The changing trend of influencer marketing - how to win with KOLs

We are in the era of influencer marketing. Starting as somewhat of a novelty, it has become a stable strategy for brands to reach their younger audiences and drive sales through social media. The interactions between brands, key opinion leaders (KOLs) and consumers are becoming more mature, the tactics to leverage the influence of KOLs and even the social media platforms are becoming more sophisticated.

Authenticity is the key

KOLs have significant influence on consumption behaviour and social trends. Mobile marketing agency Hotmob reports nearly 80% of consumers said that social media posts impact their buying decisions.

But the problem is trust - and influencers have come under a lot of scrutiny from their followers about sponsored content under the guise of original content. As a result, brands and influencers are being more transparent about their partnerships. For instance, YouTube requires users to add disclaimer when featuring sponsored content, and Instagram has a feature indicating branded content as well.

And users have become far more discerning. Instead of blindly following KOLs who are posing for photo-shopped selfies or being paid to promote, people are more interested in those who create frank content with honest opinions based on genuine passion, share inspiring and interesting ideas, present themselves with charisma and put together videos or articles that amuse, entertain and inform.

Eva Ng, industry leader of Google Hong Kong, says KOLs understand that their popularity mainly relies on their authenticity.

“The reason they are there is because of who they are.”

Language enthusiast and English teacher Uncle Siu, one of the top Facebook influencers with over 355,000 followers of his page “Uncle Siu’s British English Club”, is a typical example of successful influencer. He is famous for his short and easy-to-understand English tutorial which focus on teaching audiences how to pronounce certain phrases or discussing literature. His casual and humorous take on a wide variety of topics with his deep voice attracted a large audience. “I am sharing what I know, presenting myself, and trying to be as authentic as possible,” he tells Marketing.

KOLs are more cautious when choosing who to work with as they are aware of building their reputation and keeping their control over the content.

Famous Hong Kong YouTuber Edward Slime, who amasses more than 356,000 and 450,000 subscribers for his vlog channel and gaming channel respectively, says he refused many job opportunities in the past, simply because the products or services of those companies or brands were not good enough.

He explains he once did a video mentioned a pizza joint, leading to the sales of the store doubling. For Slime, that really  hammered home the point that his offhand comments can dramatically affect sales. “I prefer to talk about products or services that I really enjoy using, rather than criticising bad products. I don’t want to bring down others’ business just because of my opinion,”

He added that it has to be the brand he likes for him to work with them. Siu and Slime’s views coincide on the principle of creating content: only do what they are truly interested in. They express the only way to retain an audience or attract good advertisers is remain honest and authentic.

Siu has a rule for himself.

I can only make videos that I have always wanted to do. I wouldn’t be doing a video solely for sponsorship.”

He adds that conflict of interest is another concern. Although he tries to avoid doing paid advertisements or collaborations that are closely related to his page subject matter, such as English language courses, he once had a collaboration video with the British Council.

“When I did my video for the British Council, I made it very clear I had to include a disclaimer towards the end of the video, saying Uncle Siu has not taken this course himself, therefore he can’t vote for the quality for the course. My role is to tell you about the launch of the course, and you have to find out about it yourself.”

Creative content is the main ingredient

Today, if a marketer proposes an idea which boils down to a KOL taking a photo or video holding their product with a generic caption about how much he/she loves your brand - forget about it. Influencer marketing campaigns are a lot less like generic ads and much more like content marketing nowadays.

Great content entertains, educates or inspires your audience, and most importantly get consumers to engage. Google's Ng believes content is key, so creators come into play.

Don’t work with them like you work with celebrities. They are not celebrities, though they have a fan following,

She further says that celebrities may be obligated to act according to the scripts, but KOLs, who are content creators, tend to have their own voice and creativity. “Brands have to trust them, let them create something suitable for your brands. So it leads to different levels of collaboration.”

Essentially, influencers know their audience and what resonate with them, so they can create content for campaign that is more genuine and authentic in a creative way.

According to Nielsen, creative is the most important element of advertising, accounting for at least 50% of campaign ROI. And in this case, creativity is tied to flexibility. Brands need to be more flexible when they work with influencers nowadays. Siu says flexibility is one of the major concerns when he is considering taking a paid project.

He recently collaborated with the Open University of Hong Kong and launched the “Keep Learning” campaign, which comprises of three videos. He says he created the stories and scripts, and invited the animator Lau Kwong Sing to work together for this project.

“The client and agent were very open-minded. If you have to use my name, then I have to have a say on the script.”

Pick the right KOL

When brands desire to reach out to millennials, KOLs are on top of their minds. However, engagement with influencers is diminishing, as posts are becoming saturated by brand endorsements. To avoid this "saturation", the trend is shifting towards brand working with micro-influencers.

“Choosing the right creator to partner with becomes a big part of the process. Because the personality and point of view of the creator has to align well with your brand.” Google's Ng says.

The value of influencers is their ability to capture the attention of their audience, no matter what size it is. The right one can reach to your specific target customers and generate a better ROI.

Aiming to connect with millennial, Manulife recently launched “PlanSimple” campaign, which featured KOLs, including pop singer Jason Chan, champion body builder Lisa Cheng, the owners of Pandora Cake Shop and entrepreneurs Jess Leung and Kalvin Wu, and travel show host Jarvis Chow.

They show typical characteristics of millennials, such as pursuing different passions in life, valuing freedom and work-life balance, and reliance on technology. And each of their respective life stories echoes with millennials’ different stage of life, including pursue one’s passion, starting a family, being a entrepreneur and exploring the world.

We want the KOLs to share their own personal stories as ordinary people, not as the identity they have created for themselves as an artist.” Isabella Lau, chief customer officer of Manulife Hong Kong, says.

For instance, Jason Chan, who is the lead KOL of the campaign, shared how he is financially planning for his first baby and how he balances family responsibilities and the pursuit of his passion in music.

While the majority of marketers adopt influencer marketing, some may not agree this is a must-do strategy. It all depends on the objective of the marketing campaign, what story do you want to tell, how can you convey your message creatively, and what benefit does your audience get from the content you’re going to produce with the influencers.

The online classified marketplace Carousell’s latest campaign “Oh my_” (噢賣_) invited its active users to be the main characters of the advertisement.

Brian Sze, general manager of Carousell Hong Kong, points out that it is more appropriate to feature Carousell users sharing their experience rather than using a KOL. “We take a different approach because of our unique company mission - to encourage more people to sell instead of to buy,” he says.

“Our marketing and communications goal is to shift public perception by showing people that changing the way we consume things can make life more meaningful. We consider the authenticity of our real users - our true brand advocates - to be more powerful than KOLs for us. By deploying real users in our campaigns, we can show that everyone can be a power seller on Carousell.”

Leverage social media platforms

Using influencer marketing across various platforms in different ways is a trend now. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube are still the dominant social platforms in Hong Kong. They keep introducing new features to help KOLs to retain and attract viewers.

YouTube’s latest report shows there are globally 1.9 billion active YouTube users per month, with 1 billion hours watched daily. YouTube also reaches 90% of internet users in Hong Kong. Users not only watch videos on the platform, but actively involving in creating content, as there are 700,000 channels originating locally.

YouTube is one of the main sources people seek for product reviews and tutorials. It is the second largest search engine. Research from Ipsos found that 83% of YouTube users said it helped them to make a purchase decision.

“The key influence of YouTube is by teaching people and reviewing products to guide users’ purchase decision.” Ng says.

Aiming to increase user engagement and help creators to bond with fans, YouTube introduced Super Chat, allowing fans to pay money to highlight their comments during live-stream videos; and channel membership, where members can pay creators for birthday shout-outs and exclusive engagement.   

YouTube also hosted YouTube FanFest in early August, one of the biggest KOL events of the year, offering opportunity for fans to meet the celebrity YouTubers. It recorded 340,000 accumulated views on the live-stream video. Lau says Manulife sponsoring YouTube FanFest as it is a fun energetic event that connected with younger consumers.

Meanwhile, Instagram’s Stories has become a key marketing channel for reaching those under the age of 25, according to Instagram. This group of audience spend an average of 32 minutes a day consuming this ephemeral content. Over half of Instagram’s 500 million daily active users are now watching Stories.

In China, a growing number of WeChat influencers are developing their own e-commerce ‘mini-programs’ to drive sales via their content. Mini-programs are powerful sub-apps within WeChat that enable e-commerce, coupons, and other ‘experiences’.

Ng believes it is an ecosystem between advertisers, KOLs and users. “Advertisers create quality ads for the social media platforms, and also partner with creators, so creators have the opportunity to express their creative freedom and make new unique content. At the end, users can enjoy the creative content and ads.”

She added that the full potential of influencer marketing has not been unlocked yet. Brands can explore new ways to engage influencers.