The Truth About Working with KOLs for Success in China

The KOL (key opinion leader) or influencer dynamic is a typical story of China taking something already in existence in the West and rapidly discovering new ways to create revenue out of it.

We dipped into the issue previously, with our piece on KOLs in China. Let’s go a bit further into what is becoming the top priority for any luxury brand in the China market.

If you’re into stats, then Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has millennials at 40 percent of China’s urban population between the ages of 15 and 70, statistising that the millenial bracket will perform 69 percent of consumption by 2021. If you’re in China, then you don’t need stats. You will have noticed all people of all ages glued to their phones at all times of day or night, whether in a car, a bar, or even in the cinema. You will have heard talk of almost nothing but shopping, dining, holidaying, car and home-buying.

WeChat is God. People work and pay on WeChat as well as indulge in the standard selfies and social media displays. They read news, book tickets and shop on WeChat – either linking to Tmall or directly within a WeChat shop or mini App — and they follow their favourite KOLs on their WeChat and Weibo accounts.

KOL has become a normal part of both industry and society vocabulary, with top brands turning to ‘real people’ who have made it big on social media and selling products through content. Ah, but if only it was that simple. It’s naïve to believe that simply picking a KOL and paying for a post will be ‘cheaper marketing’ — or a sure-fire success.

Just a couple of years ago, brands could turn to KOLs in order to reach a loyal fanbase for lower costs than traditional advertising. In 2017, the top KOLs are as expensive as any other marketing channel – or more.

Now, the KOL curates his/her 24 hours around their online persona. The KOL has teams of staff working on the content, the IT, the marketing, and in essence, is now an entire company.

Popularity on Weibo is no longer solely about content – and the online world is now saturated with KOLs. Why not? Many individuals sees becoming a KOL as their ticket to fame and fortune.

There is also much more to it than simply finding a KOL at the right budget, and sending out content to the masses. Content alone doesn’t cut it. On Weibo, you now have to pay to play. Much like Facebook requires paid ‘boosts’ for greater reach, you must now budget for Weibo expenditure to ensure the proper reach.

Budgeting for and selecting the KOL is just the first act to the performance. Followers genuinely care about genuine content and the true recommendations of their idol. It’s not as simple as paying for an ‘ad feature’ that has all the interest of an old-fashioned EDM blast. The most success has come from ongoing relationships wherein the brand worked with the KOL’s content plan, both before and after the key selling moment. One of the notable cases in 2017 was when Becky Li, a fashion blogger, sold 100 limited edition blue MINI cars, after having curated various recommendations of blue-coloured clothing in the previous posts.

Another KOL, ‘Mr. Bags’, is known for truly adoring the items that he features. Working with Givenchy, he sold 1.2 million RMB’s worth of bags on WeChat in 12 minutes (with each bag priced at around 15,000 RMB).

It’s notable that both such KOLs have been quoted as saying that a big part of their day is spent personally replying to their followers comments, as soon as they have made the post on WeChat and Weibo. When agencies of all sorts tout the word ‘engagement’ for brands, this is the epitomy.

In both of these cases, the product was special. The MINI car was a limited edition hue – available via Becky’s platform even before the official launch date on the MINI website. Those who bought Givenchy from Mr. Bags received a special gift from the man himself, and, they had to reserve their order within 15 minutes.

The successful KOL’s popularities stem from their genuine love of what they do. We spoke with Mr. Bags about his success, and who he would like to work with:

“There really isn’t a “top list” of brands to work with. I seek creativity and exciting ideas in my collaborations. Though I mostly work with luxury brands, as long as the brand is legit, and I love the products they have, I would love to work with them.”

Speaking on the reasons for his success, he explained:

“My content focuses on bags and shoes, whereas most Chinese bloggers write about everything related to fashion, mostly about celebrity fashion and gossip. I tried my best to avoid using internet language and gifs to make my contents look more classic and professional. That’s probably why my followers are mostly those people with high education levels and big purchasing power. For me, my followers (known as Bagfans) are my priority. When I write about bags or shoes, I think of what they can get from my posts. When I collaborate with brands, I seek new experiences to provide my Bagfans.”

Even if you may not desire such a specific sales activity, there’s never a reason not to ensure specific tracking of every feature or post, with unique links or QR codes. KOLs are competing for business with the same ambition and intensity as any ad agency or media platform. Fake views and fake followers are an industry fact. It’s not about numbers and looking at rate cards for post numbers, but rather, the relationship has to be right, to be real, and to be crafted with consideration – and accountability of the analytics.

The Luxury Conversation Chinese Takeaways

  • Define the goals of your KOL project. Quoted impression numbers and views are arbitrary for the vast majority. Brands such as adidas seem to be content with a KOL partnership to simply display the postings and collect alleged pageview numbers, but for different brand types – and especially those new to the China market – mere views would be meaningless without knowing who is viewing and without genuinely interacting with a prompted activity.
  • The keyword is: genuine. Work with the KOL that has a true affinity for your brand.
  • It’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it that counts. Bigger KOLs aren’t always better – but they are always more expensive. Consider working with a higher number of micro-influencers, rather than one KOL who has higher Weibo figures. The individual reach of industry experts and micro-influencers may be lower, but the readership could be much more relevant and engaged in what they are reading, rather than passing, unknown views of a ‘celebrity’ style KOL.
  • Any good relationship takes time. One-off posts and obsession with a numbers game is unlikely to engage. Relevant content both before and after a specific activity demonstrates the thought and ‘content story’ feeling to a readership that has become inured to overly-commercial sales pitches.
  • Content is the main performance of your project but you should expect to pay to get in the door — Weibo in particular is now ‘pay to play’ and you will need to budget for increased reach on Weibo, and to consider ads spaces projected to people’s WeChat Moments feed.


To find out more about how you can work effectively with KOLs in China to drive your business, please contact Chloé Reuter: news (at) reutercomms (dot) com