With a population of around 1.4 billion people, everyone wants a piece of the Chinese market.

And as Chinese consumers become increasingly connected in cyberspace, digital marketing provides a shortcut for businesses and brands to that opportunity, provided, that is, marketers select online channels wisely.

Speaking at the Emerge by TechNode conference in Shanghai on Thursday, chief marketing officer of key opinion leader (KOL) marketing platform Parklu Elijah Whaley told delegates that while Chinese social, content and commerce platforms offer similar functionalities, there is a key differentiating factor—user purpose or intent.

The question, according to Whaley is, “Why am I walking into this app or what am I explicitly getting out of from interacting with the ecosystem?”

The seamless ubiquity of WeChat makes it the go-to place for online marketing, but the platform is particularly good for CRM, and as a place for conversation given its core function in messaging friends, families, and coworkers.

“We see a lot of partners really wanted WeChat to be a marketing platform,” he said. “But it’s more of a place to interact with your customers.”

Taobao’s embedded WeChat-like CRM service Weitao is a great place to conduct KOL marketing, according to Whaley, because consumers log on to the platform with the intention of buying stuff. He said that users are willing to engage with content on the platform because they are trying to learn if the item is the one they want to buy.

Whaley believes location-based content represents the next-generation for search. Apps like Douyin and Xiaohongshu have “nearby me” button. This feature could be a huge advantage for travel brands, restaurants or as a way for offline businesses to influence and attract consumers.

Given that, marketers should never use the same strategy, KOLs, or content across different platforms, Whaley said.

He added that content—in the form of product reviews, short videos or live-streaming—and generated by a new breed of online influencers, or KOLs, is a crucial feature to China’s digital marketing dynamics, or even a greater role than their counterparts would play in the Western countries.

While gifting in the business world may be considered as a form of graft in the West, it is an important part in the physiological development of relationships in China, where reciprocity, or the idea of gift exchange, is one of the most important aspects in building relationships.

“Content is a form of gift,” said Whaley, explaining that among the Chinese KOL communities, there’s a sense of indebtedness that comes from having received the gift of information from someone over time and that builds trust and reciprocity. “That’s why we see conversion rates that we don’t see in the West,” he added.

In addition to ease of e-commerce integration and payment tools, such deeper, psychological elements at work in Chinese society provide an additional reason that helps explain why KOL marketing is gathering force in China, Whaley added.

A 2018 analysis from marketing company MarketingToChina showed that Chinese consumers download an average of 44 mobile apps each, far higher than the global average of 26 applications per smartphone user.

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Emma Lee

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.

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