Influencer marketing in China 

Xixi You

APAC Strategy Director

24th May 2023

~ 6 min read


In recent years, influencers, also known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in China, have evolved from being supporting roles to leading characters in the marketing ecosystem. 

Partnering with individuals who have a significant following on social media - an approach referred to as influencer marketing - has proven to be an effective way for businesses to build brand awareness, connect with audiences, increase sales, and cultivate customer loyalty in China's dynamic and competitive market. 

However, due to its unique marketing landscape and practices, influencer marketing in China differs from other countries. To help businesses drive sales through influencers in China, we've prepared some tips to help harvest the low-hanging fruit from this field.

Real people, real influence

In addition to the dominance of social media, influencer marketing is succeeding globally due to the fact that consumers often place greater trust in individuals than they do brands or advertising. As a result, influencer marketing allows brands to connect to a wider pool of consumers with trust and authenticity. Real people bring real influence that many well-trodden marketing tactics cannot compete with or replace.

Chinese consumers' trust levels in businesses, especially for e-commerce transactions, is still very low. According to a survey conducted in 2019, even the best-rated e-commerce platform scored just 39/100 on ‘trust in product authenticity’. Chinese consumers usually require eight touchpoints before they make a purchase decision – compared with just four for Western shoppers. 

Throughout the long purchase journey, Chinese consumers often turn to influencers to help cut through the clutter and make better purchase decisions. 

With China becoming the most penetrated e-commerce market worldwide, the impact of influencers on consumer behaviour has been amplified even greater. In 2021, China contributed to more than half of the world’s e-commerce retail sales. Given the tough competitive environment, brands are even more eager to build their online credibility and influencers seem to fill in this demand perfectly. 

Dual demands from brands and consumers have boosted the market value of the entire influencer economy, which is estimated to hit almost seven trillion yuan by 2024 in China. In a survey of Chinese consumers in 2022, 67% of respondents purchased endorsed products that were recommended by influencers they followed. This recommendation-based marketing strategy is described as “Zhongcao” (Planting Grass) in Chinese - and it’s booming alongside influencer marketing.

How is it working in China?

To begin with, the field was dominated by top-tier influencers or celebrities with large followings. But recent trends show the rise of micro or nano influencers to meet more nuanced needs. In general, we can now divide Chinese influencers into the following three genres. 

(Data from iResearch, graph by Cinda)

KOLs are the typical influencer we usually refer to. They enjoy a high social following and translate their impact on consumers into commercial partnerships with brands. Some top influencers (usually over one million followers) are as impactful, if not more so, than celebrities and brand partnership fees can reach high numbers too. They usually have an established professional team of photographers, stylists and makeup artists to curate high-quality content on demand. However, for that very reason, their polished posts may be seen as more staged and less personal in the eyes of consumers.

In contrast, KOCs represent the influencers on the other side of the spectrum. They are often the common social media users who actively share their shopping experiences and lifestyle to earn a certain following (about 10k - 50k). As they charge much less or even only take free gifting as pay, brands can collaborate with a high number of KOCs from different categories for a single campaign to create a wide social buzz. Also, because they may not take payment from brands directly, their opinions appear more genuine and trustworthy to consumers.

The rise of livestreaming commerce in China in the past few years has given way to a new type of influencer - the KOS - who have enjoyed exponential popularity. KOS are either a professional livestreaming seller or frontline retail shopping assistant working for certain brands. The ‘Lipstick King’ Austin Li is a good example of KOS and their sales miracles. As the name implies, they mainly focus on livestreaming sale shows where they provide a detailed product introduction or ever-bigger discounts to incentivise quick purchases from the audience.

When planning a typical influencer marketing campaign in China, brands often involve different types of influencers at different stages to serve multiple objectives. Influencer marketing can also integrate with other marketing tactics, such as digital biddable and even offline events, to maximise the outcome. If you’re unfamiliar with the landscape, working with a professional agency can be a shortcut to help you map out the most suitable influencers quickly and orchestrate the campaign to align with your business strategy.

A few things to consider…

Despite the many benefits that influencer marketing brings, there are a few challenges that brands should be aware of, one of these being fake data. According to research conducted by Statista in 2021, approximately 45% of KOLs’ followers are fake across major social media platforms in China. On top of fake followings, invalid engagement and fraudulent sales are also other common issues. It’s no secret that influencers can engineer their performance through fake data buying - the real audience reach can be much smaller than the metrics suggest.

The existence of Multi-Channel Networks (MCN) further complicates the landscape and exacerbates the lack of data transparency. The majority of influencers in China have contracts with MCN agencies which help manage their commercial deals or support content production. In return, MCN agencies take a slice of influencers’ commercial income as commission. Due to this business logic, MCN agencies have a strong motive to inflate performance metrics and deliver beautified results. Therefore, if brands decide to approach influencer marketing with an MCN agency, a solid due diligence check of your partner is highly recommended.

In extreme cases, the influencer and celebrities themselves can backfire due to scandals or illegal acts. For example in 2021, three top livestreamers — Cherie, Lin Shanshan, and Viya — were all banned overnight due to high tax evasion and dodging. No matter how carefully brands select influencers, it cannot entirely remove the risk of human error, posing unpredictable threats to brand reputation.

Is virtual the future?

The boom of virtual influencers may be a potential solution for those challenges and have become an alternative choice for brands. The revenue of virtual influencers and relevant services are expected to reach about 175 billion yuan in China alone. Thanks to the hype of the metaverse and Web3, brands are receptive to tapping into this AI-generated metahuman trend.

Ayayi — hailed as China’s most popular digital idol, has collaborated with Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, and Ferragamo since her debut in 2021. Ayayi is the masterpiece of Renmai Technology and Alibaba, the latter manages Ayayi’s brand partnerships through its digital marketing branch Alimama. The success galvanised the manufacturing of more metahumans — Noah, another male metahuman developed by Renmai Technology based on a consumer survey via Weibo launched in May 2022 on Alibaba. Both have been leveraged as brand ambassadors to attract China’s digitally-native consumers in 2022’s Double 11 Shopping Festival.

Ayayi and Noah - marketing partners with Chinese consumer electronics company Haier in 11.11.  Photo credit: Alibaba Group

While the virtual influencer industry is still in its infancy, it has undoubtedly disrupted the traditional influencer marketing landscape. Virtual influencers offer brands a cheaper and more controllable alternative to traditional influencers. However, the question remains whether they can deliver the same level of meaningful engagement and brand storytelling that traditional influencers have been able to achieve. 

Only time will tell if virtual influencers will continue to gain popularity and if they can bring about fundamental transformations in the influencer marketing industry. One thing is for certain - as technology advances and consumer behaviours evolve, the future of influencer marketing will continue to be shaped by innovation and change.

If you have any questions on the topics mentioned or need help with your APAC marketing strategy, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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