Home Consumer What are the differences between influencer marketing in the UK and China?

What are the differences between influencer marketing in the UK and China?

by Pearl Zhu
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From Li Jiaqi to Kim Kardashian, it’s no secret that influencer marketing can be key to the success of consumer brands. But what do UK companies entering the China market need to know about its influencer marketing ecosystem, and how does it differ between the two countries?

Most brands nowadays will be familiar with China’s unique social media platforms – WeChat, Weibo, Xiaohongshu, Douyin – and how they compare to their Western counterparts like Instagram and Facebook. While there are many similarities between Chinese and Western platforms, particularly in terms of their young, entertainment-hungry audience, their differences mean that marketers need to subtly shift their strategies when creating content for the Chinese market, particularly when it comes to influencer marketing – or KOL (key opinion leader) marketing, as it is usually known in China.

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Chinese consumers have traditionally been seen as being very receptive to seeking recommendations for new products and ideas online. This has been reflected in the format of user-generated content-driven platforms like Xiaohongshu and also in the degree of acceptance and importance given to influencers. “Chinese consumers are more receptive to promotional content because it is more of a guide,” says Robin Liu, co-founder of social media marketing agency Influencer Hub International.

“They are used to searching for information about the products on social media, which is the start of the customer purchasing journey.” Liu notes that OgilvyOne reported that over 55% of Chinese users had participated in online discussions about brands and that these discussions are able to directly affect businesses. It can be difficult for audiences to discern the extent of promotional content because people naturally trust and accept the influencers.

In either market, influencers from famous media or professional backgrounds or with a large number of loyal followers will automatically win more trust. Liu notes that the biggest difference between Chinese and UK influencers is professionalism, and the emergence of multi-channel networks (third-party services that work with multiple channels and creators to develop content), also known as MCN, is the key reason for this difference. Thousands of MCNs in China, such as Dayu Media, Mei One, and Hive Media, offer professional training and a variety of resources to influencers. More importantly, this number is still growing. According to iiMediaResearch, there were 30,000 MCNs in China in 2021, responsible for some of the country’s biggest internet celebrities, such as ‘Lipstick King’ Li Jiaqi (prior to a recent controversy that saw him disappear from the internet) and Papi Jiang.

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As a result of this “content factory” structure, there is less pressure on influencers to be “authentic” or anti-commercial, especially since their careers were often started on social commerce platforms, as WWD China Markets Editor Tianwei Zhang noted in an interview with High Snobiety. That being said, the most popular influencers are still those that have successfully blended their own unique style and topics that genuinely move them with relevant brand partnerships.

Clearly, the ecosystem for influencers and brands is much more mature and well-regulated in China, as Jake Xu, co-founder of Shakeup Cosmetics, points out. Based on Shakeup’s experiences, this means that “Chinese social investment is much more costly than in the West, but this is in proportion to the size of the market. Commercially, influencer campaigns in China generate more tangible and visible monetary return… and brands get better control of their ROI.”

“Consumer awareness and mature warehousing and logistics infrastructure have played a big role in the rapid growth of [the influencer ecosystem] in China,” adds Liu. This infrastructure has been particularly beneficial to social commerce, with more than 70% of Chinese consumers saying that they are likely to shop on social media platforms, far ahead of the 42% worldwide average. But the UK is catching up, with social commerce expected to grow by 37.5% to reach over $21 billion (£17.3 billion) by the end of 2022.

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But with so much content being churned out every day, consumers in China and the West are starting to complain of “influencer fatigue”. So how can companies keep working with influencers while making sure that the content is true to their brands and also appeals to consumers?

“Simply put, it is about improving creativity,” Liu says. “Rather than direct sponsored content, brands should consider product placement with well-selected influencers based on the target audience. Brands should also consider giving the influencer more artistic control over the content to make it more authentic and engaging for their audience. For long-term projects, such as launching a new brand in the China market, companies can consider identifying and developing a key opinion consumer (KOC) (the equivalent of a “micro influencer” in the Western market) that can grow alongside the brand and build following and reputation organically.

Many of the lessons learned from influencer marketing in the West can be applied to KOL marketing in China, and vice versa. Whatever market you are working in “make sure the size of the prize can justify the risk before you commit,” cautions Xu.

Call +44 (0)20 7802 2000 or email enquiries@cbbc.org now to find out how CBBC can further help you identify the best social commerce platforms for your brand and target market in China.

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