How to nail KOL marketing in China

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Elijah Whaley for an hour-long webinar about KOL marketing in China. As former chief marketing officer of influencer marketing platform PARKLU, Whaley is one of the world’s foremost experts on KOLs, and our discussion ranged from the dos and don’ts of KOL marketing, when and how to include KOLs in your China digital marketing plan, and where the future of KOLs is headed.

Tl;dw (too long; didn’t watch)?

Not a problem. I’ve condensed the entire webinar into this handy post that answers just about every question you ever wanted to ask about KOL marketing.

What is a KOL?

When discussing KOLs (or key opinion leaders) there can be confusion that stems from the variety of terms used to describe them: influencer, blogger, wanghong, etc. But Whaley says this is just semantics – whatever term you choose to describe them, they’re all essentially doing the same thing:

  • creating social media content that does some combination of the following
    • shows their expertise in a certain topic
    • gives value to their audience
    • is entertaining
  • using this content to develop a niche audience on that social media platform

How many followers does a KOL need before they can call themselves a KOL?

Depending on the platform, the number of followers a KOL needs to truly call themselves a KOL can vary widely. On WeChat, for example, you only need to consistently be getting about 2000 views for each piece of content you’re putting out before you can call yourself a micro-KOL. On Weibo and Douyin, however, KOLs need to have at least 200,000 followers before obtaining micro-KOL status.

When should I be doing KOL marketing?

Because of the hype surrounding KOL marketing, brands often want to jump into it as soon as possible. But according to Whaley, KOL marketing should in fact be the last thing you do.

The average Chinese consumer requires 8 touchpoints before making a purchase – twice as many as Western consumers – and KOLs are only one touchpoint on this journey. In order for KOL marketing to be effective, therefore, brands need to make sure all their other touchpoints, such as their store, their localised website, their social media channels, their SEO and so forth, are up to scratch.

As Whaley puts it: “If you’re going to engage in such an expensive form of marketing like KOL marketing, you really need to have the funnel sealed up tight or else you’re going to create a bunch of awareness and then it’s just going to all leak out.”

This goes double for start-ups, says Whaley. Start-ups must focus on getting proof of concept and market-fit right first, before then looking at generating brand awareness and trust through other channels. That being said, once you’re ready to start investing in KOL marketing, product seeding can be a great place to start.  Consider sending KOLs free product samples – even without paying a fee, you can often get a posting rate of 10–20%.

How effective is KOL marketing?

While KOL marketing has been proven to be very powerful and convincing, Whaley says it’s important to understand that direct conversions from a KOL to purchase are unlikely, largely because of the number of touchpoints Chinese consumers require.

“The reality [of KOL marketing] is the direct sales conversions in many cases are going to underwhelm you,” he says.

That being said, PARKLU’s data shows a strong correlation – up to 70% – between conversations being had about brands online and sales, so even if followers aren’t directly going to a brand’s store after reading a KOL’s post, that post is still a significant touchpoint.

“[KOL marketing] is an act of branding,” says Whaley. “Knowing that brand builds affinity, trust and eventually conversion – but it might not be a direct sales channel today.”

One reason that KOL marketing is so effective, says Whaley, is that it taps into the Chinese concept of guanxi, which is fundamentally about building relationships. As Whaley explains, “The content that KOLs are creating is a form of gift-giving, and consumers of that content have almost a sense of indebtedness to them. So this leads to the formation of relationships, and it’s one of the reasons why they're so powerful.” In other words, followers may be more inclined to purchase something recommended by a KOL not just because they trust that KOL’s opinion and feel an affinity with them, but also because they feel they need to reciprocate for the ‘gift’ of that KOL’s content.

How do you pick the right KOL for your brand?

When it comes to picking the right KOL for your brand, one of the biggest considerations is where your brand’s point of conversion is. China’s two major ecosystems, Tencent and Alibaba, don’t allow crossover from their social media channels to their competitor’s ecommerce stores, so if, for example, your brand is on Tmall, then you’ll likely want to find a KOL on Weibo.

The next consideration is finding a KOL whose audience aligns well with your target market. Many brands fall into the trap of using KOLs with very large followings – however, if that audience is made up of a very broad spectrum of people, your target audience may in reality only be a very small sliver of those followers. So you may be paying for a reach of 5 million, but perhaps only actually reaching 100,000 target consumers. It can therefore sometimes be more beneficial for brands to work with smaller KOLs who have a more niche audience.

It may also be worth looking closer to home, says Whaley. If, for example, you’re a university, start by identifying the students on your campus with the greatest reach and find ways to compel them to create content about your university. Could you host events that will make students want to share stories about them on social media? Could you offer students incentives like free meals or drinks, or discounted books or stationery, in return for posting positive messages about the university?

What can you expect to pay for KOLs?

Again, this can vary widely depending on the type of KOL, the number of followers they have, and the platform they’re on. One way to get a rough estimate of what to expect to pay is by using PARKLU’s KOL budget calculator, which draws from data from thousands of campaigns.

Having a good idea of costs is important when it comes to hiring KOLs, as unfortunately some KOLs have been known to grossly overcharge brands who lack experience in this area. In fact, Whaley regularly comes across brands who have been charged double the value generated by the KOL campaign – and that’s a real problem.

Another things brands should remember, says Whaley, as that there are “creative ways of working with KOLs to maximise the value of their content, whether it be through repurposing it or using different methods of distribution”. By thinking strategically about how to make the most out of the collaboration, brands can ensure they squeeze every dollar of value from the campaign.

How do brands control their message with KOLs?

In short: they don’t.

As Whaley says, “It’s not as important what you say about yourself as what other people say about you. Brands need to really recognise that we have entered a new era of communication and there is a level of brand flexibility that needs to be built into that. Some of the greatest failures I’ve seen in KOL marketing have actually come from brand rigidity … and that’s a huge mistake in my mind. That is saying that you have a lack of respect for your customer and you have a lack of respect for the content creators who know them best.”

Rather than falling into the trap of “content creation by committee”, brands have to appreciate that KOLs have invested a lot of time and energy into interacting with their followers, understanding what resonates with them most, and building trust. When working with KOLs to create content that engages with their audience, brands must understand that the KOLs are the experts, and they must be willing to relinquish some control and defer to the KOLs’ expertise.

When is the best time to run KOL campaigns?

Whaley warns against focusing all your KOL marketing efforts around key sales times like 11.11 or Chinese New Year. “I would think of it more like engaging with your friends – if you only call up your friend when you want something … then that’s a really weak value proposition to that other individual,” he says.

Instead, he recommends a “always on” strategy: using KOLs to constantly engage with your customers and provide value throughout the year, in order to build a community and generate trust.

Not only does this strategy help you stay top of mind when those big sales events do roll around, but it can also be much more cost-effective. KOLs charge brands a premium for their services during peak sales times – sometimes double what they charge during other times of the year – but if you haven’t put in the legwork into building up some brand equity in the lead-up to these events, you will likely struggle to get a decent return on investment.

Is it better to develop a relationship with one KOL, or diversify and work with several KOLs?

“If you can, I would do both,” says Whaley.

There can be significant gains from developing a long-term partnership with a KOL who is a great fit for your brand. “Again, this is not about adrenaline shots of social media attention,” says Whaley. “This is about value, affinity and awareness over time … so I would do everything I could to either create a long-term collaboration or outright acquire the channel.”

Of course, this can also be limiting. Your customers likely have a diverse range of interests, and if you want to interact with them the way they want to be interacted with, then this means engaging them where they are. If, for example, you sell sneakers, you may find your customers are also interested in gaming, movies, EDM (electronic dance music) – and you may need to work with KOLs in all these niche areas in order to engage with them effectively.

Is it better to work with more niche-focused micro-KOLs, or KOLs with greater reach?

There’s a lot that’s been said about the type of authenticity and engagement you can get from working with highly niche micro-KOLs, and this is “100 per cent valid”, says Whaley. That being said, you can reap much more value from these relationships using what Whaley calls “trickle-down KOL economics”.

By also engaging a top-tier KOL, the validation that comes from using someone with a high profile “trickles down” to the micro-KOLs, in turn convincing those micro-KOLs – and their followers – that your brand is trustworthy and your product/service is one worth promoting or purchasing.

What does the future of KOL marketing have in store?

The benefits of KOLs – that they have highly engaged audiences with whom they have built affinity and trust over time, making them highly robust marketing channels – may very well be turned against the brands KOLs once depended on.

“I think the most disruptive and scary thing that is going to happen – and I think I see the hammer coming down – is KOLs self-branding,” says Whaley. “You have fed the beast that will consume you and that beast is going to be KOL brands.”

This is another reason why brands need to become well versed in KOL marketing – after all, it won’t be long before they’re directly competing with the KOLs themselves.

The world of KOL marketing is full of exciting possibilities, but there’s a few ducks that brands need to get in a row before they dive in. One place to start is your website To learn more about creating a website that converts, check out our free Chinese Website 101 guide to find out how to build a high-performing website in China. Download it now!

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