As marketing professionals, we are increasingly turning to social media to support our broader digital campaign initiatives and drive increased awareness. This is especially true in China, the world's largest social media market where 300 million-plus social media users are active on a range of platforms, from blogs to social networking sites to microblogs and other online communities. In addition, China's online users spend more than 40 percent of their time online on social media, and that number is just going to grow as social becomes "on-the-go" thanks to increasing smart-phone penetration. Just consider, there was 100 million mobile social users in 2010 and that number is forecast to grow by about 30 percent annually.
Because most Chinese lack trust in formal institutions, users disproportionately value the advice from (virtual) friends in social networks. So, given this skepticism, marketers and brands are leveraging KOLs (key online leaders) who can shape social media users' sentiment toward brands, and they are often used in helping share and spread messages. Thus making their role essential in social media marketing programs.
Therefore the KOL selection process is a critical component to a social program, as your selected KOLs could have a very positive impact in terms of spread and influence, very little, or worse, a negative impact.
So given the dependency on the KOL, how does an agency/brand assess the effectiveness of a potential KOL?
Typically, within most agencies and PR firms, potential KOLs are selected based on the number of fans/follows they have as well as the domain of interest they occupy. Meaning if you have someone with a lot of followers who blogs/tweets about the topic "cars" then they might be considered a potential KOL for promoting a particular car manufacturer's event or new car launch.
But is this the most effective way of selecting potential KOLs or determining their effectiveness? Is the number of fans/followers a natural proxy for predicting success of a KOL's ability to influence and facilitate social sharing? Should we consider the KOL's fans activity or does having fake followers aid in the greater perception of the KOL? These are all important considerations when putting a list of potential KOLs together for use in a social program and worthy of a discussion.
The scenarios above describe some of the quandaries faced by digital marketers everyday in KOL selection. More often than not, clients are questioning our rationale for KOL selection and requiring justification of the media spend being applied to the KOLs. Therefore. a growing number of digital marketers are turning to social scoring tools (such as Klout, Buzz Equity, Kred, PeerIndex) to algorithmically "grade" an individual's or brand's social value or influence. Each of these tools also comes with its problems and is by no means the single answer to KOL selection, but combined with traditional ways of selection will help an agency or marketer answer the "why them" question.
Additionally, each social scoring platform tends to use quite different approaches to determining its "grade" so you should experiment until you find one that matches your needs and interests; some focus on scoring an individual, others, the brand or competitor. Importantly, the tools often provide free versions so it is easy to try out the systems and understand what one(s) is useful. Moreover, many of the social scoring platforms tend to only use Western social media for analysis, so if you are looking for a "grade" of a Chinese or Asian context then you will need to ensure that the social scoring platform can accommodate this.
While the technology and methodologies behind these social scoring tools are still in their infancy, the logic behind them makes sense. So instead of looking only at the number of fans a KOL has, start to incorporate her social value scores. Doing this is simple, in most cases is free of technology cost, and will help you in the determination/justification process as well as negotiating KOL pricing/media value.
This is a guest column by Dr. Mathew McDougall, founder and CEO at Digital Jungle. Although a native of Australia, McDougall has been involved in the Chinese Internet and media industries for nearly 10 years. Digital Jungle, a leading Chinese digital marketing agency, was established to capitalize on the shift in advertising spend moving from offline to online and where social media and search marketing was attracting a significant amount of interest. Additionally, McDougall recognized that many digital agencies at that time were unable to understand the Chinese social media dynamics and effectively engage in online campaigns that had social influence goals at their core. Prior to Digital Jungle, he founded SinoTech Group, a social media analytics and consulting company.
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