It’s time to talk about China’s KOL bubble.

KOLs (key opinion leaders) have become a big part of any brand’s checklist when operating in China. If that needs further explanation, then you’re already a few years behind the curve. KOLs represent many aspects of modern society in China; they ride on a concept taken from the West (influencers, in this case) which has been super-charged into massive earnings and income potential.

KOLs have more influence on consumption behaviour and social trends than movie stars and singers do. There are Chinese KOLs in every imaginable field – not only in fashion and sports, but also in travel, pets, parks and gardens. With a population as big and as diverse as China’s, there’s something for everyone.

Tiffany is everywhere. #TiffanyBlue #TiffanyPaperFlowers @tiffanyandco

A post shared by 许魏洲TimmyXu (@timmyxu) on May 3, 2018 at 9:54pm PDT

But have we reached a stage of overreliance on KOLs? And are certain China marketing/ business experts guilty of reducing KOL marketing to mere instruments for advertising purposes?

This isn’t about hating the influencer industry; it’s a frank attempt to examine what the future might hold for the KOL boom.

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Capitalise – but via collaboration, not ads

While brands of all sorts are still able to capitalise on KOL collaboration – and in 2018, they still should – the world of the KOL is still in boom mode.

Some agencies specialising in KOL marketing boast of having over 30,000 KOLs on their books – a number which should sound alarm bells.

Others have founded their business model on connecting hopeful brands with alleged KOLs – conjuring an image of brands which are unaware of how society and the digital world function in China going cap-in-hand to an agency which quotes them two figures: a follower number; and a fee for a post on Weibo.

Certain KOLs do have ultra-loyal followings, and are household names – at least in millennial households. But there is a limit to the number of KOLs in any particular field that millennials are willing to follow, and to the quantity of commercial posts they can tolerate.


For those that do have a loyal following, how can brands work with them other than through a budget-to-view model?

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Can you afford to go for the splatter-gun effect?

If you are a brand like Nike, then you can afford to splash out on KOLs with big numbers.  

很开心参加Vogue的活动️#voguechina #angelica_cheung

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But one piece of “advice” that often gets published these days is: don’t spend a lot on a big KOL; spread your budget over smaller micro-influencers. Such advice may seem reasonable, in theory, but it is too simplistic.

Booming trends should not be considered trustworthy sustainables


In a recent conversation I had with Michelle Ye, she revealed how collaboration supersedes mere KOL marketing. Still under the umbrella term KOL, it is Chinese creatives such as Ye who have grown a true follower-base – not because of their facial features or tabloid histories, but because of their creativity; it is their design insights, their originality, their opinions and so on which have persuaded young Chinese take an interest in them. Read the thoughts expressed by Ye and Tera Feng as examples of what brand loyalty means.  

A trend is just that

Booming trends should not be considered trustworthy sustainables.


Brands need to prepare for when – not if – the KOL bubble bursts; the digital world is saturated with KOLs (each with millions of claimed followers), and consumers may begin to get bored of A. N. Other person being paid to prance around on their Weibo feed in a particular brand’s garb.

What should businesses look towards as the next stage in the evolution of Chinese digital culture? It all comes back to quality content. I spoke to many Chinese Millennials in Shanghai, where I live, and their interest is in the rise (or the return) of bloggers – those who are not KOLs, who are not paid to promote, but who create honest, frank content and opinions based on genuine passion. That is, not just someone who is posing with Photoshopped, elflike facial features; but someone who has written thoughtfully, expressed interesting ideas, and put together short videos that amuse.

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A more meaningful way to work with thought-leaders and those who inspire is to look at the creative world. Instead of having a checklist of KOL + “n” followers, seek out classical artists, designers and talented Chinese leaders and emerging young talent. Engender trust in your brand by taking the time and care to seek out the true local Chinese voice who can tell a genuine and passionate story.

Go deep into the local playing-field to understand who are the people affecting the industry, who are the students of the subject provoking thought, and how you can support them.

The above applies in particular to luxury brands, the point being that the affluent demographic is not influenced only by who is wearing/using the product, but by exactly what it is, how it was created and why it is in sync with their global lifestyle.

With your quarterly/annual plan ahead, what is your company’s methodology for selecting the right KOL? What true affinity do they have with your brand, and crucially, how willing are they to partner on a more long-term basis with your product creation, to meet with the people in your factory/office/workshop?

Is your branding/communications/media partner in China actually in China? Do they have a track record for going further than a “budget x views = marketing” model?

What short videos can the KOLs create? Chinese society is quickly moving from images to short videos.

When the KOL or agency is presented with your product, what ideas and can they come up with? What holistic, integrated campaign is conceived – and how would it be relevant to your Chinese audience?

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This article originally appeared on The Luxury Conversation.