romance. The 80s generation likes multiple issues such as general news, travel, staple food, health, and family.

Compared to other consumption user groups, females in the post-90s generate are primary consumers and are more mature luxury buyers with a higher ratio of 73 percent than 00s generation and 80s generation at 16 percent and 7 percent respectively.

Chinese KOL follower area distribution
Data source: Statista 2021, Daxue Consulting Analysis, Chinese KOL follower area distribution
Chinese KOL follower area distribution
Data source: Statista 2021, Daxue Consulting Analysis, Chinese KOL follower area distribution

The consumers influenced by KOLs

Consumption habits can be broken down into two types based on needs. Together, consumer type and needs decide which kind of KOL they will follow. 

The first type of consumer is one that is oriented around general knowledge. These individuals are mainly in tier 2 or lower cities with a relatively higher ratio of “free time” and disposable income or “available income.” Comparably, they have a higher focus on famous brands and star products. 

The second type of consumer is one who is value, emotion, and attitude oriented. They are mainly located in tier 1 and tier 2 cities with a “busy” lifestyle. Comparably, they have a higher frequency of overseas travel experience and similar aesthetic sense to the westernized style. 

KOL marketing strategies in China

The KOL strategy in China is focusing on the influence of KOLs. The influence of the KOL will determine a brand’s ROI and awareness. The effects of KOL campaigns can be received in 1 to 3 months after implementing KOL campaigns. Top stars & celebrities with over 10 million followers have a wild influence for both branding & sells conversion rate. Top-Tier KOLs in China with more than 1 million followers are professionals with high exposure in a short period on both the professional side and target audience. Mid-tier KOLs in China with more than 10 thousand followers are relatively “niche,” professional oriented lies within the word-of-mouth generation. Micro/Long ­– tail with a few thousand followers, could increase the overall pool of posts. Niche KOLs often have a higher engagement rate.

levels of KOLs in China KOL marketing in China

Source: Daxue Consulting Analysis, levels of KOLs in China

How to reach the target audience in China

There are three commonly used platform types in ChinaSocial mediaE-commerce, and Video. Top social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo are used for posts, short-form video content, articles, and photos. According to data released from each platform, WeChat had over 1.225 billion aggregated monthly active users in 2020, and 1.09 billion daily active users. Weibo had 511 million monthly active users and has 224 daily active users in 2020.

E-commerce platforms such as Taobao, Tmall, and Xiaohongshu are used for selling and circulation of products. They still occupy top-ranking and popular apps in China, but experiencing a light decreasing trend at round 2 percent. Taobao had 441 million monthly active users, Tmall 51 million, and Xiaohongshu 12 million in 2021. Video platforms such as Tencent, Youku, and Douyin are used for long-form video content such as live streams. Tencent had 582 million monthly active users, Youku had 247 million, and Douyin had more than 500 million.

Popularity of short videos

In 2021, Chinese netizens usually spent about 26.2 hours online per week. The top three entertainment activities for mobile users are watching short videos, playing games and watching television series, with watching short videos ranking first. The number of short video users reached 809 million in 2021, with 70 percent of them using Douyin. Specifically, mobile users with internet access spend an average of 5.1 hours on Apps, 29.8 percent of their time on short videos. Mobile users spend an average of 2.3 hours on social media apps. Localized management of KOLs (e.g., Public relations, marketing strategy, output) could assist companies with having higher ROI rates. 

Types of KOL content

The type of content on each site also varies along with the topic. Content types can be divided into 4 categories: Q&A, Text & Photo, Short videos, and Live-stream.

According to iResearch, short videos have reached 48.4% of internet users, live streaming have reached 47%. According to the CNNI, short video users occupy 29.8% of the total, ranking first. The market value of Short videos was approximately 141 billion yuan in 2021, and its value is expected to reach 200 billion at the end of 2021, and the number of live-stream users reached 617 million at of the end of December 2020, with an increase of 220 million compared to 2018. The live-stream market value in 2020 was approximately 1 trillion yuan, and its value is projected to reach about 2 trillion yuan at the end of 2021. Topics of content vary and differ between what KOLs post and followers are interested in. 

interests of KOLs vs. KOL followers
Data source: Weibo, Daxue Consulting Analysis, interests of KOLs vs. KOL followers

Influencer structure in China’s KOL industry

China’s KOL market also includes overseas KOLs, i.e., influencers overseas. Overseas KOLs utilizes western social media apps to circulate content. This content still reaches audiences in China. The content from these platforms can also enter the KOL market in China through being uploaded, shared, and distributed on Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Youku. 

structure of KOL marketing in China
Source: Daxue Consulting, structure of China’s KOL market

Terms to know related to KOL marketing in China

To successfully utilize all aspects of such kind of influencer marketing and identify the correct type of KOL for your brand, it is good to know words and phrasing associated with influencer marketing in China. Knowing these words and phrasings could lower the amount of confusion that would be created if you did not know them or how to utilize them. They are a way to categorize, identify, and select multiple aspects when you work with KOLs in China. 

On the Brand Side

As a brand, there are a few associated and used terms when working with KOLs in China that you should know:

The “Head” KOL (头部 KOL)

Top KOL, with 1 million + followers on each platform. Could present exclusively on only one platform as well.

Micro KOL & Longtails (小众 & 长尾)

Number of fans of Micro KOL > Longtails. KOL has a small number of followers. Qualified ones could have a ‘clear’ personality, therefore, have a higher ROI. Long-tails are more affordable and tend to have less fake followers along with higher engagement rates. 

MCN (Multiple Channels Network)

Type of “agency” managing KOL overall activities and content creation. Covered services include content creation, marketing, and e-commerce strategy. 

PGC (Professional Generated Content) (专业生产内容)

Content made within a team. Mainly video content oriented.

“Water Military” (水军) & “Zombie Fans” (僵尸粉)

The water military is a term for fraudulent followers and bots that boost daily and monthly active user numbers. These followers generate comments but have no persona behind their profile.

Common terms for consumers 

As the targeted audience for KOL advertising, there are a few things that you should know as consumers. One key thing to remember is terms for KOL market in China. Commonly used terms that every consumer should know are: 

  • “Planting the grassland, pulling up the grass & Growing the grass” (种草, 拔草和长草)

“Planting grass refers to putting something on a “shopping list,” “to do list,” “to eat list” etc, and it also means that something is someone’s type.

Pulling up the grass has two different meanings: have already bought or decide not to buy, and the actual meaning of this phrase depends on the actual situation. If people remove something from their shopping list, it is because they find the quality of the product is below their expectations, or the target products are too expensive.

Growing the grass means people have a strong or stronger possessiveness towards something.

  • “Niche” (小众)

Could refer to “anything,” that gives an impression of being “stylish,” “nice”, or something trendy. E.g., KOL, brands, products or a destination for visiting. 

  • Sales” Queen (带货王)

The “reference” of being “trendy,” “stylish,” “pretty,” etc. They often have a very high conversion rate.

  • Play the Meme (玩梗)

Play Meme means using memes such as 996, priceless sister(无价之姐) and involution(内卷). Some ordinary people can become a hit overnight due to a meme, like Heiheyaozijie(黑河腰子姐)with her “here we go, buddy(来了,老弟)”. Additionally, some brands and influencers use the enormous traffic of some memes to create hotspot topics and attract consumers’ attention. For example, “the first cup of milk tea in Autumn” occupies top rankings in Weibo. Nayuki, a famous tea brand, grab this opportunity to set September 23 as “Nayuki milk tea festival”, which successfully turns customers’ enthusiasm into the brand’s sign. Therefore, Nayuki attracts customers more attention and recognition by the impression of playing memes well and appropriately.

Failures in KOL strategies in China

Along with the influencer marketing strategy in China come failures. Here are a few influencer marketing failures that could produce the opposite results and how to avoid them. 

  • Fake KOLs – have a large number of followers without actual engagement. Pay for fake followers to make a post go viral. To avoid using a fake KOL, brands should examine the content, viewers’ comments, and speed of reads vs. reply.
  • The wrong Target – having the wrong target audience can result in you not having any ROI, feedback, or visibility. Make sure you have the right channels and KOLs before launching the campaign
  • Having a negative effect – content that is not suitable to target audience’s values or attitude could result in a negative effect. Try to have content that takes into consideration your audience’s values and attitude. 
  • High brand concentration – Top KOLs or celebrities endorse numbers of brands. This could blur the brand’s positioning. Avoid choosing a KOL that endorses multiple brands to ensure that your brand will have visibility.  
  • Being “disliked” by KOLs ­– It is very dangerous if a KOL does not like the brand or product. Avoid doing anything to have your product or brand disliked by the KOL. 
  • No campaign brief with clear communication – Without clear communication during the brief, the campaign is bound to have problems. The influencer will not be able to avoid any mistakes if they do not know what you do and do not want. Give detailed information to guidelines, content requirements, goals, and products to avoid any confusion when you work with KOLs in China.
  • Influencer content does not meet expectations – as a brand, you have to give the influencer content opportunities to create a story that involves the product. Without content opportunities, they cannot produce something satisfactory and cannot just create an ad for the product without creative freedom. KOL knowledge of audience is often greater than the brand’s knowledge of the audience. 
  • Excessive covert advertising – Covert advertising is when marketers release an advertisement without explicitly mentioning the content as an advertisement, such as product placement in a movie or in KOL content. Excessive covert advertisings will cause negative outcomes. Many Chinese KOLs choose to use covert advertisements frequently to recommend products introducing some sponsored products in their daily vlogs, diaries or photos, as if they are regularly using the item. Consumers have picked up on covert advertising and have started to see it as inauthentic or sneaky. Hence, it may be beneficial to have a KOL directly state that your brand is a sponsor rather than making consumers guess.

Tips for KOL marketing in China

  1. Avoid being “too commercial”. A too commercial KOL ad in China could lose “trust.” Make the difference between the KOLs and the actual advertisement. E.g., too short or formal posts or purely positive comments. 
  2. Use the Right Channels. Some KOLs could be exclusive on only one or two platforms in the Chinese market. This makes it essential to know the right channel and to assist brand reaching the desired target audience (e.g., Weibo vs. Douyin vs. WeChat). 
  3. Update with a target audience. The fact of gathering direct opinions with your target consumers would be one of the best ways to know high qualified KOLs that are “niche,” “valuable” or “trendy” nowadays in the Chinese market.
  4. Stay up-to-date on platform regulations. New rules on platforms are often not announced publically, so as a brand you should be aware of the regulations on each to avoid content being taken down or content reach being affected.
  5. Structured Management. Communicate with marketing team or agencies as detailed as possible when you work with KOLs in China. E.g., the objectives, the “touch points,” type of consumers (location, social class), brand positioning, etc. in order to match the “associated KOLs” and with the data tracking to manage the KOL’s ROI better. 
  6. Make a “KOL plan”. Set the main objective(s) before making the KOLs marketing plan. E.g., increase brand awareness vs. increase the conversion rate vs. brand image maintenance, etc. which is very helpful to find the right KOLs in China.
  7. The % ROI for the tier of KOL. Both Head KOL and micro KOL are important in the China KOL market strategy. The key is to have the right KOLs “package” or a “good” mixed amount of account types and duration. 
  8. Find the right “Touch Points”. “Emotion” marketing is one of the best ways for the Chinese audience engagement. The market could be very effective if the right emotion “touches” the desired target audience. E.g., “attitude” “value” “lifestyle” “aesthetic sense” and so on. 
  9. Plan with reactivity. Marketing plan and strategies are necessary; however, it is important to keep the flexibility in both the short and long term since China’s market changes rapidly. 
  10. Avoid too much covert advertising. Consumers usually hold an inclusive attitude towards advertisements released by KOLs and understand that KOLs need sponsorship make a living. However, many consumers will hold a negative attitude towards the KOL after realizing he or she places too many covert advertisements.
  11. Lower disclosure of advertisements excluding covert advertisements. For influencers, if there are too many advertisements about different products on consecutive days, it would be challenging to convince followers that this is a sincere recommendation. So, KOLs should be more responsible for recommended products and learn to nurture a healthy and positive relationship with their followers. Brand marketers should make an appropriate marketing plan to maintain a suitable disclosure for their brands. For examples, Xuanma(轩妈) sponsor a bit more influencers to introduce their products, which make followers understand their marketing tactics. Therefore, many consumers would immediately hold an attitude that this is a sponsored advertisement instead of a sharing post, which would result in negative outcomes.

Influencer marketing trends in China 2021

Influencer marketing is represented by young and attractive KOLs, depending on their tastes to select and promote products, thereby transforming fans into purchasing power by targeted marketing. The spread of the KOL advertising is relatively accurate, and the stickiness of fans is high, which could effectively solve the limitations of traditional marketing and achieve good product promotion effects.

Influencer marketing in China has shown trends in both vertical development, and horizontal expansion, as well as a change in the management model. In vertical development, there is a higher professional, specialty in terms of KOL types and diffusion channels. The KOL market in China expanded thanks to bloggers, celebrities to include live streamers. In the second quarter of 2020, people spent more time using social media apps or platforms, as countries entered lockdown. This surge in usage was ultimately a one-off increase, and now we have returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 has changed people’s habits of using social media platforms and KOL marketing trends.

3 key trends to monitor

Firstly, more of generation X (1965-1980) and baby boomers (1945-1965) started to use social media platforms, and the user scale in 2021 is expected to reach 809 million.

Secondly, representative KOLs are more attractive for consumers, especially for younger generations. According to GWI, 27% of Gen Z state that following KOLs is their main reason for using social media, and they believe KOLs are more important than brands.

Thirdly, KOLs plus live streams did and will continue to enjoy higher popularity and better ROI, and live streaming would strengthen the sense of community in 2021. Finally, the placement of contents would be selective instead of casual, and brands would provide more supports for followers.

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