Edward Bernays formalized the influencer marketing approach 100 years ago, although he wouldn’t call it that nor imagine today’s digital mediums. Since then, it has become a staple in marketing and advertising. However, modern-day influencer marketing on social media is still in its infancy. The typical approach is relatively unsophisticated, and the most cost-effective influencer marketing strategies lie where nobody is looking.
The typical approach is to use influencers like any disruptive advertising media buy campaign. These campaigns focus on impressions, engagement, or direct sales. They pay little attention to the peripheral tactics that make influencer marketing so potentially potent.
The most cost-effective influencer marketing strategies are NOT the ones everyone is using.
While few espouse influencer marketing more than I do, I openly recognize its limitations, risks, and the need for a more holistic approach. My time at PARKLU has only further impressed upon me that influencer marketing is not a silver bullet and must be combined with solid fundamentals.
Marketers should continuously seek advertising arbitrage. By this, I mean testing and experimenting, matching and mixing to beat average supply and demand advertising costs. In many cases, the cost-effective influencer marketing strategies are not the ones that focus on directly attributable sales campaigns.
New Market Entry Brands
For new market entry brands, I advise that influencer marketing be the last thing to consider. The main reason is that two other things have to come first: Trust and an established buyer’s journey.
Chinese society is fundamentally influenced by its high-context nature where personal relationships and reciprocity build trust. It’s this high-context culture that underpins China’s thriving influencer economy. Hacking trust is difficult. Unless a brand already has organic demand supplied by a healthy Daigou market, that brand’s first order of the day will be establishing trust with potential customers.
The average Chinese customer requires eight brand touch points before making a purchase decision. That is four more touch points than Western customers. This means that social proof from influencers is likely not going to be enough for a brand that’s new to China. Brands must consider all the potential touch points an interested customer might encounter when searching for further validation.
At a minimum, new market entry brands should have:
- A localized website
- A robust China-specific CRM
- Active accounts on key social networks
- E-commerce shops with positive ratings and reviews
- Search optimization for social media, e-commerce, and search engines
The one exception to my “influencer marketing comes last” rule is that more brands should be test-marketing with influencers before even dipping a toe into China. If there is not already a thriving Diagou market that validates demand, then a test campaign with influencers to gain their feedback and gauge followers interest will be cheaper than diving into the Chinese market blind. It typically costs much more than expected to sell in China successfully.
Integrated Product Marketing Strategy
Last year on China’s most popular e-commerce sales holiday, called Singles Day, six social media influencer brands were among the top-30 sellers, alongside major retailers like ZARA and Vero Moda. Four of these influencers hit more than 100 million RMB in sales on that day. How were they able to do this? They understood, and were intimately connected to, their customers.
There is absolutely no reason any brand selling in China should not have social influencers as an integral part of their product marketing. Most influencers have a keen hands-on understanding of their niche. Furthermore, their daily interactions with followers gives them real insights into how customers feel and what they are saying. Just like the market intelligence agencies that are now tapping influencers for market research purposes, brands should be doing the same.
Influencers can be a tremendous resource for testing and surveying. Also, influencers have super fans that can be accessed for a wide range of product development and testing purposes.
Understanding User Intentionality
Many brands fail to understand China’s social commerce and retailtainment ecosystems. Chinese internet tech companies have been blurring the lines between content and commerce for quite some time. Almost all social media platforms have native payments and commerce functionality, while nearly all e-commerce platforms support social interactions and content sharing. The key to success is understanding the user intentionality of each platform.
Even though Weibo has completely integrated Taobao commerce functionality, the conversion rate of users is quite low. This has to do with intentionality.
When a Chinese user gets on Weibo, their intention is to be entertained and informed, and while they might be exposed to products they are interested in buying, they are not in the buying mindset.
On the other hand, when users interact with Taobao’s natively integrated social content platform, Weitao, they are in buying mode and looking to transact. Content consumers on Weitao are further down the sales funnel, typically in the research or decision-making stage.
The point is, don’t try to sell on social media just because it’s possible. Understand user intentionality and strive to provide value to potential customers by matching their expectations with appropriate content.
Get Technical and Hack the System
Not optimizing influencer posts for social, e-commerce, and traditional internet search engines is a tremendous missed opportunity. Social networks are quickly evolving into the search engine 2.0. WeChat’s search engine is arguably more useful today than Baidu. Also, Xiaohongshu is now promoting itself as a social recommendation engine. It’s more important now than ever to know and use keyword optimization in every influencer campaign.
When anyone talks about how horrible the bot problem is on China’s social media platforms and how this possess risk for brands, I know he or she don’t understand what’s going on. Bots are used by influencers to break platform algorithms and play to human psychology. Social networks algorithms are designed to identify popular content. These algorithms can be manipulated with bots. At the same time, humans are drawn to content that is highly engaged by others. So, instead of fighting bots, employ them.
The number one most overlooked influencer marketing tactic today is replying to comments. This is part of the manual hard work that is required by marketers to achieve cost-effective influencer marketing results. Just look at influencers, they are where they are because they were real, accessible, and interactive. It blows my mind how few brands have an individual on staff to interact with potential customers across social media. This is exactly the time to humanize brands and provide value first, instead of always asking people to buy.