• Andrew Collins

Potential of Athletes as KOL’s on Chinese Social Media

A topic we find ourselves often revisiting is the power of Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s) in the Chinese social media landscape. Having pivotal influence on social media users, they have the ability to work wonders for your digital marketing campaign. This time we approach the subject upon the closure of the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, held in Beijing.

2015 marks 7 years since the Summer Olympics were held in the capital and 7 years until the Winter Olympics make their debut there; teamed with the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing and the recently finished IAAF World Championships, China is the first country to hold all four competitions. Throughout the entirety of each of the past competitions, China not only won an array of medals, but also an army of new followers and adoration for their native athletes.

With China having such a passion for sports while brands constantly seek to form alliances with KOL’s, the question is posed, are China’s athletes among the next wave of home-grown key opinion leaders?

As we’ve previously highlighted, KOL’s are crucial to effective digital marketing in China. Several advertising tactics that have been tried and tested in the west are deemed, to some degree, ineffective. Despite a high rate of Chinese social media users among the general population, the value-per-user is much less than on western platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The social landscape is also highly censored, with users displaying distrust for formal institutions. This is where KOL’s become involved; they represent the brand aesthetic, providing a direct route to consumers by active and influential engagement. KOL’s talk to their followers, offering tips and solving problems, showing their fan base that they are at the forefront of relevant topics.

Initially, when social media in China began gaining popularity, users expressed a desire to connect with foreign KOL’s, such as basketball superstar Kobe Bryant; who has assisted Nike in securing China as their second largest market behind the USA. However, in recent years, brands have expressed a desire to harness the power of native influencers in their marketing efforts. Celebrity Fan Bingbing has emerged as one of the most commercially valuable Chinese performers, representing a diverse range of brands.


China’s tennis sensation Li Na is a prime example of the potential a national KOL can bring to the table. Until her retirement in 2014 Li was China’s stand out player on the court for over 10 years, she is  Asia’s only Grand Slam singles champion, and the first to break into the world’s top 10. Upon her retirement she commanded 23 million followers on Sina Weibo, with endorsements that included global brands Mercedes, Rolex and Nike.  Li has cemented herself as a pioneer in Chinese tennis whilst establishing a stronger presence for her sponsors as a leading KOL.

Current athletes such as track star Xie Zhenye, exhibit the necessary characteristics to become a KOL, yielding power that is invaluable when it comes to promoting a product or message. Xie has long been establishing himself on the track, breaking the Chinese national record in the 200m and leading his team to a historic silver medal in Beijing. He’s also been active on social media, amassing over 70,000 followers on his personal Sina Weibo account.

Whilst China has its fair share of sporting stars, shining across a range of disciplines; events on the track and field continue to gain rapid popularity. As well as China being the first country to hold all four aforementioned sporting events, the culmination of the most recent IAAF event in Beijing saw 80,000 sporting enthusiasts pack the national Olympic stadium in support of their native heroes. China fielded 45 athletes across 17 events, resulting in 9 medals, many of which were breakthrough performances from rising stars.

As more and more brands desire a presence in the Chinese market furthered with the country’s growing appetite for KOL’s, a home-grown influencer could be fundamental in a company’s marketing efforts. With that said, given China’s development as a force to be reckoned with in athletics, brands need look no further than the track and field.

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