Mindshare China’s Jerry Perez explains how the role of influencers in China is evolving.

Influence is inherently social. Social media has not only given amplified voice to tribes of online consumers, but it also gave rise to a new breed of tribe leaders: influencers – personalities that have persuaded and shaped people’s mindsets about brands and products. Indeed, they have become a key part of marketing efforts worldwide.

As in the rest of the world, this has been a reality in China. It’s one of the biggest social media markets worldwide (over 1.1 billion monthly active users on WeChat, China’s biggest social app; source: iResearch, March 2019), and it has also developed its own unique media ecosystem that allowed different kinds of influencers to rise.

Social media in China does not just centre on communication and sharing – it rapidly evolved to include more entertainment and commerce functions. Mintel reports from 2018 and 2019 on Chinese social media indicated that 72% of respondents have seen merchandise and 61% have purchased products on messaging apps. Of those surveyed, 87% have bought, sold or shared information on social commerce platforms.

These developments have fueled rapid changes in the Chinese influencer landscape. Just in the past five years, there have been shifts in:

  • the roles of influencers for consumers and marketing campaigns,
  • the kinds of influencers that have been thriving, and
  • the ways in which these influencers have partnered with brands.
Evolving roles

Years ago, dealing with influencers was typically handled as a public relations initiative. Brands provided them with samples and invited them to a launch event, so they could speak positively about brands on their platform. Gradually, influencers got paid directly to feature these brands and bring awareness to them, for example posting photos and reviews on WeChat for product launches.

These dynamics still happen, and influencers still play a big role in the upper funnel of the consumer journey. However, their impact has quickly expanded to include conversion and sales in a more direct way.

In China, the ‘shoppertainment’ phenomenon has been solidified on how people buy online – content discovery and engagement have been very much tied to e-commerce experiences, and social livestreaming via influencers has allowed people to ‘see and buy’. Influencers in China have not just been platforms for information and persuasion: they have turned into actual sales channels.

For example, celebrity Angelababy’s livestreaming event for Maybelline New York was viewed by more than 6 million women in China and sold more than 10,000 products in just two hours. Another famous case covered by the press was that of digital influencer Li Beika, who sold 100 limited-edition Mini Cooper cars in just a few minutes.

Some influencers have become so famous and authoritative that they’ve leveraged their popularity to build their own brands and businesses. With services that allow building and managing online stores easily (e.g. creating mini stores within WeChat or online stores in e-commerce site Tmall), some influencers have built their own shops like Benny (more than 4 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo), who built his Croxx cosmetics brand, and Zhang Mofan MOMO (more than 12 million Weibo followers), who established her beauty and lifestyle business, Mo-amour.

Evolving kinds

China’s biggest social media platforms, WeChat and Weibo, kicked off the social power of influencers. Previously, the landscape consisted mainly of big celebrities such as popular actresses who had built their online presence and internet sensations who became big due to some of their content going viral. These can be internet-born personalities like comedy vlogger Papi Jiang (more than 30 million Weibo followers), who became famous for posting funny, sarcastic rants about her daily life.

But as more niche social verticals proliferated, new kinds of influencers emerged. Smaller influencers who are experts in particular domains like beauty or travel, have risen in their smaller but fast-growing platforms like Little Red Book and Douyin – with 50 million (a 239% year-on-year increase) and 362 million (a 110% year-on-year increase) monthly active users respectively (source: iResearch, March 2019) – which can lead to seamless purchase functions. These influencers may be smaller in terms of followers, but can command effective engagement and conversion within their smaller community circles. Even the bigger influencers have started to establish their presence in these growth platforms.

This transformation in the landscape has become so diverse that even within certain niche domains like anime and comics, influencers have thrived. China’s popular virtual singer Luo Tianyi, an anime/cartoon character that has her own social media following, and even her own live concerts where she gets projected on screens, has collaborated with brands like Nescafé coffee and soft drink Mirinda.

Evolving means

As the power of influencers grew, the ways in which they have been leveraged by brands also expanded. They’ve become much more than a mechanism to drive buzz or review products. Some brands have really treated influencers as part of their media mix and have maximised their partnership across platforms.

One such case was Maybelline New York’s partnership with big celebrity influencer William Chan. A shade of Maybelline New York lipstick was named ‘Queens’ – the name that Chan’s fans gave themselves. The influencer was used not just for his social media presence, he was also featured across touchpoints: online video, out of home, programmatic, sales promotions and e-commerce. All this hype resulted in 20,000 lipsticks being purchased in the first 20 seconds of launch, and 20,000 more in less than two hours after restocking.

Besides maximising influencers across content-distribution touchpoints, brands have also facilitated better content creation – from something as simple as providing better product kits for influencers to actually creating a production studio where influencers can make better content for their brands. These were more hands-on approaches from brands that strengthened influencer relationships while boosting content quality.

Given that influencer marketing in China has ballooned at an estimated $17 billion in 2018, a figure double that of 2016 (source: CBNData via eMarketer, August 2018), there has also been a growing incentive for more influencers to ramp up their social media presence to attract more brand sponsorships.

A negative effect though has been fraudulent activities – where some influencers can resort to buying fake followers or generating bot-made engagement to create an illusion of how effective their platforms were. Given this problem, social tracking services have started to build functions in their tools to gauge fraud levels, and brands have been paying more attention to due diligence in their partnerships.

Keeping up with evolution

With these shifts, brands have been more discerning on how they do influencer marketing, and will likely continue to adapt in the following ways:

  • As influencers play a much stronger role across the consumer decision funnel, brands have been trying to define the roles of influencers and align these with their broader campaign and company objectives.
  • As the kinds of influencers available have grown, influencer selection has become more complex and brands have therefore been experimenting on how to create a mix of partnerships across brands and product portfolios.
  • Brands have been trying to find ways to better engage influencers, getting more out of the partnerships while also being more disciplined to make sure the brand is protected against risk and fraud.
Given the increasing dynamism of the Chinese media landscape, where new platforms can be catapulted to the top every other month, it has become ever more important to monitor and grasp evolving complexities and opportunities moving forward.