As the country with the second-largest GDP in the world, China has become a top priority for any global business, and yet the country is still a relatively opaque market for many International brands. Given the differentiation between western and Chinese social media ecosystems, marketing activations that are effective in the U.S/ EMEA markets might not have the same impact in China. But this also makes the country a very interesting market to enter.

There is some debate about whether influencer marketing is the way to go. Local consultancy Analysys International projected that the China influencer economy will be worth over $18 billion this year and digital marketing company AdMaster estimated that over 70% of marketers will increase their budgets in digital marketing in 2020. About two-thirds of them will put more emphasis on influencer marketing in China.

Notorious campaigns such as Becky Li selling out 100 Mini Coopers on her WeChat channel within just 5 minutes and Mr. Bags helped Tod’s sell 3.24 million RMB worth of handbags, in just 6 minutes, have all made a very compelling case about the power of influencer marketing in China.

In the absence of Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, Twitch etc. China has created its own digital ecosystem. For starters, the term “Influencer” is known as KOL’s in China. Which stands for Key Opinion Leaders. Similar but with one key difference between a KOL and an influencer. Where influencers operate online, growing a following mainly focused on creative content and wielding their influence on social media, KOLs are the “go-to” people for their subject of expertise who often are trusted by their followers based on their reliable and trustworthy image.

Secondly, the country has its own range of social media platforms, the most familiar ones being WeChat and Weibo to rising niche platforms: Little red Book, Douyin just to name a few. With 1.3 Billion population, and a countless number of new social media channels making debuts on the daily, this all makes it extremely challenging for brands to stand out in China’s oversaturated influencer economy.

As a result of heavy censorship by the Chinese state, consumers have become quite skeptical of traditional media and depend very much on word of mouth, which many values over incentives such as product discounts and giveaways. A survey conducted by KPMG found that 60.8% of respondents in China searched online for reviews and recommendations when they researched products, a much higher percentage than consumers in the UK (48.6%) and the U.S. (39.4%). A 2018 study by marketing consulting firm Westwin found that KOL recommendations were the most influential purchasing factor with a whopping 67% of Chinese consumers saying their purchases were influenced by KOLs. Recommendations from KOLs are more important than product discounts (65%) and e-commerce platform recommendations (58%).

Brands who can recognize this immense selling power of the Chinese KOL’s, will see the value of co-creating and collaborating, rather than interfere in the content production process and request KOL’s to add an overwhelming amount of product information or repost copy+paste contents. The tech-savvy Chinese consumers are increasingly sensitive to overly promotional content. Instead, we see success in cases where brands grant KOL’s creative freedom. They know their audience the best, have a deep understanding of what type of content appeals to their taste which will result in valuable engagement.

Another very interesting aspect to take into consideration when working with China is the prevalent amount of active mobile phone users. According to Forbes, 98% of all the active internet users in China are mobile users. Adding on the fact there is no age barrier for mobile penetration in China. This maximizes the brand's potential e-commerce market value, and the ability to reach everyone from 8-80 years old. Although the 18-25-year-old still holds the main purchasing power.

This pattern is slowly re-shaping the digital infrastructure in China, with the most known example being Wechat as the one-stop mobile app that can be used as a wallet, social media channel, shopping, taxi, food delivery and more. Apps such as Taobao and T-Mall are gradually replacing traditional retail environment, becoming a one-stop retail platform by offering an enormous range of products (similar to Amazon), which results in independent brands creating accounts on these channels in order to reach their audience. It's also no surprise when Mark Zuckerberg announced Whatsapp will have its own payment system, and the future of social media is private this year during the F8 event. Which to many may sound extremely similar to the Chinese app WeChat. Instagram is expanding its in-app shopping function this year tapping into social e-commerce and is currently running beta try-outs with a selected group of influencers and brands. Coincidence, or does the Chinese digital infrastructure also have a rippling effect on the rest of the world?

To sum it up, there is no doubt that KOL marketing will continue to grow and become a necessity of marketing strategies in China, but in what shape or form will be determined by keeping a close eye on the evolving market and digital culture.