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Celebrities, influencers or key opinion leaders – call them whatever you will – are hugely influential in China’s consumer market. Unlike in the cynical West, China’s consumers are much more likely to be influenced by personalities within their community of interest. So whether you’re engaging household name or well-known influencer to promote your fashion lines, or partnering with low-budget teenage vloggers to spread the word about your online game, influencer marketing should be part of your approach to the Chinese market.
With trust in brands and vendors at a low level, consumers perpetually seek validation from peers and authorities on what brands and sellers they can trust. It’s partly a symptom of China’s rapid wealth gains and associated advances in consumer ambitions. Inexperienced consumers and online shoppers are keen to make the right choices and social recommendations are a powerful influence on the choices they make.
In support of this effect, China’s online ecosystem is geared towards social interaction. Influencer marketing works well on a practical level because China’s digital landscape is highly integrated. With three main players controlling a lot of the online landscape, there’s often very good integration between platforms.
Social commerce is much more developed than in the West and there seems to be high consumer tolerance for being sold to on social media. This means there’s a good environment for influencer marketing to be effective.
There are other reasons why opinion leaders have such influence in China. Hofstede’s cultural analysis methods suggest that China is a high power distance culture, meaning people in that society tend to defer to figures of authority.
This doesn’t just affect formal relationships such as business or governance; people will also accept authorities in other areas of influence such as what to wear, how to behave and what to buy.
In a society that leans more towards collectivism than individualism, loyalty to the group and fitting in with other people in that group are important. Influencers are also important because they help give a collective identity and organise their followers.
That’s particularly important in a fast-moving society where consumer ambitions are evolving very rapidly. Society is moving quickly and influencers show their followers a path that makes sense in their fast-changing lives.
Opinion leaders thrive in particular on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app. It’s not easy for brands to gain visibility in this channel but celebrities and subject matter experts thrive here, creating content that users value and building relationships with their followers. Celebrities are also highly visible on Weibo.
Finding the right influencer
The known effectiveness of key opinion leaders in China means that the top influencers can command high prices for supporting a brand. You’re going to pay a lot of money to engage a ‘top tier’ celebrity actress or pop star. The amount you will pay will naturally also depend on the extent of their involvement with your brand, and the type and amount of content you need from them.
You can also get good results from partnering with less high-profile but more niche influencers. Look outside the film star realm and consider some of China’s highly popular social media personalities, online video comedians, bloggers and vloggers.
There are also experts in particular fields, such as sports. Getting to know the influencer landscape is an important part of any campaign approach as you will inevitably get better results from the right partnership for your brand. The most important thing to consider is how good a fit the influencer (and by extension, their audience) is for your brand.
A way to penetrate the market
Western brands trying to penetrate China’s challenging market often struggle to understand their new audience. It’s a totally new culture for many Western leadership teams to understand, and it’s easy to get things wrong.
The best case scenario is that marketing spend is wasted; worst case is making disastrous faux-pas and alienating the consumer on a permanent basis.
Influencer marketing can really help out with this cultural translation problem because it enables someone embedded in that society to write their own messages about your brand and your products. But influencer marketing is no substitute for getting to grips with the market and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for gaining real cultural understanding.
Your influencer marketing campaign is unlikely to be effective if conducted at arm’s length. Instead, brands should approach an influencer campaign as part of a wider strategy to understand the market they are penetrating using a guide to that particular community of interest.
If you’re trying to get a key opinion leader campaign off the ground, approach with caution. It’s common practice for influencers to inflate their influence, faking their follower numbers or acquiring fake follower bots. Be wary of anyone with hidden read and likes stats on WeChat.
The most important thing you need to understand is what kind of person will be influenced by your KOL of choice, as this indicates how effective their campaign for you is likely to be. Influencer marketing needs to be approached carefully but it can pay huge dividends if you get it right.