NEW YORK, United States — Engaging local influencers, or Key Opinion Leaders (“KOLs”), has long been a useful marketing tool for luxury brands active in the China market. With big-ticket purchases motivated largely by recommendations from friends, celebrities and popular bloggers, self-proclaimed influencers have turned sponsored Weibo posts, event appearances and paid photo shoots into full-time jobs. However, the sad fact for most brands is that most of these expensive influencers won’t move the needle in China, simply because they don’t have any real influence. Their popularity is an illusion, inflated by fake (or “zombie”) fans.
Boasting tens of thousands – sometimes millions – of Weibo fans, these individuals demand hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to promote products or brands on their personal Weibo accounts (fees that many brands continue to pay, effectively burning money at a time when each penny should be cleverly spent).
After all, the luxury market in mainland China is expected to show very weak growth this year; estimates range from 2 percent to 4 percent, a far cry from the double-digit growth seen just a few years ago. While sales remain strong among Chinese consumers – who, according to HSBC, now make between two thirds and three quarters of their luxury purchases abroad – brands need to do their homework if they expect China-based KOLs to help boost sales inside the country.
So how does a brand go about finding real influencers in China? First, start with the most obvious things:
1) Don’t trust any publicly viewable numbers. Most likely, they’ve been purchased, and mean nothing. Use them as a very loose guide, but nothing more.
2) Second, don’t trust any self-proclaimed influencer or KOL who A) actually calls him or herself an “influencer” or “KOL”; B) is only active on Weibo, and no other social platform; or C) uses Weibo follower count as evidence of his or her popularity when requesting payment.
3) Finally, take a quick glance at the individual’s Weibo account. Millions of fans, but only one or two retweets or comments per post? A clear red flag that this person is only influential to a legion of nonexistent fans.
If it’s not clear by now, Weibo follower count is largely meaningless. What matters is engagement and presence, which can be tricky to gauge, but can be done. Just take some time to consider the following when thinking of working with an influencer:
1) Triangulate. Now that you’ve disregarded anyone who only posts content on Weibo, look at his or her other social media accounts, blog, or personal website. Search his or her name on local search engines like Baidu or So.com. Investigate his or her online presence as a whole: when the influencer is mentioned by another Weibo account or in an article, are (real) people commenting? Are actual users, rather than zombie fans, retweeting? If not, pass. True Key Opinion Leaders have big digital footprints that should be easy to find.
2) Look at their previous work with other brands. Odds are that any easily findable “KOL” has done something with some brand in the past. How were engagement rates for those campaigns? Were they multi-platform or just on Weibo? Would you be happy with similar engagement rates if you were to pay that individual to promote your brand or products? Again, if not, pass.
3) Consider “micro-influencers” instead. China’s digital landscape is becoming fragmented at breakneck speed, and a multitude of social platforms are out there. “Mass” KOLs on popular platforms like Weibo or WeChat – who the audience knows are “pay to play” anyway – are less important to many Chinese consumers than niche influencers who focus on specific product categories.
Look into alternate platforms – such as BBSs – or mobile apps that specialise in your product or brand segment. Who is actively posting there and attracting the most comments and highest audience engagement? Odds are those “micro-influencers” will be interested in working with you, they’ll be less expensive to engage, and they’ll actually influence the right audience.
In China, it pays for brands to keep in mind that just because something or someone is popular – or appears to be popular – doesn’t mean it’s worth investing in. Rather, it’s best to consider brand identity, and then decide which platforms actually apply. A brand shooting for exclusivity and trying to build a devoted, elite audience might want to consider an opt-in, “closed” platform like WeChat. Going niche? Look into sites like PCLady, which specialise in specific topics and have been used to great success by beauty brands in particular.
Simply by doing a bit of research, rather than just looking at numbers and throwing money at the first English-speaking, seemingly popular bloggers they find, brands can discover “diamonds among the KOLs.” From there, it’s possible to build cost-effective, engaging and awareness-boosting relationships with people who truly can influence key consumer groups – and drive sales.
Avery Booker is a partner at China Luxury Advisors.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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