By Lee Folland, Head of Research at Reuter Communications (commentary first included on Campaign Asia)
Key Opinion Leaders in China still present an amazing opportunity, even if the tactic has suffered from a recent bubble effect. Finding, vetting, authenticating and working successfully with KOLs has become a challenge for brands to overcome – yet with social selling more developed in China than in other markets, it’s a challenge that has to be tackled.
What are some fresh ways to find the rewards that KOL marketing can win?
KOLs to LOLs
Don’t Laugh Out Loud – switch from looking for Key Opinion Leaders to Local Opinion Leaders. It’s already recognised guidance to work with a variety of smaller influencers rather than one big (expensive) KOL in China. Yet it’s not only about selecting those with a certain kind of WeChat, Weibo or Xiaohongshu following. Local Opinion Leaders means figures in culture – and subculture.
Graffitti artists may not post a ‘eyes look down to the right’ KOL pose on Weibo every day, but some have cultivated a strong following that strongly resonates with a younger audience. Peking Opera figures might not seem like the recognised version of a ‘KOL’, but as proven with Swire Hotels’ The House Collective campaign, My Story My House, cultural icons (such as Masha Ma, pictured) relate and communicate with luxury Chinese consumers in a genuine way with obvious cultural linkage. They are people who have really ‘achieved something’ other than ‘being famous for being famous’.
Tap their insights
KOLs are not so much ‘on the pulse’ of consumer marketing, they are the pulse, heartbeat, or any other biological metaphor you prefer. So instead of only working with them for directly reaching said consumer, why not go deeper and gain their insights for your China business intelligence?
Reuter: Intelligence, the insights division of Reuter Communications recently did just that – on a research project in Paris with a globally famous beauty brand, they decided to bring in relevant KOLs in order to gain their insight on aspects such as brand name translation, consumer preferences and upcoming trends. It was fascinating to have the insights of those who are in many ways shaping the marketplace and could offer their knowledge on what is happening right now and what they see coming just around the corner. This offers a unique, complementary perspective in addition to consumer research.
Part of the brand family
The pure Weibo reach of KOLs is seductive, but only thinking of reach and views is a missed opportunity. Post cost divided by reach is one thing, yet is out of sync with your overall business strategy that is planned a year ahead. During that planning phase, rather than say ‘and then we’ll collaborate with some KOLs’, it would be more beneficial to make an annual KOL plan alongside the macro marketing strategy. Who will the KOLs (and LOLs) be and how will they be inducted into the brand, visit the factories/showrooms/stores and meet all people at all levels?
Do your full research on the KOL(s), find out about them and what they like. Approach them in a real, human way – gather their interest and show them that you are fully aware of them as a person. It’s key to work together on a fully involved sense. Invite them to everything related – the showroom, the factory, the sourcing, the people. The people are most important as the human element will bring the originality, passion and sense of something meaningful to followers/viewers.”
Think outside your niche
Switzerland Tourism is one example of how thinking outside of the standard category of KOLs can deliver – in one instance, they worked with a particular influencer who posts all about gardens — beautiful gardens of the world and so on. They worked with her relevant to the beautiful gardens and outdoors areas in Switzerland and it worked as treat, because her followers strongly engage with her specific, dedicated content.
Opinionated > beautiful
KOLs are masters of the visual, able to create iconic, culture-shaping imagery while making it simply seem like an effortless pose. However consumers – especially in the luxury world – are seeking substance over style, favouring a return to the ‘good old’ blogger.
The expertise and passion of top-quality bloggers shows that they genuinely know what they are talking about. They constantly review products, in detail, and build trust with their followers. While linking to sales may be a tactic for certain occasions, a blogger reviewing a product for the purpose of review and not pushing it for commercial gain can create firmer relationships with the consumer – if the review is truly useful.