By Domenica Di Lieto, CEO of Emerging Communications
China is a different place when it comes to marketing. Western brands mostly prefer to think of difference in terms of communications channel. Not Facebook, but Weibo, not Twitter, but WeChat. Success is in fact, mostly about deep understanding of the country’s extremely commercially savvy consumers.
But unlike elsewhere, marketers in China often enrol customers to do significant work for them, and with remarkable results. These willing unpaid collaborators are influencers called Key Opinion Consumers – KOCs.
For the marketer new to China, influencer marketing will inevitably be on the communications menu. Influencers, known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), are a primary brand messaging conduit that several years ago matured to a level significantly more important and complex than seen elsewhere.
There are a variety of KOL classifications. They are respected and knowledgeable social media authority figures that mostly specialise in particular consumer sectors.
Celebrity / Super KOLs have very large followings over which they have major influence; Product Seeders and WeMedia operate in a similar way to each other in that they produce content based on long term decision making subjects such as finance or property buying; Niche KOLs and Content Creators are micro influencers that have carved out small but devoted follower bases; Advocates / Superfans exist in large numbers in China, and religiously chart the progress of their idols, or other subjects of their obsession, including the smallest reference to brand use.
In terms of follower numbers only, KOCs are last on the list. Though they may be considered pawns in terms of individual numerical reach, their highly granular connections with buyers can be very effective in transforming the fortunes of brands. The successful use of KOCs is something Western marketers can usefully learn from, but it needs to be put into context.
In China, social media recommendation is directly responsible for more than 50 per cent of buying decisions for mid-priced and premium products. Peer to peer recommendation is the most effective type. But KOLs are not far behind, and they have the huge advantage of being able to connect with big audiences. So significant are they in Chinese society that the most popular career ambition of 16 to 18 year olds is to become a KOL.
KOLs can be used by brands as curators, communicators and amplifiers of marketing content, and even act as consultants or partners in helping brands to capture consumers’ hearts, and their wallets. Ultimately, they are a great way to introduce wider audiences to brands, convince perspective buyers, and in doing so generate impressive and timely follower growth, brand connection and sales conversion.
But to promote brand benefits KOLs have to be paid, and followers know it. These influencers do not generally push commercial messages too hard. Most know not to compromise their position, and smart marketers are highly nuanced in the messages they convey through KOLs. Nevertheless, consumers know exactly what the process is. They largely accept it because influencers are trusted to filter commercial content, but a paid for process lacks the resonance for example, of peer recommendation.
The result is that brands are turning increasingly to KOCs, but there are benefits other than authenticity.
KOCs are genuine customers that have purchased a brand, and shared their positive experience and knowledge on social media. They may have followings of only a few hundred, but their connections are based on specific interest tags in the social communities in which they reside. What they say sticks to a high degree, and generates real traction. This is particularly useful with the enormously important and high spending millennial and Gen Z demographics that are exceptionally discriminating in both who they listen to, and what they buy.
You do not pay KOCs to post messages. They are motivated to convey them from being treated as a VIP, given exclusive insights, and providing them with special offers. Treating them well and helping to elevate their status builds a relationship, and persuades them to post required messages to followers.
In this scenario there is no substitute for dedicated partnership building. KOCs have to be nurtured by giving them attention. Individual dialogue is necessary to build understanding that works for both parties.
The benefit of KOC marketing is that although posts are pitched at relatively small numbers, the response levels are very high in terms of sales, and in creating brand social media followings. Just as important, it is very effective at initiating a chain of peer recommendation – the most powerful sales driver you can have in China.
Content provided to KOCs is important. It might be shopping guides, or recommendation incorporating KOC’s own experience and opinion, or polls and competitions to encourage positive feedback. It is helpful to think of this almost as one-to-one marketing. You talk at micro level, and consequently content needs to be highly tuned.
KOC marketing is mainstream in China. It works across a broad range of consumer markets because it is authentic, and it reliably connects with audiences. The same principles can be applied to Western markets. Mass market talking at consumers is losing value, and getting customers to do the talking for the brand is an increasingly valuable alternative.
China is a great learning environment for all marketers, whether in B2C or B2B, even if there is no intention to ever sell there. It has several years lead in terms of communications practice and use of CX technology to showcase what the future of marketing looks like.