Ultimate guide to KOL marketing in China: What is a KOL and how to unravel their enormous potential

In June 2022, out of a population of 1.41 billion, China had 1.05 billion Internet users, accounting for around 74% of the population, thus recording an increase of 3.8% compared to 2021. Moreover, according to CNNIC, netizens spend an average of 29.5 hours per week online, and 99.6% of them use their mobile to surf the internet. While internet penetration and usage hours continue to increase, online marketing strategies are facing dramatic changes in China.

China’s KOL marketing has moved from text & photos to live streamingshort videos, and social commerce, which gives brands more channels to interact with consumers.

What is a KOL?

KOL stands for Key Opinion Leader. Key opinion leaders are spokespersons, brand ambassadors, or thought leaders who boast strong authority and sometimes professional background in a specific industry. For instance, a doctor can be a KOL for the healthcare industry. In contrast, influencers gained their own notoriety, fame, and followers on social media, and usually do not have professional background. However, both KOL and influencers share their opinions, estimations, beliefs, judgments, and attitudes toward a product or brand with the public.

KOLs engage with their followers and establish strong ties with them, thereby gaining credibility in their eyes. They can make things trendy, widen a brand’s audience, increase brand awareness, and motivate customers to purchase from online and offline channels. The use of word-of-mouth marketing is incredibly effective in affecting Chinese consumers’ purchasing decisions. For instance, KOLs influenced 48% of Gen Z shoppers on e-commerce platforms in 2021.

China’s KOL Market is growing fast

As a result of the high influence rate of KOLs in China, the KOL market size is expected to reach USD 27.05 billion (RMB 180 billion) in 2022. Influencer marketing works very well in China and there has been a growth in the number of KOLs on social media. There are around 10 million KOLs in China and most of them are managed by more than 100,000 multi-channel network agencies, which offer assistance to KOLs including cross-promotion, digital rights management, etc., and get a percentage on ads revenue.

KOL categories and types

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

Chinese KOLs can be divided into 3 categories: 1) Stars & celebrities; 2) bloggers, and 3) wanghong (网红). 

The first segment includes big-name stars and celebrities, who provide powerful and valued opinions on products and services to their followers. The second category includes bloggers who demonstrated expertise in a related field. They convey an impression of credible knowledge. The last category contains wanghongs, which are similar to KOLs. Nevertheless, wanghongs are product-oriented and popular because of their appearance, whereas KOLs are popular for their opinions. There are four types of wanghongs, namely self-media wanghongs (such as Papi jiang), topic wanghongs (like Feng jie), Tao wanghongs (e.g. Xue li) and live stream wanghongs (like Li jiaqi). On a more micro-scale than wanghongs are KOCs (Key Opinion Consumers) which can also be leveraged for marketing purposes as well.

papi Jiang
Source: Weibo, Papi Jiang is a famous live-streaming wanghong

KOL target audience 

KOL advertising in China targets individuals between 20 and 30 years old, especially post-90s to 00s internet users, regardless from their city tier. Chinese KOLs tend to have a young public: people born in the late 90s/ early 2000s account for roughly 80% of Weibo users.

Late Millennials and Gen Z are the main followers of Chinese KOLs

The main target audience of China’s KOL marketing is the 90s to 00s generations. Compared to older generations, youngsters have the highest interactions on Weibo, especially with trendy topics, community shares, and celebrities. They also display a higher interest in things like cosmetics, fashion, and food, as well as on topics like celebrity-related news and romance. In contrast, the 80s generation puts more attention on multiple issues such as general news, travel, food, health, and family. In terms of active users, Douyin’s KOLs seem to have the largest influences among short-video platform with 604 million users, initially attracted by KOLs.

Compared to other countries, Chinese netizens are more inclined to purchase goods advertised by influencers. The percentage of Chinese internet users claiming to be likely to buy products reviewed by KOL in September 2020 was 10%, Higher than their US counterpart, but 3% lower than in India. However, considering its large population and growing disposable income per capita, influencer marketing in China has strong potential to continue to thrive in the next years.

how to leverage KOL marketing in China
Source: ebiquity, designed by Daxue Consulting, the internet user’s attitudes toward live streams and products purchase
China kol advertising
Source: Statista, designed by Daxue Consulting, number of people attracted by KOLs by platform

Types of KOLs in China based on number of followers

There are four main types of KOLs in China based on the number of followers. Top-Tier KOLs in China with more than 1 million followers are professionals capable of attracting high traffic in a short period of time. Mid-tier KOLs in China with more than 10 thousand followers are relatively “niche” but focus on reviewing products and services from a professional point of view. Micro/Long-tail KOLs have just a few thousand followers but are still able to gain high engagement rate.

how to leverage 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 China: social media, e-commerce, and video platforms. Top social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo are used for blog posts, short-form video content, articles, and photos. In Q1 2022, WeChat vaunted over 1.29 billion aggregated monthly active users (MAUs) and Weibo boasted 582 million MAUs.

E-commerce platforms such as Taobao and Pinduoduo are used for selling products and services online. In 2022, Taobao had 875 million MAUs, while Pinduoduo reached 753 million MAUs. Video platforms such as Tencent Video, Youku, and Douyin are divided into short- and long-video apps and can be used to hold live streams as well.

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 streams.

In 2022, the penetration rate of short videos among internet users are expected to reach 90%, while live streaming will achieve 79%. The market value of short videos was approximately USD 20.4 billion (RMB 141 billion) in 2021. In contrast, the live-stream market value in 2021 was approximately USD 26.6 billion (RMB 184 billion).

Overseas influencers in China’s KOL industry

China’s KOL marketing also includes overseas KOLs, i.e., global influencers. Overseas KOLs utilize western social media apps to spread their content. Such content can also enter the KOL market in China by being uploaded, shared, and distributed on Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Youku. 

Terms to know related to KOL marketing in China

To successfully understand all aspects of the influencer marketing in China and identify the right KOL for your brand, it is good to know some useful words and phrasing associated with influencer marketing in China. Knowing these words and phrasings could lower the amount of confusion that would be created.

On the Brand Side

As a brand, there are a few popular terms when working with KOLs:

The “Head” KOL (头部 KOL)

Top KOL, with over 1 million followers on each platform.

Micro KOLs & Long-tails (小众 & 长尾)

Micro KOLs usually have more fans than Long-tails, while Long-tails are more affordable and tend to have fewer fake followers along with higher engagement rates. 

MCN (Multiple Channels Network)

Type of “agency” managing KOLs’ 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 by a team of experts. Mainly video content oriented.

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

Water army is a term for fake followers and bots that distort daily and monthly active user numbers. These followers generate comments but have no persona behind their profile.

KOL’s number of fans vs. the actual fans rate
Source: ebiquity, designed by Daxue Consulting, KOL’s number of fans vs. the actual fans rate

Common terms for consumers 

In order to better understand the KOL marketing, there are some terms that are commonly used in China.

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

Planting grass refers to adding 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 means that if people remove something from their shopping list, it is because they find the quality of the product is below their expectations, or the products are too expensive.

Growing the grass means that people are building up interests towards products or services.

“Niche” (小众)

Niche refers to products and services that are relatively popular within a small number of people. In other words, people search for niche restaurant, niche clothes in order to differentiate from the mass and flaunt their unique taste.

“Sales” Queen/King (带货王)

This expression depicts a person who has a very high conversion rate.

Play the Meme (玩梗)

Play Meme means using memes such as those related to 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)”.

Furthermore, some brands and influencers use the enormous traffic of memes to create hot topics and attract consumers’ attention. For example, “the first cup of milk tea in Autumn” was top ranking on Weibo. Thus, Nayuki, a famous tea brand, grabbed this opportunity to set September 23 as “the Nayuki milk tea festival”, which successfully turned customers’ enthusiasm into the brand’s signature.

Common mistakes and lessons from KOL strategies in China

It is very important to be cautious when launching a KOL marketing campaign since it may have the opposite effect to the expected one.

  • Fake KOLs – People who have many 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. replies of the influencer they are going to hire.
  • Wrong target –targeting the wrong audience can lead to not having any ROI, feedback, or visibility. Make sure you choose the right channels and KOLs before launching the campaign.
  • Having a negative effect – content that is not suitable to the target audience’s values or attitude could result into a negative effect. Try to have content that takes into consideration the values and attitudes of the target audience. 
  • High brand concentration – Top KOLs or celebrities endorse a large number of brands, thereby diluting the visibility of each brand they advertise. Avoiding choosing a KOL that promotes multiple brands at same time may ensure a higher exposure for your brand. 
  • Being “disliked” by KOLs ­– It is very dangerous if a KOL does not like your brand or product. Improving product quality and other features can be a way to mitigate risk.
  • No campaign brief with clear communication – Without clear communication during the brief, your marketing campaign is bound to have problems. Give detailed guidelines, content requirements, goals, and product information to avoid any confusion when working with KOLs in China.
  • Limiting KOLs’ creativity – It is crucial to give KOLs’ freedom of planning, creating, and promoting stories that involve your product since they usually have a better understanding of their followers.
  • Excessive covert advertising – Covert advertising is when marketers release an advertisement without explicitly mentioning the content as an advertisement. Excessive covert advertising will cause negative outcomes as consumers consider them as inauthentic or sneaky. Hence, it may be more effective to have a KOL directly stating that your brand is a sponsor rather than making consumers guess it.

Tips for China’s KOL marketing

  1. Avoid being “too commercial”. A too commercial KOL ad in China could lose the trust of audiences.
  2. Use the right channels. Some KOLs could be active on only one or two Chinese platforms. It is essential to select the right channels for reaching the desired target audience (e.g., Weibo vs. Douyin vs. WeChat). 
  3. Stay in the loop with platform regulations. New rules on platforms are often not announced publicly. Thus, brands need to be aware of the regulations and avoid content being taken down by the platform.
  4. Structured management. Writing down a detailed plan with KOLs before start promoting is essential for efficient marketing.
  5. Consider what your ROI is going to beFinancial estimation of your KOL campaign is important and helpful for choosing the right influencer.
  6. Find the right touchpoints. Emotion marketing is one approach to increasing Chinese audience engagement. The emotional touches include attitude, value, lifestyle, aesthetic sense, and so on. 
  7. Plan with reactivity. Marketing plans and strategies are necessary, but it is important to keep flexibility in both the short and long term due to the rapid changes in the market.
  8. Avoid too much cover advertising. Too much promoted advertisements from a single brand will cause consumers feel annoy and result into negative feedbacks.

Latest influencer marketing trends in China

Influencer marketing in China has developed fast. In the second quarter of 2020, people spent more time using social media apps or platforms, as countries entered a new wave of lockdowns. The outbreak of Covid-19 and consequent lockdowns have changed people’s habits of using social media platforms, and further boosted KOL marketing.

However, two top-KOLs (Viya and Li Jiaqi) were banned by the government due to some scandals, thereby demonstrating the increasing volatility of the KOL environment in China.

Key takeaways from the KOL marketing in China

  • In 2022, China boasted 1.05 billion Internet users, which is around 74% of the population.
  • There are four main types of KOLs in China depending on the number of their followers. They are celebrities, top-tier, mid-tier, and micro/long-tail KOLs.
  • There 4 different types of KOL content: Q&A, text & photo, short videos, and live streaming.
  • China’s influencer marketing has its own language and expressions.
  • The KOL marketing is developing fast, but rules and controls from the central government are getting stricter.

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