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After traveling to China, I was struck by a significant difference in the way in which they think about marketing. I interviewed a number of C-level executives and across every interview, there was a pattern that emerged. Each individual talked about leveraging KOLs—key opinion leaders—as a central element of their marketing plan. What struck me is that after having interviewed hundreds of marketing experts from the west, I’ve not heard such a focus. While marketers in the west will readily talk about advertising or promotion, they rarely emphasize influencers as a priority (although in fairness, interest has increased over the past couple of years).
The more I learned about how the Chinese are using influencers, the more I realized that they are far ahead of the U.S. and other western countries. To understand the difference, I talked with Tamara McCleary, founder and CEO of Thulium, a brand amplification company. McClearly is also a top influencer (see here for top CMO influencers), working with Huawei in China and a number of different companies around the world. Her insight on how Chinese marketers are winning the influencer battle is below.
Kimberly Whitler: I recently published an article about how China-based marketers are beating western marketers (see Harvard Business Review article here and Harvard Business Review ideacast here). As a key influencer yourself, do you agree and more broadly, what do you think?
Tamara McCleary: First of all, the East has always seen influence through a different lens than the U.S. China is ahead of the U.S. because of the way we often view relationships. I believe that China has a unique cultural understanding that people have power based on their relationships and connections. What Chinese companies are doing is looking for people who have leadership and sway with a target group of individuals that equals their ideal customer. In the U.S., we are a culture of beta testers. Marketers tend to chase shiny objects. This is a hindrance within the world of marketing because for marketing initiatives to work, you have to remain committed over a period of time. In the U.S, because we are such beta testers, we will try something for a month and then keep flipping around to the next marketing program du jour. So many companies in the U.S. don’t even think about influencer marketing and the few who do often plan and execute an influencer marketing program incorrectly because they treat influencer marketing as a transaction, or a short-term initiative.
The Chinese think differently. Slow and steady wins the race. First, they understand the power of influencers and so they tend to treat influencers much better than many companies in the West who treat influencer marketing as a transaction rather than a relationship. The Chinese pick individuals who they believe have leadership with certain segments and they create a relationship with the thought leader until the thought leader feels compelled and empowered to share that insight. To the Chinese, the reputation of an individual is as important as the company. In the U.S., I don’t think enough marketers understand the power of this kind of long-term relationship building, and they’ve miscalculated what true influence is. On social media, numbers mean nothing. People can buy numbers. That is popularity. Popularity doesn’t equal influence and influence doesn’t equal popularity. Somebody with influence may have a smaller audience (less popularity) but be highly influential because they are known, liked, and trusted. What they say matters, is respected, and is effective.
Whitler: What is it that you think the Chinese understand that we don’t—beyond the power of relationships?
McCleary: Marketers have forgotten that consumers don’t follow brands, they follow people. Nobody cares about your brand name. Does Brand X engage with me? The Chinese have figured this out because as a culture, they have always valued relationships. They are slow to friend but are then steadfast for life. In the U.S., we’ll friend anybody but aren’t necessarily steadfast. We are constantly in a state of distraction. In China, everything has to have an appearance of respect and credibility. And so this belief translates into how they treat their influencers differently. I travel the world as a global influencer, but when Huawei brings me in, I am treated with terrific respect. In the U.S., I often don’t have a front seat, or even have the right badge to get in the front door. In China, I not only get in, I get in early, I get a front row seat, and I get an interview with the CEO, CIO, CMO and other top-level executives, as well as, the product development teams. They understand the value of what I’m providing as opposed to many Western companies who want me to tweet and throw up some pictures. In China you feel like royalty. Will you go back? Yes. They want you to feel connected to them and to feel like you are a part of the organization.
Many PR agencies don’t understand this in the U.S., and unfortunately, if a company decides to do anything with influencers they often outsource it to PR firms who are fabulous at traditional PR, but are grossly missing the mark when it comes to influencer marketing. A mission critical error. Influencers are an extension of your brand and you keep them as connected as possible.
Whitler: Does it matter that marketers in the U.S. aren’t as adept as the Chinese?
McCleary: Marketing is a highly competitive landscape where it’s prove your worth to the business bottom line, earn your seat at the executive table, or lose your job. Influencer marketing is disrupting businesses. Marketers must get influencer marketing right, demonstrate measurable success or risk being left behind. As marketers we are vying for attention in an over-stimulated, distracted, almost narcissistic-behaved marketplace where’s it all about the “Me” economy. Our most scarce resource is time, and our most valued commodity is our own experience.
We don’t need more information. We are overrun with content. Overwhelmed is the norm and our pace of living is only getting faster. How do you get your brand positioned in such a way as to be seen as the leader without influencers? It’s impossible. You have to use the vehicle of unique, genuine, influential voices to be heard in today’s noisy marketplace.
Whitler: Do you have an example?
McCleary: A great, salient example is the KOL program at Huawei. They have taken diversity to new heights with their influencer program. Their KOLs are not primarily white, middle-aged men from the U.S. In their global KOL program, they include Arab women, men and women from Africa, Western Europe, Australia, and other global locations. They are thoughtful about inclusion of gender, race, education, religion, and thought diversity as part of their KOL program. For instance, I was recently at a London event for Huawei and it included a KOL who is a young Arab woman, not highly formally educated, a YouTube sensation possessing a huge following of young Arab women who want the KOL to teach them about fashion and make-up. Juxtaposed to this young Arab woman YouTube star was a well-renowned political academician from Turkey. Their KOL program is rich with diversity. Huawei is selling Telco, AR, VR, and they have brilliantly recreated a global population through their KOL program. When I am speaking at or working as an influencer at Silicon Valley tech events, how much diversity do you think I see?
So let me share the difference in how Huawei smartly cultivates a relationship. They bring all of the KOLs together and they treat us exceptionally well— Business-class travel, accommodations, and a method of remuneration that is commensurate with our level of experience and influence. But those are the basics. The real secret sauce is in how they treat us when we land. They are open, inviting, welcoming, and have prepared all manner of experiences to share their information with us. We are invited to everything that analysts are invited to. Huawei’s stated belief is around radical transparency – they don’t monitor anything and you don’t have to run anything by them. You are free to share anything that you’ve seen or heard. Their KOL program is grounded in deep generosity and in return, over months and years, they are building an army of influencers who believe.
Can you think of one company in the U.S. who has this level of strategic understanding of the power of relationships, networks, and influence? Can you imagine a U.S. tech event where they actually invited people with diverse educational backgrounds including no formal education? How about a thoughtful approach to looking at who is missing from the room? Huawei makes a concerted effort to invite more women and people of color to events, and to execute on diversity and inclusion rather than talk about it.
The gem is found in shaking up the foundation and understanding that we must reach all layers of society, not just the ones we are familiar, (or comfortable), with. The U.S. is lagging in this race, and I am hopeful we will wake-up to catch-up instead of continuing to drink the Kool-Aid of first world complacency.
Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler and @TamaraMcCleary
June 1, 2019 at 09:26PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs