China’s rapid growth often defies conventional wisdom. It is also true when it comes to influencer marketing.
Motivated by the earning potential and possible fame, many digital-savvy Chinese are joining the influencer ranks. There are reportedly over 1 million influencers in China who have more than 10,000 followers on social media. According to a Chinese job survey, 54 percent of Chinese born after 1995 chose “influencer” as their most desired occupation.
After witnessing the success of some influencers, it’s no wonder younger Chinese seek a similar career path. Zhang Dayi, China’s most well-known influencer on Taobao, earned $46 million in 2016 selling her own products on the platform, putting her income ahead of Kim Kardashian that year. And in 2017, Chinese influencer Rebecca Li was credited with selling 100 Mini Coopers through her WeChat account within five minutes.
While China’s influencer boom has created virtually unlimited options for marketers to reach consumers, it also created a serious problem: consumer fatigue. Driven by profit and market demand, many influencer agencies (also known as MCNs in China) are churning out new talent like mass-produced commodities. As a result, consumer frustration has increased as their social feeds are taken over by a never-ending stream of promotional content produced by unknown, generic influencers. As a result, consumers become less receptive to this content. Articles published through business accounts on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform, have an average open rate of less than 5 percent.
Influencer overload may also make consumers less active on social media, which may lead them to switch platforms. Weibo, China’s second-largest social media platform, saw individual users’ activity decline despite a steady growth in user numbers. According to a report by China’s Xinhua News Agency, the average Weibo user only opens the app every third day.
So what should brands do to stand out in a marketplace crowded with influencers?
Personalized content allows influencers to create a direct authentic connection between a brand and consumers. With a preponderance of influencers, any given influencer’s creativity and production quality are of critical importance.
Chinese beauty influencer Xiao Mao, for example, writes in-depth skincare product reviews on his official WeChat account. Most of Xiao Mao’s followers are beauty enthusiasts drawn to a product’s efficacy rather than packaging. Instead of posting beautiful product images, he delves deeply into a product’s ingredients and documents his skin condition after using a product to demonstrate the results.
Chinese social media platforms that heavily depend on customer loyalty are taking notice of the consumer fatigue. Weibo, in response to the growing concern of fake followers and low user engagement, recently amped up its effort to clean zombie followers from top influencers. It also announced a $437.5 million (RMB three billion) investment fund to support quality content creators.
Invest in Micro-Influencers
Chinese millennials and Gen Z consumers consider personalization an integral part of their shopping experience. They expect brands to talk to them directly. More and more brands realize that working with a niche influencer with a unique point of view about their brand might generate better results than a top-tier influencer who is likely also working with their competitors.
This is when brands can seek social media platforms that appeal to these consumers. Unlike Weibo, where top-tier influencers capture the vast majority of the views, new platforms like Douyin and Red are adopting a decentralized approach to help content creators grow their audience. Content that performs well among an influencer’s core followers will be promoted to a larger audience pool, triggering a viral effect. Thanks to this algorithm, a micro-influencer’s content could gain tens of thousands of views overnight.
Brands that invest in small influencers at an early stage are likely to receive a better return on investment. Hungry for opportunities, many micro-influencers charge a lot less for brand collaborations compared to an established influencer. A micro-influencer’s impact usually grows after these early collaborations. In 2016, Gucci worked with micro-influencer Trevor Andrew, who gained an initial following for turning the brand’s bed sheets into a Halloween ghost costume, to create a special collection. The collection became a huge success for Gucci, and two years later, Andrew’s Instagram following has nearly quadrupled.
Because most micro-influencers started within a small community or region, they tend to have deep connections with their base. Brands could leverage these connections to organize offline events, drive direct sales or collect product insights.
Despite their popularity and effectiveness, user-generated content (UGC) campaigns are hard to implement. How do you give users the freedom to create their own brand story and ensure the content they create is consistent with the brand image? Influencers could be the right buffer between consumer creativity and brand image.
Take the popular challenges on Douyin for example. Brands launch official challenges (calls to action) by inviting influencers to create demonstration videos. These demonstration videos both inspire audiences to be creative and establish a template that audiences can use to create their own content.
Chinese Diary giant Yili recently partnered with celebrity Qin Lan to launch a new yogurt product Pureday. Yili created a fictional persona “He” to represent the product. Qin Lan posted a teaser video on Weibo about her significant other “He.” Weibo users were asked to guess who her significant other is. A team of influencers was then recruited to share the contest and feed clues to their followers. The campaign resulted in 300 million Weibo impressions and 120,000 user-generated posts.
Look Beyond the Border
Many Chinese consumers find brands that are not available in China to be particularly appealing. For brands that have yet to enter the China market, Chinese influencers who reside outside China are often the best partners. These influencers, many of whom were students studying abroad, are considered local insiders and trendsetters in their adopted hometown. When these influencers move back to China, they tend to have a stronger appeal to brands for their early exposure to the brand culture.
Despite its restricted access in China, Instagram has become the preferred social media platform for China’s digital-savvy, English-speaking elite class. Chinese consumers even invented the term “Ins Style,” a play on the word Instagram, to describe aesthetically appealing content. Western brands that are interested in the China market should consider getting their product on Chinese Intagrammers’ radar.
Charlie Gu is the CEO of Kollective Influence, a marketing agency that specializes in cross-border influencer management and strategy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.