You can’t deny Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing in China is red hot. For any brand hoping to succeed in China, KOLs are hands-down the best method out there. Yet many brands don’t work with them because Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs are a total enigma.
Brands can’t make heads or tails of the potential costs.
I personally think China holds the world title for Most Confusing Social Media Ecosystem.
WeChat is essentially a black box with the social data of China’s entire population inside. It all goes in, but very little useful data for marketers comes back out. Weibo, while more open, is a mess and hard to trust. On top of all that, the KOL marketing ecosystem is not standardised and there is little public data on costs.
That’s why I poured over three months of aggregated KOL data from more than 1,100 Weibo and WeChat KOL accounts and compared it to the average price they charge for a brand-sponsored post.
I want to expose the truth about Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs and see how they stack up to alternatives like pure ad spend on Weibo and WeChat. My goal is to help you make better marketing decisions and to have clearer expectations when working with KOLs.
*Note: This article will note address ROI. ROI research results are forthcoming.
So, what are Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs in China?
Let’s start by looking at how much brands are paying WeChat and Weibo to promote their self-made marketing messages.
1) Understand the Cost of Pure WeChat Advertising
There are 2 main options for paid WeChat advertising:
- Moments Advertising
- Banner Advertising
Moments advertising has a couple minimum thresholds just to get in the door. China-based companies have a minimum ad spend of about ¥50,000 RMB and companies based abroad can start at around ¥10,000 RMB.
WeChat Moment Advertising CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions):
*Core City = 1st tier city, large city = 2nd tier city, Others = 3rd, 4th and other smaller cities
WeChat Banner Advertising CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions):
*Note that the pricing for banner ads are only for accounts with 500k followers or less. These accounts have set prices and marketers can use WeChat’s ad-buying system to buy banners that target these specific accounts. If an account is larger than that, it is considered by WeChat to be a KOL account, to buy banner ads on these accounts, marketers must directly contact WeChat and the pricing will be set by the KOL account.
There’s not much arguing that advertising on WeChat Moments is the best form of pure digital advertising that China has to offer most brand marketers. As a start, it has a respectable range of targeting perimeters (but nowhere near the sophistication of Facebook advertising) and some vital spread mechanisms.
WeChat banner ads, on the other hand, are a mix of poor targeting choices and notoriously low impact on mobile device users, banner ads are likely as effectual as any programmatic mobile banner buying solution.
2) Understand the Cost of Pure Weibo Advertising
Weibo advertising is every KOL’s frienemy (it has become extremely expensive to operate a KOL account on Weibo), and an ad agency’s go-to when clients expect big numbers.
Weibo is the best and worst that China’s social media marketing has to offer. With instant-play video, live streaming, click-to-buy e-commerce, and Weibo Stories (similar to Instagram Stories), Weibo is perfect for content creators and brand marketers alike that wish to reach audiences on an open platform.
However, it also has a dark side. Weibo plagued with fake accounts (known as zombie accounts) that are controlled by hackers selling followers, likes, comments, and reposts on Taobao. Because of this, it can be seriously tough to tell if a post has truly gone viral or is merely a mass of cash-eating zombies.
With that said, Weibo does provide some fairly advanced ad targeting for both bloggers and agencies.
Weibo Promotion CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions):
*Target Owed Followers = Post promotion to account followers’ homepage. *Target Interest Demographics = Post promotion to the homepage of accounts with specific interests. *Target Other Account Followers = Post promotion to specific account followers’ homepage.
3) Set Expectations and Understand Limits
With the basic costs of pure WeChat and Weibo advertising in mind, it’s almost time to delve into Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs.
But first, I want to outline some of the limitations presented by these platforms that either a. make it difficult for a KOL’s content to be seen and shared, and b. prevent non-account holders from knowing the true impact of a KOL’s posts.
a. There are a few platform-specific disadvantages to KOL marketing.
For instance, on WeChat it takes five clicks to be able to watch a video distributed through a KOL’s subscription account
#1. Open WeChat
#2. Find and then open the blue subscription folder
#3. Find and then open KOL’s subscription account
#4. Find and then open the desired post
#5. Read content and press to play a video
This process is daunting for followers and subject to drop-off rates at each stage. This is why most KOL’s WeChat subscription accounts have about a 5% to 10% read rate compared to their total follower count.
Weibo has its own set of content viewing limitation issues. Unbeknownst to the majority of marketers that I have spoken too, Weibo’s algorithm restricts organic reach similarly to Facebook and Instagram. Currently, only about 10% of a Weibo KOL’s total followers will organically see a new post in their Home Feed. The other 90% of followers will need to access the KOL’s account to see a new post, or the KOL will have to pay Weibo for distribution (this is one reason why operating a Weibo KOL account is so expensive).
Bonus: Tactics to get the most out of your Weibo KOL Campaign
If you can make a post go “viral”(e.g. liked, commented, or reposted a lot) Weibo’s algorithm will trigger it to organically share the content with more followers.
There are some tactics brands can employ on Weibo to squeeze the most value out of a KOL marketing campaign and artificially make a post go “viral” –
#1. Pay for post promotion via the KOLs account because there is reduced CPM rate of 10rmb per 1,000 impressions.
#2. Have the KOL agree to stick your promoted content to the top of their mainstream. If the KOL pays to be a VIP, which they most likely do, they can select a single post to be stuck to the top of their account for however long they want no matter what else they post.
#3. Pay for fake likes, comments, and reposts. This has a three-pronged benefit. Firstly: The fakes trick Weibo’s algorithm into believing that the post has gone viral and will, therefore, be spread to more followers organically. Secondly: When someone sees a post with a lot of engagement it’s more likely to be paid attention to. Thirdly: The five most engaged posts will be featured in the KOL’s Profile Page and will remain there until there are five posts with more engagement.
Fake engagement costs 1rmb per 50 comments, likes, or reposts. There are better quality sellers on Taobao, so do your research.
If you are concerned about buying your own fake engagement, don’t be. This is a very common practice in the KOL world. So, instead of wrestling to figure out what’s fake, you can judo flip the zombies to work for you. When it comes to tracking, simply subtract the fake engagement you bought. Neither accounts nor posts get flagged for buying fake engagement.
From personal experience, posts with fake engagement will boost organic spread to reach 25% to 40% of the KOL’s total followers.
*These tactics are based on the author’s personal experience and are not necessarily endorsed by PARKLU
b. Some limitations that prevent us from knowing true CPM
Only so much data can be scraped from a KOL’s account.
On WeChat, only views up-to one hundred thousand, the number of likes, and the comments can be retrieved. All other forms of engagement, including total follower count, are not calculable or viewable by anyone but the account holder.
With Weibo it’s equally tricky because only total followers, comments, and likes can be scraped. For Weibo the only fair, but not at all accurate, way to calculate post reach (without getting the information from the KOLs themselves) is to take the number of followers and reduce it by 90% (since organic reach is only 10%). Therefore, when I was calculating average costs, I had to assume that if a Weibo KOL has a million followers, a single post received one hundred thousand impressions due to the inability to see the data.
When it comes to engagement rates there are again some severe limitations that we have to factor in. With the data that I’m analyzing I could only assess likes and comments for WeChat. With Weibo, I only had access to likes, comments, and reposts. Also, I am again factoring in that only 10% of a KOL’s Weibo account followers saw any given post, otherwise the engagement rates would look dismal with the overall average of engagement rate being 0.13%.
The Truth of Weibo & WeChat KOL Marketing Costs
The following costs skew towards higher cost rates due to lack of data transparency. Again, these are worst-case scenario costs, actual CPMs might not be as high.
The following data was pulled from 1,100 WeChat and Weibo KOLs on the PARKLU platform and is aggregated averages. Pricing was a mix of KOL campaigns, KOL campaign bids, and KOL set pricing. All Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs data and pricing was broken down by account size or impressions. Though it is impossible to totally eliminate fraud, all suspicious data and accounts were excluded.
Weibo & WeChat KOL Marketing Costs
Average engagement rates for KOLs: WeChat & Weibo
Weibo & WeChat Ad Costs vs Weibo & WeChat KOL Marketing Costs
Looking solely at the numbers, pure advertising is WAY cheaper. But this is far from the whole story of Weibo and WeChat KOL marketing costs when we consider the absolute value.
Added Benefits of Collaborating with a KOL
Original, High-Quality Content
When you work with a KOL, you are paying for content creation too, not just exposure. Let’s say you don’t work with a KOL and just buy ad impressions. Well, where is that ad content going to come from? You would have to hire someone to create the content. Comparing the CPM of pure ad distribution to the CPM of a KOL’s distribution isn’t fair because the latter includes the cost of content creation.
Furthermore, many brands are missing out on one added bonus of KOL marketing. Namely, they can repurpose KOL content on other brand channels. If you are paying the KOL to create excellent content that resonates with your target customer, you should distribute it in more places than the KOL’s own account.
Paying for Attention vs. Disruptive Marketing
It’s difficult to compare the value of a view, click, or comment on a KOL’s content with pure advertising because viewer attitudes and motivations are completely different with each medium.
When fans see native promotion embedded in KOL content, they don’t have the same emotional response as when a random ad blocks them from seeing what they really want.
Pure advertising is a form of disruptive marketing because people visit social media to engage with friends, family, and KOLs. Ads stand in their way. When thought about like this, the impression value of a pure ad is much less than the impression value of a KOL’s post.
An Engaging, Trusting Relationship With Their Audience
Even though brands launch and maintain their own blogs, video channels, and podcasts, those company accounts will always lack a personal human element. KOLs grow trust and loyal followings through the personal relationships they develop with their fans. Besides creating amazing content, the best KOLs regularly spend time connecting with followers, answering questions, chatting with them live, and even going out to eat with fans or sending top fans gifts on their birthday.
It’s unsurprising the quality of engagement with a KOL post is much different than that of an ad. An ad in WeChat Moment has, well, a few moments to convey a brand’s message. Engagement with a KOL article, on the other hand, requires a high level of intentionality — the act of accessing the content is itself a four-step process.
And moving on to Weibo, this platform demands an even higher level of engagement from brands. As I learned while working at China ad agency, one-off posts from companies will have even less of an effect than a WeChat Moment ad, garnering about the equivalent attention of banners. To be successful on Weibo and match the influence of KOLs, brands must contribute constantly and provide a high-level of fan engagement. They should eventually develop the same approach KOLs take.
But even then, a brand will never be a person.
KOLs are Social Media Marketing Experts
It’s ironic that companies are willing to pay consultants and agencies hundreds of dollars an hour for their expertise, but are hesitant to pay KOLs. KOLs are experts too. They understand Chinese social media platforms and their audience, and they know what type of content and distribution methods will achieve the best results.
The problem is this:
Too many brands do not trust KOLs and micromanage them, thereby losing out on the opportunity to utilize the KOLs’ expertise.
If you want to achieve the best results from a KOL campaign, treat the KOL like a consultant instead of telling them what to do. Ask them their opinions and recommendations. Give them the freedom to do what they think is best for your brand.
You’re Not Just Paying for a Post
When you work with a KOL, you’re not just paying for one post — you’re paying for years of blood, sweat, and tears. Many KOLs worked their asses off for years with no pay to build their audience and perfect their content. When they do finally start earning money, you’re paying for all their experience and all the work they’ve put in. Top KOLs are successful because their brand is their life and they are extremely dedicated to it.
Trickle-down KOL Economics
Sometimes the cost of working with a large KOL can seem prohibitive. However, if done correctly, a campaign with a top KOL will spark a chain reaction. Many smaller KOLs will start creating content based on the trend your initial campaign started.
They’ll end up promoting your brand or product without compensation because they want to be on-trend. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Although it’s hard to measure, it happens frequently.
Lower Barrier to Entry
While the CPM of a KOL’s post might be higher, the barrier to entry is lower than pure advertising.
As an example, let’s compare a WeChat Moments ad with a native content ad in a KOL’s article. If you’re a China-based company, a Moments ad is a 50,000RMB commitment and 10,000RMB for a foreign company. KOL campaign costs are simply more accessible, especially for SMEs.
My Final Thoughts on Weibo and WeChat KOL Marketing Costs
Comparing the cost of ads to content created and distributed by KOLs is really apples and oranges. What a brand receives from working with a KOL is more than bought impressions.
Brands pay for relationships and a reputation that KOLs have painstakingly built and a vast amount of knowledge and expertise the KOLs have accumulated while growing their brand.
And most importantly, you are paying for real attention, not impressions.
Traditional ads disrupt content, they block social media consumers from consuming the content they really want. KOLs create the content people want to consume. And your best hope, if you don’t work with a KOL, is to block their content with your banner, 30-second video, or post.
Researched & Written by Elijah Whaley
Want to learn more about Weibo and WeChat KOL Marketing Costs?
Listen to Elijah’s interview on China Digital Marketing Podcast – What is the Real Cost of Influencer Marketing in China?