Under the influencer: More and more young Chinese want to be one

Future of Work

Influencer marketing is thriving in China as young people see it as the easiest way to make money in the 21st century.

Viya, also known as the queen of live-streaming, was a top Chinese influencer with tens of millions of followers on the internet, leveraging social media platforms to collaborate with different brands to sell a variety of products. When, in December 2021, she was fined US$210 million for tax evasion and banned from social media, her followers discovered just how volatile, as well as lucrative, influencer marketing can be.

She posted an apology statement on her Weibo account, a Chinese version of Facebook, saying she was deeply sorry for the allegations.

For many young Chinese people, being an online celebrity is their ultimate dream. A survey conducted by Tencent, a leading Chinese information and technology company, found more than half the respondents born after 1995 expect to make a living through online platforms. In China, some influencers reputedly earn more than A-list movie stars. As well as the money, young people also see it as an opportunity to get free products, attend fancy brand events and meet cool people.

With the development of digital technology and social media, influencers or KOLs (key opinion leaders) are considered more important than mass media in people’s daily life. Influencers on TikTok, Weibo and Little Red Book have become an essential part of any brand’s marketing strategy.

'As my number of followers grows, more and more brands message me they can pay me if I promote their products in my videos.'

Emma Li, who has worked as a part-time fashion influencer for a year since she started at university in Chongqing, said she is satisfied to be able to turn her passion for fashion and photography into a job. Her profile on Xiaohongshu, an e-commerce platform, includes a brief description of “Lifestyle, fashion and beauty.”

“If you want to be a full-time influencer, then be prepared to have an unstable income,” Li said. After completing high school and getting an offer from her dream university, Li found she had more time to do the things she was really interested in. She initially shared her photos of her everyday outfits on her Little Red Book account because she was interested in fashion and photography. In a short period of time, the content she posted had a large number of views, likes and comments. Fashion brands noticed and expressed interest in working with her.

“I got messages from niche brands that would like to work with me and send me free products. As the number of my followers grows, more and more brands message me that they can pay me if I promote their products in my videos,” Li said.

In China, influencer marketing consists of two main business models: online retail and social media advertising. Influencers are both social media users and content creators. Most influencers have niche knowledge in their own specialised field and are willing to share it on the internet. The key to success is building a large number of followers on social media and the ability to generate viral content.

Most of the time, Li enjoys being labelled as an internet celebrity. “I think the best part of being an influencer is that I can do what I like and what I am good at. For example, I like fashion, taking photos and editing videos. Now my interests are all part of my job. I can also participate in various brands’ events and meet people from different industries for the sake of this job. Compared to the traditional and nine-to-six job, I have more time to invest in myself.”

Influencers use Xiaohongshu to promote lifestyle, beauty and fashion products.XIAOHONGSHU

Most Chinese parents want their children to find traditional jobs, such as civil servant, doctor, teacher or in business. Li's parents actually didn’t have a deep understanding of her job or how it worked.

“They initially preferred that I find an internship because in the view of most Chinese parents, finding a formal job is very important. Also, they persuaded me to attend the national examination for admission to the civil service due to the fact that civil servant is considered as the most stable and the least stressful job in the perspective of most Chinese parents,“ Li said.

“But I told them that I have a lot of followers on my social media platform and just make video content in my free time. I still focus more on my studies and keep my marks up, so the thing is, I should do it to find the balance between the two. Being an influencer is just like a part-time job for me.”

Frank Liu, a career counselling planner with a university in southern China, speaks with many young people transitioning from study to full-time work. He describes the typical Gen Z student as having "good living conditions, strong self-awareness, individual independence and broad vision but their ability to resist stress and awareness of career planning is weak”.

Social media plays an essential role in college students' lives. They scroll through pages online, whether it is TikTok, Little Red Book or Weibo. They also use it to connect with people around them and find communities where they feel they belong. Now, social media can be a useful tool for college students to earn money.

“Recent years, Little Red Book has also become a trend in China. It is not only a social media platform, but many young people also use it as a search engine, making it suitable for product discovery,” Liu said. “For college students, social media can be a great way for students to make money in school. Today, no matter which social media platform, the influencer community is growing, and anyone can get involved from scratch. If you work hard enough, you can grow your community and followers, make a profit, and collaborate with brands. You can start your career with a phone and an account.”

The success of Little Red Book is due to the user-generated content, mainly in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle areas, with 72 per cent of monthly active users born in the 1990s.

Young people don’t just trust influencers, they want to be influencers. As new graduates consider career paths, almost all will face a choice between a higher salary or personal interest. The opportunity to become an influencer has shifted that equation.

“Today’s young people have their own ideas," university counsellor Liu said. "They were born into a world that was already online, grew up with the internet as a part of daily life, and they are also called digital native. Many students are interested in technology companies or e-commerce platforms, willing to do internet-related work.”

“In the halo of the job, many people see influencers with a filter and think it is the most lucrative job. Also, social media has become an important tool in young people’s daily life. Their excessive use of social media allows them to follow and trust influencers. Some influencers receive money to promote products even if they don’t like them. Young people are fuelled by their desire to become social media influencers,” Liu said.

For ordinary college students, social media and e-commerce live-steaming provide opportunities to make profits. Now, Li 's influencer income helps her not have to rely on her parents financially. “I can earn more by creating social media content than doing a normal job, but I will look for a formal job after graduation,” Li said.

Being an influencer doesn’t offer much job security and the competition is fierce. Li said she had to create exciting and creative content to keep the audience engaged.

“Not every influencer can earn a lot of money and keep it stable. Networking is also important as there is a constant need to find new partners and keep revenue steady,” said Li, who asked Newsworthy not to use images from her influencer accounts.

For every successful influencer in China, the queen of streaming's rise and fall is a cautionary tale. Two years after Viya's fall from grace for tax evasion, she has still not returned to live streaming. She has begun to get involved in market investment and brand cultivation but her social media accounts remain blacked out.


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