Around five years ago, watch brand Daniel Wellington reached out to Richard Chen, who then had around 450,000 Weibo followers.
"They asked me to pick a watch on their website and post pictures of me wearing it on Weibo," he said. Chen soon learned that because the brand had limited budget to hire a celebrity Key Opinion Leader (KOL), it had instead reached out to hundreds of lesser-known KOLs like him.
With hundreds of KOLs suddenly wearing the same watch, Daniel Wellington effectively "bombed the market" into a frenzy. "Last year, they managed to sell a million watches in China by using inexpensive KOLs," he added.
Chen, who is now the CEO of Yifei Investment Holdings, suggested that Daniel Wellington's approach may serve as a template for luxury fashion brands with limited marketing budgets.
"I can't exaggerate how powerful KOLs are for luxury brands," said Chloe Reuter, co-founder of The Luxury Conversation. "The top five KOLs can make up a significant market share in the luxury industry, even more powerful than that of celebrities."
Recently, for example, Longchamp teamed up with Mr. Bags on their global Year of the Dog collection, and the featured bags sold out within 24 hours. Similarly, Gogoboi partnered with Givenchy to help them sell out their Duetto handbag collection within 72 hours, while Becky Li helped Mini sell 100 limited edition cars in just four minutes.
These are among China's leading KOLs, though, and while they are certainly more expensive than KOLs with smaller followings, they aren't always better, Reuter said. The individual reach of a lesser-known KOL may be minimal, but the readership could be much more engaged in a particular topic than the followers of a celebrity KOL.
"For example, if I were based in Chengdu [the third largest luxury market in China], I would prefer to read shopping recommendations from local KOLs instead of a big name from somewhere else," she added.
Working with lesser known KOLs may not make for such a wide-ranging or enduring relationship with brands. The longevity of a KOL in China is only about 5-10 years, according to Chen.
"It's not a lifelong profession," he said. "Some KOLs for luxury fashion brands told me they would just do it for a while and then switch to another career."
For smart, targeted campaigns, however, working with lesser-known KOLs, even if it's just for a one-off campaign, may well be the best way to go. With 42 percent of young Chinese now aspiring to be influencers, there are plenty to choose from.