There is no doubt that Chinese consumers are some of the most connected and highest-spending consumers in the world. In less than a decade consumer spending has more than doubled and retail grew 12.5% in the last year despite disruption in the global supply chains.
For many international brands, gaining access and marketing to Chinese consumers is complex, expensive and very risky. But one of the most important and impactful ways to connect and communicate with this market is through the engagement of Chinese speaking influencers and bloggers.
While many brand owners are aware of and recognise the power of Chinese influencers, understanding how to find and engage them without a knowledge of the market and language can present significant challenges.
What are key opinion leaders (KOLs)?
A key opinion leader or KOL is what they call an influencer in China. This can be someone who is well known for his or her influence, expertise and knowledge within a particular field, with an engaged audience of followers on social media. They can be using their reach to educate the market about new products and services, celebrities lending name recognition to products they endorse, or simply online sellers trying to find new audiences for their niche products.
KOLs come in all shapes, sizes and forms, but they are always social media influencers who have an engaged audience that trusts them to deliver accurate information about products or services.
The most important thing to understand is that Chinese KOLs almost exclusively exist on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo among others, and the vast majority of these are based in China. In the early days, these influencers were primarily big-name film and tv celebrities, sports stars and singers but as the industry grew and diversified, it created millions of individual influencers and bloggers and live streaming apps promoting a huge range of consumer products to audiences of tens of millions of fans.
What are the most commonly used Chinese social media platforms?
The most common social media platforms used by key opinion leaders in China are WeChat, the most popular digital commerce ecosystem with over 1.2 billion users; Weibo, a microblogging platform also known as Sina Weibo, which is touted as Chinese Twitter; Douyin, the Chinese version of the international short video sharing site TikTok; Xiaohongshu or Little Red Book, a fashion and luxury e-commerce platform; and of course Zhihu, China's answer to Quora.
Let's break these down further to get a further understanding of China's influencer industry.
WeChat is regarded as a "super app" in China, because it combines the features of WhatsApp, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and even Tinder in one place. Because of this, users spend an average of roughly 77 minutes each day on the app. WeChat has become one of the foremost options for businesses to start utilising Chinese social media marketing as a result of the high engagement numbers this online ecosystem brings.
Weibo (or Sina Weibo) is a Chinese microblogging platform. It is a popular social media platform in the country that works similar to Twitter. Users can post short text updates, photos, and videos. They can also follow other users and subscribe to topics or hashtags to see related content. Weibo has over 573 million active users as of the third quarter of 2021.
Douyin is a social platform that has risen to prominence in China over the last few years. It's been described as the app of choice for many Chinese youngsters and it is now one of the most popular apps in the world with more than 670 million users. It accounts for 1/5 of the global monthly active users.
Little Red Book
Little Red Book, locally known as Xiaohongshu, has positioned itself before its over 100 million users as the main source of authority content on fashion and luxury consumer goods. Its main draw is its unique combination of e-commerce, user-generated content (UGC), and online community building. The majority of its target audience (90%) is composed of urban women who spend their disposable income on lifestyle products.
A site that literally translates to "Do you know?" Zhihu is a comprehensive Q&A platform of about 100 million users where people can ask questions, get answers, and interact with other users on the platform. Knowledge sharing isn't one of the hot new trends in social media platforms, but Zhihu has managed to take it one step further by creating a unique model where users have committed to upvoting answers and highlighting profiles of people who have contributed a lot to the site.
What are the key differences between KOLs and their western counterparts?
While there are plenty of similarities between western influencers and their Chinese counterparts, the key difference is that for many fields such as fashion and beauty, these personalities can be highly educated in subjects related to their niche and often just focus on their chosen industry. Therefore it is natural that they would be promoting products in those categories personally endorsed by them or the brands they work with.
Another big difference is that most of these influencers started out as online sellers themselves and having built up trust within niche communities, now enjoy an audience who loyally follows and supports them. This means they may even criticise brands they do not like or products that aren't good enough for their personal standards – something we often see in a KOL in China but would be risky business for influencers in western countries.
In addition, you would often see Chinese influencer marketing personalities using live broadcast platforms to showcase the products in a real-time environment or to give a hands-on consumer review, unlike western influencers who usually create polished content for their profile, blog, and social media platforms. A great comparison to illustrate this is Chinese "lipstick king" Li Jiaqi who has gained massive success via hours-long live streaming and U.S. beauty influencer Jeffree Star who gained millions of dollars by producing videos on his highly successful YouTube channel.
What are some tips for picking Chinese influencers?
Picking a Chinese influencer to work with is not as straightforward as it seems, given the large selection of personalities to choose from. There are different influencer types and they all have their own unique style and niche. The key to finding the right one for your campaign is to find one that matches your goals, product or service, and target audience. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Understand the uniqueness of the Chinese market so you can map out a targeted marketing strategy
- Evaluate the different influencer personas in a given industry to understand how they resonate with their market
- Compare your product, service or campaign goals to an influencer's content styles and platform strengths, taking into account followers' age distribution, gender, preferred languages, etc.
- Know that there are many challenges when working with these Chinese influencers because they operate in a regulated environment (like everything else in China)
- Accept that they have a different mindset and approach when it comes to dealing with brands, so they cannot be managed in the same way as their western counterparts
How can someone outside of China reach Chinese consumers on social media?
Access to the top tier China-based celebrities and celebrity influencers are often via agents and traditional advertising agencies and can be incredibly expensive due to the high demand and often more expensive than English speaking influencers. It is not unheard of for relatively unknown influencers to charge 50K for one single post on a single platform. Many influencers have their own staff and creative teams to write and manage content on their behalf.
Influencer incubators have sprung up in major cities in China to foster, develop and promote new influencers. Becoming an influencer or a blogger is now a very desired career path for many Chinese millennials and many of these millennials have travelled and studied extensively overseas including Australia.
Outside of China, there is a growing group of Chinese speaking influencers who are creating big follower bases and doing incredibly creative work with a variety of brands, products and events. Most of these young influencers came out to Australia, the UK and the US as students and the proliferation of Chinese social media, and newly acquired spending power sought out opportunities to show off and share their personal style.
One of the most influential of the group is a digital influencer called Mr Bags. A student at Brown University in New York, Mr Bags started a blog to document his love of designer handbags. In the last few years, he has designed limited editions for Bally, Longchamp and Fendi as is one of the most sought-after Chinese speaking influencers.
While Australia does not yet have the equivalent of Mr Bags, there are a small but high-quality selection of travel, lifestyle, fashion and beauty influencers in Australia that brands can easily engage with for sponsored social media posts, product gifting and event appearances. This is a fantastically cost and time-efficient solution for brands who are new to the China journey and looking to get some brand recognition with the Chinese market without the expense and difficulty of going through the many hoops in China.
Many of these influencers may have a smaller number of followers on the English language socials, but their reach on the Chinese socials and the engagement is very high rather than just posting passive images, are experts at creating stories that integrate your brand and brand story.
Once a brand has established a level of recognition amongst the home-based Chinese-speaking audiences, stepping up to working in the mainland can be a lot less daunting.
Looking for Chinese influencers and KOLs? Browse leading talent on theright.fit
With thanks to Jennifer Spark of Spark Communication