With 2019 rapidly drawing to a close, brands and marketers should be looking ahead to 2020 and formulating plans for getting ahead of the curve. Here are ten KOL marketing trends we’re keeping tabs on in China for the coming year.
1. Influencer marketing will be more popular—and more effective
KOLs aren’t going anywhere in the coming year. The principles at the cornerstone of effective relationships with Chinese consumers—authenticity, integrity, trust, adding value—will remain the same in 2020. Perhaps these attributes will become even more relevant: China’s Gen Zs are coming of age and the signs are that they prize authenticity at least as much as their elders. They also tend to look to people they have an affinity with, rather than a brand, to deliver authentic content. That means we can expect influencers, from celebrities to micro-KOLs, to remain vital conduits for brand and product messaging in China. Of course, what is changing is the way influencer marketing is done. One of the big trends for 2020 will be the dovetailing of live-streaming and e-commerce. Look at the recent rollout of Taobao integration for Weibo’s live-streaming platform, Yizhibo, and WeChat and Alibaba’s investments in Bilibili as the shape of things to come. It’s also increasingly common to see KOLs going it alone and running their own e-commerce stores away from the major platforms. When Ruhnn filed for its IPO ahead of its Nasdaq debut in March 2019, the KOL incubator claimed to have over 130 influencers on its books, who ran a combined 91 e-commerce platforms. Although multiple lawsuits have since alleged that the agency failed to disclose a marked decline in both of these figures by the time of the IPO, the suggestion holds that there is a general trend away from the former reliance on China’s major e-commerce platforms.
2. Micro-KOLs are on the rise
While it’s always tempting to court the KOLs with the biggest followings for collaborations and endorsements, 2020 will see more brands recognizing the value of micro-KOLs. These lower-tier influencers have smaller followings, but hold two appealing advantages to brands. Micro-KOLs are more able to respond to messages from followers and as a result, they can communicate greater authenticity and seem more “real.” The end result is a closer bond with followers, who are in turn more likely to trust and act on the KOL’s recommendations and endorsements. Additionally, micro-influencers tend to be followed by fewer fake accounts than the more prominent KOLs. Brands will allocate less cash budget for collaborations with micro-KOLs, instead of exploring more creative and low-cost ways to engage these influencers. One strategy brands are pursuing is to cultivate followership among smaller KOLs, insider groups who they hope can become advocates for the brand through the inevitable ups and downs—think of Apple fanboys or the kind of loyalty brands like Nike have inspired.
3. Influencer brands will win big
The trend pioneered by the likes of Zhang Dayi and Becky Li is becoming the norm as increasing numbers of KOLs launch their own brands. Easy access to manufacturing hubs gives Chinese KOLs a low barrier to entry, and creating your own product is the logical extension of a personal brand founded on perceived authenticity and integrity. Fans have enthusiastically supported KOLs who they believe in. Beauty influencer Benny, also known as Dong Zichu, made a huge splash with his male beauty brand Croxx during last year’s Singles’ Day sales, so look out for KOL-owned success stories from Singles’ Day 2019 as ones to watch for next year.
4. Private traffic: From KOLs to KOCs
Key Opinion Customers (KOCs) are an emerging focus of marketers’ strategies. Think of your KOCs as evangelists for your brand. They already buy your product, and better still, they tell your friends and family that they should too. One thing you can be sure of is that the idea of “private traffic” will be everywhere in 2020. Private traffic refers to acquiring sales via channels and consumers that are otherwise closed to the brand, but for the assistance of KOCs. A WeChat group, for example, is a kind of private traffic. So increasingly, companies like beauty brand Perfect Diary are creating WeChat groups of KOCs to share brand news, then watching as these superfans disseminate news and promotions through their own private channels.
5. Experiential marketing is the next big thing
One of the KOL marketing trends in China marketers can’t miss is experiential marketing. As brands look more to KOCs to champion their products, the question of customer retention takes on huge importance. Brands spend so much money to acquire each of these individual customers—the next challenge is retaining them as loyal supporters for the long-term. One solution we’re going to see a lot more of is brands creating unique, often personalized encounters giving fans a distinct sense of what the brand stands for. These experiences might be impressive to newcomers to the brand, but more importantly, the intention is to leave existing fans with an indelible impression that will secure their continued loyalty. Hermes demonstrated how this is done with a pop-up record store the brand hosted in Beijing’s Sanlitun shopping district in late 2018. The experience combined online and offline elements. Registration was conducted through a WeChat mini-program that gave fans the chance to create mixes of different styles of music, providing an early taste of the musical theme. At the pop-up itself, customers could listen to records featuring music from the label’s fashion shows, while the album sleeves featured designs from the brand’s scarves. A photo booth rounded out the experience, giving fans the chance to take home a selfie printed on a vinyl record. Done right, creative experiential marketing initiatives will help brands to foster enduring KOC communities that will turbocharge their private traffic sales.
6. Video content will grow in importance
Social media in China right now is all about video, but what that means is constantly evolving. Platforms will continue to tweak formats and roll out new features. Creators, including KOLs, will experiment with different styles of content across platforms like Xiaohongshu, Bilibili, and Kuaishou, as well as “traditional” platforms like Weibo and WeChat. Users’ consumption habits will change accordingly. Douyin’s trial of in-video search has the potential to be revolutionary, bringing product placement to the fore and creating new opportunities for cross-category collaboration between brands and KOLs.
7. Brands will be more choosy with their KOLs
We’re seeing brands take a more discerning approach to choose KOLs to partner with. By this stage, many brands have their horror stories of being burned by painful experiences with KOL divas, or by paying extortionate agency fees for campaigns that brought questionable value for the brand. Brands are getting savvy both to what tangible results they want from cooperations and how to screen potential KOL partners for success. This could take the form of vetting a KOL’s post history for evidence of unreliability or a propensity for engaging in flame wars. Some brands have created metrics and algorithms for evaluating KOLs, such as the beauty brand Hedone’s content engagement score.
8. Live-streaming will still be popular
Live-streaming is one of the KOL marketing trends. E-commerce live streaming has blown up in 2019 and proved highly rewarding for its leading exponents, so we’re anticipating more KOLs to be pivoting to e-commerce live streaming in 2020. The race is on to be the next Viya, the live streamer who just last month broke her own one-day sales record with a bumper RMB 353 million haul. Live streaming has also become a key feature of Alibaba’s showpiece Singles’ Day sales. This year’s edition of the November 11 event is expected to feature around 2,000 KOLs showcasing products via live streams with e-commerce integration. The event will kick off on November 10 with Alibaba’s “See Now, Buy Now Show”—a live-streamed runway show giving viewers the opportunity to immediately purchase anything they like the look of. Even Fan Bingbing, whose bid to resume her acting career has encountered roadblocks, has turned to live-streaming, recently auctioning RMB 10 million worth of her Fan Beauty line of face masks in only four minutes. Put simply, if young Chinese consumers prize authenticity and the sense of a real connection with the influencers they trust, live streaming is the ideal format for generating that bond.
9. KOLs will play a greater role in R&D and product marketing development programs
If you’re going to lean on KOL endorsements to help you sell your products in China—and let’s face it, you don’t really have a choice—then it helps if the KOLs like your products. So why not loop the KOLs into your product development process? If your brand has already enjoyed a rewarding relationship with a particular KOL, consider extending the partnership to tap into the influencer’s creative input. Some of the most successful examples of this to date have seen Becky Li team up with accessory brand Rebecca Minkoff and Mr. Bags work with Givenchy on a special edition handbag. In both cases, the combination of exclusivity, the KOL’s personal touch, expert and localized input on design elements, and their tight bond with their followers resulted in the products selling out almost immediately.
10. Brands are turning to third-party KOL experts for help
With plenty already on their plates, branding and marketing departments may not have the resources or experience to navigate the pitfall-laden world of KOL marketing. That’s why we’re seeing more and more brands turning to third-party experts like PARKLU for assistance at every step, from advising on choosing KOL partners and campaign strategies to measuring results. Third-party agencies who specialize in KOL marketing know the landscape and personalities who populate it. We’ve been around the block and can spot value from a scam, so consider working with an agency like PARKLU if your brand could use a steady hand when approaching influencer marketing.