The explosion of social media in China is putting pressure on marketers to increase their spending, learn to navigate key platforms like Tencent and Sina, and forge alliances online with local key opinion leaders, known in China as KOLs.
"One fascinating aspect of China's digital landscape is how openly netizens take to the cyber-streets to offer thoughts, opinions and guidance. Of China's 500 million online users, half claim to be active bloggers," said Chris Maier, Millward Brown's director, media & digital solutions, Greater China this week on "Thoughtful China," an online marketing-affairs talk show produced in Shanghai. (View the full episode ).
China now has 580 million people active on that country's top social network, Tencent's QZone, out of 712 million registered users. QZone is followed in popularity by Twitter-like Tencent Weibo, with 507 million registered users, and Sina Weibo, with 400 million. Next are PengYou, also owned by Tencent, with 259 million users, and Facebook-like RenRen at 172 million, according to We Are Social.
"Brands are looking to develop their own brand fans at a more practical level rather than just purely looking at weibo queens like [Chinese actress] Yao Chen. We are looking at KOLs from a down-to-earth point of view," said Tina Hu, general manager and head of consulting service at CIC, "but the way brands are using KOLs has evolved."
China has four main types of key opinion leaders, according to Jesse Goranson, SVP, Media & Telecom at Nielsen Greater China. "[They are] celebrities, commercial accounts, grassroots folks [who] are building a name for themselves, then industry experts in a particular field."
Microblogs called weibo are one of the fast-growing activities, along with e-commerce. Fashion and luxury brands are among the most active industries using social media. The leading players on Sina Weibo today include brands like Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Coach, Dior, Burberry, Audi, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Ferrari, but most Western brands are eager to expand their social media presence and align with opinion leaders who act as brand ambassadors.
"Many brands have been working with KOLs for at least a couple years now and we have learned the good and bad along the way. I think that some brands are pretty good at finding the right KOLs and working with them in the best possible ways now," said Angie Au-Yeung, national digital manager, China at Lee jean's owner VF Corp.
The coveted opinion leaders are also getting better at working with brands, she said. "We usually measure the effectiveness of our KOLs both qualitatively and quantitatively and it relates back to the way we choose our KOLs from the beginning. We look at the content our KOLs generate for us, no matter whether it's copy or visuals or music. Quantitatively, we will go about using the usual metrics, the number of interactions on the digital platforms [and] the traffic they can lead to our destinations."
One challenge for advertisers is the rise of fake fans sold by vendors exploiting a quick business opportunity--selling virtual "followers" that artificially inflate the fan base of bloggers and brands. Market pressure pushes bloggers to drive more followers if that is the key indicator as to whether or not they are influential.
"We see it all the time," said Andrew Collins, founder and CEO of the social media company Mailman Group. "Most importantly, you have to consider the context of what they are talking about, the level of engagement, re-tweets, comments. Then you have got to look into [the people] who are following those people, how many have not just fans, but a significant level of fans, and the amount of interaction they have with those fans."
Normandy Madden is senior VP-content development, Asia/Pacific at Thoughtful China, and Ad Age's former Asia Editor. See earlier episodes of Thoughtful China.