The Phenomenon of Chinese Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs): A New Force in E-commerce?

Jie Zhou

Jie Zhou
Published 19/06/2024 · 6 min read

China has one of the most developed social media ecosystems. It is the world's largest social media market, with an immense online population and an incredibly rich and diverse online landscape. Hundreds of millions of users are actively engaged on social media, e-commerce, and content-sharing platforms. This vast user base provides fertile ground for the rise of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).

In recent years, KOLs have played a unique role in China’s digital ecosystem, becoming a significant force in influencing consumer purchasing decisions. While influencer marketing is already gaining momentum in the West, in China, this phenomenon has grown to another level.

E-commerce platforms have transformed into social commerce platforms in China, evolving beyond traditional online shopping experiences to incorporate social elements. This has given birth to the "social commerce" concept, where social interactions, content sharing, and community engagement are integrated into e-commerce.

For example, Chinese platforms like WeChat and Douyin (TikTok's Chinese version) seamlessly integrate social features with shopping functionalities. This allows users to browse, review, and purchase products without leaving the app, creating a smooth and engaging shopping experience. In addition, mobile payments are highly adopted in China; mobile payment systems such as WeChat Pay and Alipay have facilitated easy and secure transactions directly within social media apps, reducing friction and encouraging purchases.

What is a KOL, and the difference between influencers and KOLs:

KOL is an acronym for Key Opinion Leader. It is an individual who has established themselves as an expert or authority on a particular topic or industry. They are often opinion leaders, spokespersons, brand ambassadors, or thought leaders. KOLs often start in traditional media, and their influence is usually tied to their professional reputation or deep knowledge in a particular domain. They're generally regarded as trustworthy and authentic, and their authenticity enables them to influence the opinions and preferences of their audiences. For instance, Mr. Bags (Tao Liang) is a leading fashion influencer specialising in luxury handbags. Mr. Bags has a significant presence on Weibo and WeChat. His deep knowledge of the luxury market and honest reviews have garnered a dedicated following. Collaborations with brands like Chanel and Gucci showcase his substantial influence in the luxury sector.

Influencers, on the other hand, are individuals who have built a substantial following on social media platforms. They use their platform to share content, opinions, and recommendations on various topics, thus impacting their followers' decisions and purchasing behaviours.

There’s an overlap between influencers and KOLs; some KOLs are influencers, and some influencers are KOLs. However, one of the main differences between them is that KOLs possess in-depth knowledge, experience, and credibility. They usually have a more niche audience and thus have more targeted and engaged followers within the specific niche or industry.

Meanwhile, KOLs don’t make a living by influencing; they are not required to operate any social account. They might gain audiences through successful businesses, professions, or word of mouth. The social media following generally will come after they already built their audience.

On the contrary, Influencers rely significantly on their online presence; they create various types of content and might not necessarily have the same level of expertise as KOLs. Influencers usually have varied interests and topics and have a broader reach to more diverse audiences.

The Current Situation of Chinese KOLs:

The landscape of Chinese Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) continues to evolve rapidly, shaped by various factors such as technology, regulations, and consumer behaviour. However, we can see the following distinctive attributes:

Cross-platform presence & wide coverage across industries

Successful KOLs maintain a presence on multiple platforms such as XIAOHONGSHU (Red), Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin (Chinese TikTok) to reach broader audiences. They adapt their content to suit each platform's unique characteristics and user behaviours. KOLs cover various fields, the most popular ones including beauty, fashion, lifestyle, fitness, parenting, food and technology.

Increasing number of brand collaborations

KOLs attract loyal followers with their expertise, charisma, and authenticity. More and more local and international brands recognise the value of KOL marketing in China and choose to establish partnerships with KOLs to leverage their influence and appeal. It’s worth noting the increasing collaboration between the luxury and fashion industries and KOLs, where many luxury brands have partnered with Chinese KOLs to win favour in the Chinese market.

Brands also increasingly seek long-term partnerships with KOLs to establish a consistent and credible brand image. They are selecting KOL partners whose values align with their brand identity.

High-quality content and evolving formats

As the Chinese KOL industry develops, successful KOLs focus on providing higher-quality content on social media while diversifying the content formats to keep their audiences interested and engaged. They incorporate challenges, vlogs, mini-series, behind-the-scenes and more to maintain a dynamic presence.

We also see the rise of short-form video platforms like Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and Kuaishou, which continue to gain popularity. Many KOLs have shifted their content focus to these platforms to capture a younger audience.

Live Streaming Dominance

Live streaming remains dominant in China's KOL landscape. KOLs use live streams for product demonstrations, Q&A sessions, and interactive engagement with their followers. E-commerce integration within live streams drives social commerce growth.

Li Jiaqi, a beauty blogger, initially gained popularity by sharing his unique insights and reviews on lipsticks and has since become one of China's most influential beauty KOLs. On the first day of the 2023 6.18 Shopping Festival, Li took the lead with the "Beauty Festival" in his live stream, featuring 338 product links, including 324 beauty products, and achieving a GMV (Gross Merchandise Volume) of up to 4.977 billion yuan (647.61 million EUR,). During the 2022 618 presale, Li Jiaqi's livestream attracted over 150 million viewers in a four-and-a-half-hour session, resulting in a GMV of over 4.1 billion yuan (533 million EUR). (Jiemian.com)



How Chinese KOLs Influence Consumers:

Word of Mouth is incredibly important in consumer decision-making in China—20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions are influenced by it. According to Weibo big data, the KOL market value was about 102 billion yuan (13 billion EUR) in 2018. (Nielsen, The Social Media Hat)

Chinese KOLs influence consumers through trust, relatability, expertise, and engaging content. Here are some of the key factors:

Authenticity and credibility

KOLs are often seen as trusted sources of information. Their honest and transparent opinions lead followers to trust their recommendations. They can also connect and relate to their audience in an intimate and authentic way by showcasing their lifestyles and sharing personal stories, experiences, and challenges. This authenticity fosters a strong emotional connection, leading to higher engagement and influence.

Sharing unique expertise & insights

Many KOLs specialise in specific industries; their in-depth knowledge and expertise make their opinions valuable to consumers seeking advice in those areas. KOLs effectively communicate their unique insights to their audience, offering reliable purchasing references through product recommendations, evaluations, and storytelling. KOLs directly influence consumers' purchasing decisions, bringing exposure and sales opportunities to brands.

Shaping consumer trends and behaviours

KOLs are often trendsetters who often explore and discuss emerging trends, technologies, and developments within their niche. This forward-looking approach keeps their content relevant. By introducing new products, styles, or ideas to their audiences, KOLs shape their audiences’ preferences, choices and purchasing decisions.

How European and UK Merchants Can Leverage KOLs to Attract Chinese Consumers:

KOL marketing can be a powerful strategy for European and UK merchants looking to tap into the Chinese market. Chinese consumers highly value recommendations from KOLs.

Plan collaboration projects with KOLs:

Choose the right KOL partners that resonate with your product or service and fit with your target audience. You can do this through direct messaging on Chinese social networks such as Weibo and WeChat Official Account, emails, and KOL agencies. As KOLs are considered respected experts in their fields, having an endorsement from them is invaluable in terms of your consumers’ trust in your brand. In short, support from a KOL makes you seem more legit. You can collaborate with KOLs for product launches, reviews, unboxing, giveaways, guest content creation, etc.

This will not only help with your sales but also grow your community and make your brand more appealing to potential future collaborators.

Use Chinese social media platforms:

Chinese consumers primarily use social media platforms for information and shopping. Chinese social media platforms have enormous user bases, which KOLs leverage to reach millions of active users and build a dedicated following. Moreover, Chinese social media platforms support a wide range of content formats, and many seamlessly integrate e-commerce features, allowing KOLs to promote products and drive sales directly through their content.

Ensure your chosen KOLs have a strong presence on these platforms and know how to market products effectively through their social media channels.

High-quality and localised content:

Providing KOLs with detailed product information and background stories enables them to create high-quality content. High-quality content is crucial for engaging with your target audience, building trust, and successfully conveying your message.

KOLs should also understand the cultural nuances and preferences of Chinese consumers. Work with KOLs who can bridge the cultural gap and create local and relevant content for the Chinese audience. This includes using Mandarin, understanding cultural references, tailoring content formats, and being aware of China’s advertising regulations, etc.

Building a successful KOL strategy takes time and effort. It's essential to research, plan, and execute your campaigns thoughtfully to make a meaningful impact on the Chinese consumer market. You’re looking to improve your business strategy towards Chinese consumers? Get in touch with our experts! and learn more about the Chinese market strategy.

*PayXpert provides the product and services in all Europe and UK. The acquiring services are managed by PayXpert Spain for Europe and PayXpert Ltd for UK. More details about the products and services offered by PayXpert are accessible via their official websites in the UK (www.payxpert.co.uk) or Spain (www.payxpert.es)

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