KOL marketing is hot in China, and it’s only getting hotter. Local consultancy Analysys International projected that the China influencer economy will be worth over $15.5 billion this year. From frequently talked-about Weibo and WeChat KOLs, to those on other smaller Chinese social media platforms such as Meipai, Xiaohongshu, and Douyin, KOLs have become a necessary part of a brand’s China marketing mix.
Yet, while KOLs are hands-down the best method out there for brands to succeed in China, Chinese social media platforms are not making it easy for brands to work with them. KOL marketing costs are a total enigma, platforms provide very little data, organic reach is declining, and now, on top of that, Chinese social media platforms are starting to monetise off of the success of KOL marketing by charging brands a fee to run a sponsored post with a KOL.
In the past, Chinese social media platforms had very few requirements when it came to sponsored content. Brands merely needed to connect with the KOL, or the KOL’s agent, to arrange the campaign and set pricing (a process which is confusing enough in and of itself). However, now platforms are inserting themselves in the middle of that process, creating their own KOL agency-type channels which brands and KOLs are required to navigate to publish sponsored content.
The two main platforms where this is taking place are Weibo and Meipai, and we will probably see more platforms follow suit.
These sponsored content rules and restrictions are relatively new and have come into effect gradually over the past six months. This has created a situation where many brands still don’t know about them and are running into issues with their campaigns. Sponsored content is now commonly taken down if it has not gone through official channels with the required fees.
So what exactly are the new rules?
Weibo and Weirenwu
Weirenwu (微任务) is Weibo’s official KOL marketing platform. KOLs and brands can access Weirenwu through its website or app which are separate from Weibo itself. When a KOL wants to post sponsored content, instead of posting the content directly on Weibo, they must log into Weirenwu and upload the content there and schedule the content to go out.
Before the branded content can be posted on Weibo, a Weirenwu employee must first examine and approve the content, and a fee must be paid to Weirenwu. Once that’s done, the Weirenwu system will send out the post on the KOL’s account at the scheduled time.
Although Weibo claims that Weirenwu will help bring more business to KOLs, similar to a KOL marketplace where brands can search for and hire KOLs, not many brands seem to be using it this way. Right now, Weirenwu is a one-way street — KOLs are bringing income to Weibo, but Weibo seems to be offering very little in return.
KOLs and brands are not using Weirenwu because they want to, but because they have to in order to prevent Weibo from throttling the reach of a post or possibly taking the post down entirely.
Weirenwu KOL Account
There are numerous downsides to the platform. KOLs have shared that they feel the process of uploading a post to Weirenwu is complicated and takes a lot of time. What’s more, Weirenwu compresses image size so that posts sent out through Weirenwu have poorer image quality than regular Weibo posts, which is extremely frustrating for KOLs who strive to produce high-quality content. Worst of all, Weirenwu charges an exorbitant fee, asking for 100% the price the brand is paying the KOL.
Of course, there are ways to get around paying 100%. KOLs can set their Weirenwu pricing below what they actually charge brands. However, this can create a catch-22 because if brands use Weirenwu to contact KOLs, the KOLs will often decline the proposal because of the artificially low pricing they set. Also, Weibo isn’t stupid — they will see through this tactic if the price listed is too much lower than the standard industry asking price. That means brands still need to pay a significant fee.
It doesn’t matter how big (or small) you are, the rules still apply. A couple months ago, one of China’s top KOLs and an international brand (both of which prefer to remain unnamed) where unaware of the new rules and Weibo’s increased enforcement and posted sponsored content without going through the Weirenwu system. The post was immediately taken down and Weibo refused to put it back up until the company paid the Weirenwu fee. Unfortunately, the brand revealed the true price they had paid the KOL and was required to pay that same amount (which was quite a lot considering the size of the KOL) to Weirenwu to get the post back up.
Meipai and Mplan
At their annual gathering on 31 May 2017, Meipai quietly announced their version of Weirenwu called Mplan (M计划). Similar to Weirenwu, brands and KOLs must register on the Mplan platform and have their content approved through the platform, as well as pay a fee, in order to have sponsored content go out.
Unlike Weibo, Meipai’s commission fee is a bit more reasonable, at about 20-30% of a KOL’s fee.
Since the plan was unveiled, Meipai has become increasingly strict about any content that their algorithm detects as sponsored. While content is taken down occasionally, the most common result is that the content’s organic reach will be severely throttled. The KOL will also receive a warning informing them that Meipai has detected sponsored content and reminding them to go through MPlan.
Pro skater and Meipai influencer 波比老师UK commonly gets 100,000+ views per video. But after posting a link to an e-commerce store in the description of one of his videos, the video was restricted to 100 views. He later received a platform message stating that he would need to have the link pre-approved by MPlan. After removing the link and reposting, the video views past 100K.
KOLs have reported that they can often get away with posting sponsored content without going through Mplan as long as they don’t include links in the post text.
Unfortunately, Meipai’s system is not perfect and it sometimes falsely tags content as sponsored and throttles its reach. This is very exasperating for KOLs who just want their content to be seen.
Although only Meipai and Weibo have instituted official regulations, it is likely other Chinese social media platforms will seek to monetize their KOLs as well. Although a relative newcomer to China’s social media scene, Muscial.ly copycat Douyin has already made sure they are heavily involved in their KOLs’ brand campaigns.
While brands can attempt grassroots campaigns on their own, it is hard for them to achieve any true virality on Douyin without working directly with the platform. Douyin has signed contracts with hundreds of the top KOLs on the platform, and these KOLs are restricted from accepting brand work that hasn’t gone through official channels.
Chinese Social Media Platforms Make KOL Marketing Harder
While this situation is less than ideal for both brands and KOLs, it is what it is. There are few alternatives and, even with the new changes, KOL marketing is still one of the most powerful forms of marketing in China today (which is why platforms are able to get away with these crazy fees).
In response, some KOLs are starting to focus more heavily on growing audiences on other Chinese social media platforms which have yet to monetise such as the video platform Bilibili. Others are just accepting the new policies and trying to adapt.
For brands, KOL campaigns on these platforms will cost more and there will be extra hurdles while running a campaign. While brands might need to tweak a couple of numbers to avoid outrageous fees, it’s still better to play by the rules than have a campaign ruined.
For a deeper dive into Weirenwu, you might like to listen to PARKLU’s CMO in this podcast interview – China Tech Talk 37: Weibo’s KOL woes with Elijah Whaley