HONG KONG: China's key opinion leader economy is forecast to top Rmb 100bn next year as brands flock to influencers to promote their products.

"More than in any other country, [KOLs] have taken the lead to be a true media vehicle,' according to Greg Paull, principal of R3, a global marketing consultancy.

"Much like you would use a TV campaign or other promotion, most marketers in China have a KOL strategy," he told the Financial Times.

That's true of all categories, from FMCG to luxury. And while it's not necessarily cheap – luxury watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre is reported to have paid "at least" Rmb5m ($731,000) to run a campaign with girl-next-door vlogger Papi Jiang – it can be very effective: Jaeger-LeCoultre's brand awareness more than doubled.

And when designer Michael Kors threw a birthday party for actress Yang Mi, she shared it with her 72m followers on Weibo and received more than 12m comments and likes.

"We have clients who move all of their advertising online and KOL endorsement is the primary driver outside of Baidu search," said Brian Buchwald, cofounder and chief executive of consumer research company Bomoda.

"They are trying to put as much money into KOLs as they can." The KOL economy is projected to double in two years, from Rmb 53bn in 2016 to Rmb102bn in 2018, according to consultancy form Analysis. 

And ever-increasing amounts are being devoted to livestreaming, which has taken off in a big way, with more than 200 livestreaming apps available, including Weibo, although there is always the threat of a crackdown by government authorities seeking to control the dissemination of online content.

From an advertiser's point of view one of the attractions of livestreaming, according to Buchwald, is that "a lot of platforms have a greater level of interactivity between the KOL and the watcher. They encourage live engagement . . . with the KOLs."

Advertisers also need to remember that viewers themselves are generally platform-neutral and follow the person.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff