Key Opinion Leaders in China – 14th century wisdom for Chinese social media
14th Century Wisdom

A CMO of a large global brand in China told me recently how important “mass opinion” was in China as a driver to sales. In a country of such superlative proportions brands must demonstrate superlative support for their product. So it is crucial to understand how to shift mass opinion without the magnificent media budgets required for mass media across a country bigger than every market in Europe combined.

The answer may not be what you expect. One of the core features of Chinese marketing is that some of the largest “media properties” happen to be bloggers known as “key opinion leaders” or “KOL’s” for short. KOL’s can have millions of followers – 20m+ an audience any TV station would dream of. It’s commonly accepted that you have to pay to have these bloggers “get behind” your brand – so it turns out that most “earned” media is in fact “paid media” in China.

Many foreign social media gurus condemn this practice: “we never pay for people to blog about our product” – but this misunderstands the role of KOL’s in China. I agree 100% that brands must be transparent in all paid for blogger activity, but I also want to say that the Chinese approach has merits that I love.

KOL’s are a cornerstone of building brands in China. We use them in almost all strategies and campaigns. We analyze the brand, the communication objectives and the target audience, and then come back with a selection of candidates.  KOL’s with 10,000 followers blogging about beauty might be paid just $500 to $5000 for their support; premier league KOL’s whose words get right under the skin of Chinese culture and even drive its development, receive million dollar deals.

The most famous KOL’s are people like HanHan, a rebellious racing driver, turned blogger with the ability to turn his pen around awkward political corners as he writes about the development of Chinese society. He has 15million followers. He has been involved with a number of brands like Johnnie Walker and Nescafe. KOL’s are not simply celebrities like HanHan; they are often relative unknowns made good. To the average netizen, KOL’s are like the Big brothers and Big sisters (terms of respect and endearment bestowed upon very admired friends). People look up to them to give them guidance and opinion, and in a nation of controlled sate media and a nation of single children, KOL’s play a crucial independent role – who doesn’t seek opinion from their siblings to provide a moral compass?

KOL’s are used to kick off campaigns; to interject bland media like banners and pre-roll, and create a real dynamism into the conversation, and to provide a centerpiece for large scale campaigns. Once the audience is engaged, other campaign elements can be introduced. This “architecting” of a campaign is vital. Laying good foundations onto which layers of branded content can be laid is crucial to having people talk about the brand an advocate for it.

Back to “mass opinion”: many political commentators say of China how the masses like to be led – and therefore how KOL’s are vital to the balance of power – because their voice influences the mass collective. It rings true this, so I sought substantiation in history. I didn’t find quite what I was looking for but I did find a KOL from “The Water Margin” a classic text from 14th century China, illustrating the role KOL’s play to help disseminate information and mould opinion. Here he offers some advice on seduction – the simplest form of human marketing.

“These seduction cases are the hardest of all. There are five conditions that have to be met before you can succeed.

  • First, you have to be as handsome as Pan An.
  • Second, you need a tool as big as a donkey’s.
  • Third, you must be as rich as Deng Tong.
  • Fourth, you must be as forbearing as a needle plying through cotton wool.
  • Fifth, you’ve got to spend time.

It can be done only if you meet these five requirements.”

“The Water Margin” Shi Nain, 14th Century

“Tool as big as a donkey’s?” Another technical term in Chinese social media, I assure you.


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