How China's online opinion leaders created a multibillion-dollar industry
The Kardashians may have been able to create a US entertainment phenomenon by revealing their luxurious lifestyle through a long running reality TV series, but Chinese key opinion leaders (KOLs) have been able to convert fans and generate sales on a level their western peers can only dream of.
While western influencers are mostly video bloggers on Instagram or YouTube, Chinese KOLs can be columnists, socialites, photobloggers, or short video creators - and they have multiple channels through which they can become famous, including social media platforms WeChat and Weibo, social networking service Douban and video platform Douyin - known as TikTok in the west.
Becky Li, with more than 7.5 million combined followers on WeChat and Weibo, is one of China's top fashion bloggers in China, able to convert followers to sales through posts on her WeChat public account.
In 2014 Li quit her job as a reporter for a local Chinese newspaper to become a full time blogger on WeChat. Three years ago she partnered with American fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff for a limited edition purse with the label of "Miss Fantasy."
A year later she collaborated with iconic British car brand Mini to promote a limited edition vehicle through WeChat, and her followers snapped up 100 cars in five minutes. Last year, she was invited to attend the world's biggest fashion events in Paris, Milan and New York.
For the Lunar New Year in February, WeChat Pay hired Li to be "chief experience officer" for its overseas payment service.
"I thought WeChat would hire a celebrity," said Li in her office, decorated in pink with atrovirens, in the heart of Guangzhou. "Maybe they chose me because I shopped a lot overseas and my readers also buy a lot of things outside China."
Li's influence in the consumer world did not happen overnight. In the early days, she was working alone and writing from her own home. Now she has a company with around 70 staff, has incubated three other lifestyle-related WeChat public accounts.
"I often write about products based on my own preferences," said Li, whose WeChat account, Becky's Fantasy, was inspired by the novel The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, which tells the story of a shopping addict who is a financial journalist. "I related to the protagonist Rebecca Bloomwood," said Li.
"When you have your own taste and it remains consistent, readers who share similar tastes will eventually find you," she added.
Not content with just boosting sales for brands, for which she receives a commission, at the end of 2017 Li launched her own clothing brand which shares the same name as her public WeChat account.
The first new products rolled out in December 2017, including a cashmere sweater and black gauzy skirt, reached sales of 1 million yuan (S$202,000) within seven minutes and were sold out in the first day. Li said she never meant for them to sell out so quickly but it was caused by supply chain constraints.
"We're still a relatively small brand," she said. "When you are a big brand, you have a much bigger say when it comes to suppliers," she added.
Li has big ambitions for her company, including a possible public listing. To help launch the Becky's Fantasy brand, she did a financing round but has not raised further outside funding since then. A spokeswoman for Li declined to reveal the investors or the valuation of the company.
"Common KOLs are not worthwhile investments. Only those able to become a media outlet in a niche market and convert content into products are worth investing in," said Fan Weifeng, CEO of Gaozhang Capital, a venture capital firm focusing on new media start-ups.
Chinese blogger Zhang Dayi also created her own clothing and beauty brand which she sells on Alibaba Group's Taobao e-commerce platform.
Her team gauges consumer sentiment towards certain products by analysing data and follower comments collected from social platforms like Weibo, as well as by using sales data from her Taobao shop.
Zhang's sales volume on Singles' Day in 2017 alone hit 170 million yuan, according to Chinese news portal Sohu.
Behind Zhang's amazing selling ability is Ruhnn, China's earliest and biggest influencer incubator. Ruhnn started out as an online clothing store in Hangzhou, where it had one of the largest clothes inventories in China.
Then it shifted focus to recruiting talent to work as bloggers and helped them grow their fan base, eventually converting massive numbers of fans into consumers during shopping festivals like Singles' Day.
In 2016, e-commerce giant Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post, invested in Ruhnn, when China's KOL economy was valued at about 58 billion yuan (US$8.6 billion), according to CBNData.
The Hangzhou-based incubator has also filed for a US listing to raise as much as US$200 million, according to IFR Asia.
Ruhnn didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
One reason why Chinese influencers are better than their western counterparts in generating direct sales is because in China the line between entertainment and commerce is more blurred because social media and e-commerce are integrated, said Elijah Whaley, chief marketing officer at ParkLu, a KOL marketing agency in China.
For example, Chinese social media platforms like WeChat and Douyin allow product links inside their apps. Users can open the links, select an item and pay for it while they are reading a post or watching a video. In contrast, an Instagram influencer cannot embed a URL in a post.
More than 70 per cent of Chinese Gen Z consumers, those born after 1995, prefer buying products directly via social media than through other channels, compared with the global average of 44 per cent, according to a recent study by the consulting firm Accenture.
In the US and Britain, online influencers who do not disclose a sponsored ad are in violation of advertising regulations, whereas in China KOLs are not legally obliged to disclose if the content is paid.
"In the West, bloggers should be discreet about their sales pitch or completely forthright," said Whaley.
More than 60 per cent of Chinese consumers are receptive to online influencers compared with 49 per cent in the US and 38 per cent in Japan,, according to consultancy A.T. Kearney.
"[Chinese consumers] have been through all sorts of scams, fake companies, fake products, fake services, etc. They have reached a point where they don't trust what a brand says about itself," said Hamza Ouarit, marketing director at Shanghai-based Gentleman Marketing Agency.
That is where a trusted KOL can help - but the job is not always easy.
Chinese KOLs are often under pressure to stay "pretty and slim" to appeal to their followers. Martial arts blogger Mi Ya, nicknamed MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) Sister, said she has not touched a burger or fries in two years in an attempt to keep under 55kg.
"I know my fans like me because of my sense of humour but they also like me because I look good," Mi said.
Becky Li, however, said she was not too fussed about maintaining her appearance because she is more of a fashion writer, but says she is constantly under pressure to generate good content.
"When I feel I'm not able to write good content, I'll start shopping and experience what a normal girl would go through in her life," she said. "That has brought me closer to my readers."
Having worked closely with KOLs in China, ParkLu's Whaley said that behind the glamour are some of the hardest working people in the world. "They are always on. There is no nine to five."