What is a KOC? Behind China’s Latest Influencer Trend

Key Opinion Leaders — better known as KOLs — have long been used by luxury brands in China to promote products and influence sales. However, in an ever-changing consumer climate, experts are now claiming that a new form of influencer may be even more beneficial for building a brand’s image. Introducing, the KOCs, China’s Key Opinion Consumers.

Until recently, the title of “influencer” in China was attributed only to celebrities in their own right — singers, actors, and industry professionals who advertise products in partnership with some of the best-known luxury brands. There’s Jackson Wang for Fendi, Lu Han for Louis Vuitton, and Angelababy for Dior. Stars are making big bucks from paid sponsorship deals. And why you ask? Because of millions of avid online followers.

However, celebrity influencers have fallen out of favor with many Chinese netizens, who are now hyper-aware of the stars’ lucrative brand deals. According to Marie Tulloch, Senior Client Services Manager and Chinese marketing consultancy Emerging Communications, “The idea that commercially driven recommendations cannot be identified by consumers is slightly naive. Overly polished or complex communication that is designed to have reach is usually seen for what it is.”

From the business side, for brands looking to break into the Chinese market, the soaring costs of popular KOLs are often unattainable. The value of paying KOLs to promote your product hinges on the number of followers they have, and top KOLs are even able to charge for promotional comments on other accounts. In addition, agencies working on behalf of KOLs have been found to buy fake views for promoted posts in order to charge higher fees and ensure KPIs are met.

To add insult to injury, recent celebrity scandals have resulted in Chinese consumers boycotting the luxury brands certain influencers promote. Adam Knight, Co-Founder of digital marketing agency Tong Digital told Jing Daily, “Consumers’ trust in their favorite KOLs has been undermined by a series of scandals and a bottoming out of the market in terms of quality and reliability. Platforms have been slow to deal with this, with the exception of Xiaohongshu, and the various measures it has taken to crack down on trashy influencer content and bogus micro-KOLs.”

Enter, the KOCs. They are everyday consumers, whose value is based on their relatability, and trustworthy nature. The entire focus of KOCs is on product reviews, yet often, they only have a few hundred followers on their accounts. For millennial Chinese consumers, this personable, friend-like appeal can have a powerful impact on purchasing decisions.

“Many brands, particularly Chinese domestic brands, have been using KOC marketing for quite some time,” according to Lauren Hallanan, Head of Marketing at the Chinese marketing consultancy Chatly, “It is actually one of the key components of Perfect Diary’s marketing plan that has helped them become one of the top cosmetics brands in China. In the early days, they began working with KOCs on a mass scale. This made it appear to the average consumer that the brand was quite popular because everyone was talking about it.”

Due to KOCs notable lack of followers, the luxury retail and lifestyle platform Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) is proving itself to be the ideal place for KOC marketing. While KOC marketing can be done on any social media platform, the Xiaohongshu model appears to work best at promoting lesser-known accounts, “Xiaohongshu’s algorithm seems to actually favor smaller accounts, and often makes their posts show up more in the main feed.” says Hallanan., “In addition, the more Xiaohongshu users are talking about a certain brand or product, the more likely it will appear in the search results for that product category.”

Unlike other social platforms, Little Red Book not only shows content from accounts that they follow, but themes and hashtags related to the content they view and search. It is because of this that posts from users with only a few hundred followers can ‘go viral’ and be viewed by thousands — or even millions — of potential consumers.

So how can brands harness the power of KOC influencer marketing? For one, it is important to note that KOCs cannot completely replace KOLs. “The value of KOL marketing is based on KOLs filtering content on behalf of followers and only relaying relevant information. They discriminate on behalf of audiences, and they are trusted for this, not for the fact that they provide completely independent recommendations,” says Tulloch. A holistic marketing strategy is needed, with Hallanan commenting, “Brands still need to work with top-tier and mid-tier influencers for the authority and clout.”

However, KOC influencers seem here to stay, and for many smaller brands they are the ideal first step into the Chinese market. At a recent event, Tong Digital presented a five-step process of “product seeding” to attract KOCs. The process begins with identifying potential KOCs and sending out gifted products. Next, the brand hopes to gather free exposure from KOC reviews and arrange future KOC paid campaigns with those that worked well. Finally, brands should look to formalize KOC partnerships with bigger post-campaign marketing. This low-risk high-reward technique means that brands are only paying out for the product and shipping costs, whilst testing the waters for what could be a lucrative marketing strategy.

So, KOCs might be the latest cool kids on the social influencer block, and one for marketers to seriously consider. However, brands should be wary of putting all of their eggs in one basket. According to Tulloch, “The key point about KOLs, KOCs, micro-influencers, or anyone of any other level of following is the relevance of the person, audience, message, and channel. If multiple ambassadors have been researched effectively and provided with the appropriate propositions to impart, then consumers will buy into messages both figuratively and literally. It does not matter what name is put on it.”

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