Using KOLs for a brand promotion has become a very common form of marketing, especially in China. According to “2017 Digital Marketing Trends Report“,   72% of brands’ executives increased social marketing investments in 2017, of which 63% was directed into KOL promotion.


Before you rush into planning your new campaign though, learn what you should pay attention to. I talked to Nara, a head of our social department, about:

  • Who can become a KOL
  • Why you should consider working with KOLs
  • How to find a KOL
  • Running a KOL-based marketing campaign

Ok, let’s start from the very beginning.


Who can become a KOL

KOLs – Key Opinion Leaders – or influencers are often called 网红 (wanghong) in China. Be careful though, this term may carry a bit of derogatory meaning, especially if you call someone like this. It’s better to refer to them as大号 (dahao – lit. „big size”, i.e. popular account), 自媒体 (zimeiti – self-media) or达人 (daren – an expert). They are mostly Chinese celebrities or social media users with a strong group of followers. Note: although many influencers come from WeChat, Weibo or short-video platforms, you should not underestimate the term. It also refers to experts in their field. You can find an influencer in any industry, so KOL promotion is not limited to fashion or daily live-related content. Anyone with – let’s say – 10,000 followers would be regarded as an influencer. It’s important to understand that in order to find a KOL fitting your brand’s image and message.


Why you should consider working with KOLs

Influencers have been used for social media marketing for a while now, but since 2016 their position started escalating. Now, even though KOL marketing costs are rising year by year, it does not stop brands from working with them. It’s undeniable that they have become a marketing tool with a high conversion rate and quick results.

What’s more, KOLs gather people of similar demographics and/or interests building a community. When you work with an influencer, you turn their audience into your own audience. It’s a good way of exposing your brand and building trust. It’s different from a celebrity starring in a commercial. Online influencers make brands seem more personal, reachable and much closer to customers.

In China it’s more true than anywhere else. As Tait discussed in a blog post earlier, Chinese people tend to be rather distrustful towards brands. KOLs are real people, and their followers can relate to them. So, contrary to traditional marketing channels or celebrities, they are seen as being more trustworthy, authentic and down-to-earth.

Among those who work with KOLs most, there are many famous brands with strong advertising budgets – they invest in the most popular influencers with millions of fans. This is not always the best option, keep reading to learn more. Also, this kind of promotion suits companies that focus on direct sales, as the results are easy to track and come very fast.


How to find a KOL


There are different ways to find a KOL for your campaign. But the most important part is to:

First, understand who is your audience – dig into that data you’ve been collecting in Baidu Tongji! Besides this, do some market research. Interview, survey and talk to your customers. What is your audience interested in? Do they live in a first- or third-tier city? Are they teenage boys or middle-aged women? What keywords can you get from what they talk about?

You may be surprised who your audience really is. For example, an owner of a finance company in China starting a marketing campaign determined that his company’s core customers were living in first-tier cities, are interested in healthy lifestyle and are high-net-worth individuals focused on investments. But when he did a research on their social media followers, it turned out 74% of them were women interested in DIY-programs, celebrities and everyday-life tips. What KOLs did they choose then?  They focused on keywords like “DIY recipes”, “running guides” and “CBNweekly” (a business magazine).

Second, choose your platform. Sometimes, WeChat or Weibo may be enough, but for some brands the best results come from multi-channel campaigns. What platform can you use?

  • Socials – Weibo, WeChat, blogs
  • Short videos – Douyin, Kuaishou, Huoshan, Bilibili.
  • Live-streaming – Douyu, Yingke, Yizhibo
  • TV shows – Happy Camp, Where Are We Going, Dad?


But how do we know what KOLs your audience is interested in?

  • Do your research. There are influencers generally popular in your industry. Find out who they are.
  • You already know what keywords your audience search for. Go to the platform you want to use and search the keywords to check which influencers talk about them.
  • You can directly reach out to special KOL agencies or use KOL-focused search platforms like Weiboyi.

Think of what KOL you really need. The more followers the better is not always the case. One, the most popular KOLs are as expensive as 100,000 RMB (or more) for a post. Two, they might have a lot of followers, but do they really reach the audience you want? Three, remember that in China social media bots are in common use. You don’t want to choose an influencer whose audience is non-existent.

How to evaluate a KOL once you find it?

  • Check the number of their followers (on Weibo) and posts’ views (WeChat).
  • Go through each post – how many shares, comments and likes they get.
  • TALK to the influencer. Ask about their followers, content creation process, price, etc.
  • Verify the information – for example, there’s a tool called “西瓜君 (xiguajun)” for WeChat official accounts that allows you to check KOL’s data.


Tips on running a KOL-based marketing campaign

KOLs may become an excellent go-between for a brand and its customers if a campaign is planned and managed properly. Let’s say you’ve already chosen an influencer that fits your brand’s image and message perfectly. The most difficult part is not to mess it up afterwards.

A very common mistake many brands make is to push content onto influencers. Some of the influencers that already built their strong position in the industry won’t even consider working with you if you don’t leave them some space. KOLs are loved for who they are and the content their create – putting your word in their mouth will only scare their audience away. Have a little faith. They know how and when to talk to their followers. Remember that the advantage they have over high-end celebrities is that they’re close to their fans and they are very authentic. It’s easy to tell whether they promote something because they want to or it’s just a planned content they share without too much thought. If you choose your KOL well, your message should perfectly blend into their personal brand’s image.

Another thing to consider is that long-term campaigns are usually a better choice that the short ones. First, one-time posts look just like an ad. Second, it’s easier to collect data from the longer period of time. Third, again, you want to look authentic. If KOL decides to work with your brand for a longer time, a clear message is sent to their followers – that brand can be trusted.

However, long-term co-operation won’t transform a KOL into a product champion. It’s not a common form of marketing in China. For many KOLs, promoting just one brand may seem like losing authenticity and, unless it’s a famous brand, they are not very likely to do it. They prefer working with different brands, reviewing various products – they followers may not even know then which posts are sponsored and which are not.

Note: in Western countries sending a product to a blogger in exchange for a review is a common practice. They may or may not do it. I read an article that said you could do the same in China. Well, not really. KOLs in China may appreciate your products, but they still expect a payment. They may get you a discount in exchange for your good, though. You may also expect a lower price if you sign up for a longer commitment or if you’re a very famous brand that can strengthen a KOL’s position – another reason to look for a less popular influencer.


Follow other brands’ lead

One of the most successful KOL campaigns everyone talked about last year was a cooperation of Givenchy and Mr Bags. The influencer designed a limited-edition pink bag that was available only for his WeChat followers. All 80 pieces of total worth 1.2 million RMB were sold out in 12 minutes. As Mr Bags is one of the ten most popular WeChat’s influencers, the campaign boosted the number of Givenchy fans and helped build the brand’s awareness in China.

Another example is keep, a Chinese app which helps keep track of your body weight, daily exercise etc. It teamed up with Zhu Yawen, a popular KOL, who talked about the app during an episode of Happy Camp –   a Chinese variety show airing continuously for the last ten years. Thanks to the show’s ten-million audience and Zhu Yawen’s fans, the app gained over a million new users after the broadcast.

Third example is FaceU – it’s a beautifying camera filter. They analyzed their users – most of them are women born after 1990 following the latest trends, interested in entertainment. So, they first decided it would be a good idea to engage a male KOL, instead of a female one. Yu Menglong is a star of a popular tv show broadcasted by Hunan TV, which audience is very similar to FaceU users. The KOL published a post on Weibo using a „全民吐彩虹” hashtag („the whole country vomits rainbow”). It reached 80 million (sic!) readers and related posts got another 50 million almost at once and kept counting. FaceU became such a hit, it gained a top position in the App Store.

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