Key Opinion Leaders Are Online Now — Can They Stay Online for a Living?

As the social media battlefield expands over the past few years, an online battle for fame has slowly emerged. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Youtube, these platforms are overcrowded by people who seek fame and attention. Different ordinary but talented people are stepping inside the rings of different fields, trying to pack a punch online. They pound and pummel the online wall, trying to break into the hearts of their followers in various online platforms which have become their different rounds of battles.

A new term called “Key Opinion Leader”, or KOL, then appeared in Hong Kong, pointing to those online influencers in different fields. After becoming big hits online, some of them are even given endorsement deals and turn into the new generation of online celebrities.

If they are pronounced the winner online, can they also be the breadwinners for their families in the offline world?

“It all started because it’s what I’m most passionate about.” – Sophronia Tsoi

Although Sophronia Tsoi does not see herself as a KOL, her two social media accounts on food have already gained around 23 thousand support in total within a few years’ time. Now a final-year student at the University of Hong Kong, Tsoi says she never imagined she would have influence in the food industry when she first started a Facebook page called HK foodie during her first year of study.

Sophronia Tsoi runs a Facebook page called HK foodie. Photo by Thomas Ng

“I simply like to eat. Also, there are quite a number of good, small-scale restaurants near where I live but they don’t have much promotion, so I wanted to help bring more people to these unique diners,” says Tsoi with an exciting voice.

She describes her journey of becoming a food blogger quite fascinating. With her love for food, she uses her Facebook page and Instagram to record the food she finds delicious. Slowly, her posts and shares have gained her some attention from the online world. Even, some famous food bloggers contacted her via social media and later brought her along to a food tasting event.

Tsoi often attends different food tasting events. Photo by Thomas Ng

“At that event, I’ve met several marketing PRs who later gave me quite a lot of opportunities to join other food events. Meanwhile, after I started getting more followers on social media, some restaurants also invite me to their tasting events through emails and social media.” she says, “I didn’t know that you could get free food and even pay sometimes until then.”

She explains that for some restaurants, the owners offer a free meal for tasting while some pay her travel stipend. She added that some restaurants do pay her for posting on social media for promotional purposes. But she stresses that she will not write against her will because she wants to stay credible among her followers.

Meanwhile, she concedes that advertising on social media is a more effective method than on traditional media because of its wider coverage of audience while KOL’s “market value” in online platforms is very high.

“The market’s need is changing, from only text to with photos. And I think it’s also changing to more video-centered now. So, the marketing strategies are also more on social media.”

Sophronia Tsoi, a food blogger. Photo by Thomas Ng

Very soon, Tsoi is going to graduate from university, but she says she would only treat being a food blogger as an interest.

“It’s a feasible career because I have friends that work as a full-time food bloggers. But from observing their lives, I feel like I couldn’t deal with it because this could get really stressful. And, I probably couldn’t balance my life,” she explains, “Also, this is a very unstable job. You might not get as many invitations every month.”

“I take it as an interest only. To make it a business is another thing.” – Mingme Yeung

Having a vlogging channel has been on Mingme Yeung’s to-do list for several years. But she found it quite difficult to achieve this goal, especially in Hong Kong.

Last year, Yeung went on exchange in Netherland before her final year of study at the University of Hong Kong, and she finally started producing several videos there.

“I am more interested in lifestyle-related topics. Looking for opportunities with more elements for production, I started to vlogging during my exchange. I want to share my views on these aspects,” says Yeung.

Mingme Yeung, who is interested in sharing her life and thoughts on the online platforms but is deterred by the reality. Photo by Thomas Ng

Until now, Yeung has produced 6 videos but those are all about her exchange in Netherland. Gaining a maximum view of three thousands, Yeung has paused her vlogs when she came back to Hong Kong.

“It’s taking up too much of my time – shooting, editing, uploading – for example, a 4-minute video takes me around 8 hours for editing. Since my school curriculum is a relatively packed one, in this stage, I think I need to prioritise my study rather than my video blog,” Yeung says.

When asked about blogger/vlogger being a future career, Yeung disagrees that these are career alternatives in Hong Kong. Comparing Hong Kong’s situation with foreign countries, she thinks that foreigners are easier to turn their blogs into a business.

“It’s mostly about the language. Countries with the biggest Youtube market (US and UK) use English. With English being a common language to most of the people around the world, foreign YouTubers are easier to accumulate worldwide followers – they are not limited to the place they are living in. In Hong Kong, many of us use Cantonese to shoot videos. The coverage is relatively smaller,” Yeung explains.

Apart from the medium, Yeung thinks the relatively late development of social media in Hong Kong, as well as the public acceptance towards the online celebrities, also matter.

“I think Hong Kong has started relatively too slow in this aspect. Even very famous YouTubers in Hong Kong own far fewer subscribers than those in foreign countries,” Yeung reiterates.

Mingme Yeung. Photo by Thomas Ng

Yeung further describes, “Hongkongers are being too judgemental. In foreign channels, you seldom encounter comments of gossips under those videos. Hongkongers just can’t accept them – those online celebrities are here to be judged.”

But, Yeung doesn’t deny the career possibility on social media platforms in Hong Kong, yet she hesitates if one could be that “significant” as being a KOL.

“It’s not just about the online audience – in Hong Kong, you also need to consider a great proportion of audiences from the non-digital generation, “Yeung says, “Also, I would not try to commercialize the online platforms because it would just seem to go against why I started everything at the beginning – sharing is the notion behind.”

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                                                                              A guideline for KOL wannabes  

“Every chance I had has shaped me into who I am today.” – Jacky Lai

There are indeed twists and turns in Lai’s story. Back to the days when he was in high school, he participated much in on-stage performances. Speaking of his Youtube channel Lai UP, it was started in his third year as a nursing student at the University of Hong Kong. He didn’t aim that high from the beginning – he wanted to use his channel to share and store his memories – he just wanted to gather a group of audience so as to express himself. A year later, he joined HKTV and became the host of a sale programme. Resigned after several months, he became a freelancer and produced several advertisements.

Jacky Lai, a nursing graduate who started her career with the online platforms from Youtube. Photo by Thomas Ng

Being the current creative director at, a company which promotes discounted air-tickets, Lai has successfully turned his interest into his career. The reason why he joined mostly bases on his strong interest in travelling. With flexible working hours, he often travels overseas to produce travelogues for his company. Apart from video production, his duty includes also management of social media platforms, as well as pitching potential customers.

“Once you enter the medical industry, for the near future you will be spending everyday routinely on shifts. Yes, it is well-paid, but I don’t want myself to be such constrained that early,” says Lai.

Lai works in a company that utilizes the online platforms for business. Photo by Thomas Ng

“My parents support me, though they sometimes question why I give up such a well-paid prospect. True, everything I have at this stage is about fortune. Every chance I had has shaped me into who I am today. So if you ask me whether I count myself as a KOL, I would only say I am ‘King Of Loser’ ,” Lai adds, with his modest tune and warmest smile.

Being a part of the industry, Lai doesn’t affirm the certainty of the digital marketing. He describes Hong Kong’s digital marketing industry as “uncertain” owing to its ever-changing and fast-growing characteristics.

“What makes digital marketing valuable is the platform and audience those online celebrities have. In Hong Kong, there are a lot of KOL agencies – the mechanism is comparable to artist agencies: customers look for agency, agencies supply online celebrity for them to do online advertisement. How much does that advertisement costs directly relates to how famous is that celebrity,” Lai says.

Jacky Lai. Photo by Thomas Ng

Lai thinks that online-and-offline media exists competition. Years before, TVB’s reality show “The Internet Of Things On TV” invited different online celebrity to do different ad hoc tasks. As a member of local YouTubers, Lai thinks that the show does affect corporates’ impression on online celebrity, and hence online advertisement.

“After the show, many potential customers do not use online celebrities as their advertising icons anymore. Along with the changing rules of YouTube, we can see that local YouTubers are gaining fewer and fewer likes. All these marks the milestone in the evolution of Hong Kong’s social media platform – from the very beginning, they didn’t think that YouTube will grow that much. Now, we can see that more teens follow YouTuber, and therefore a lot of YouTubers start to produce gaming videos…beauty channel as well,“ Lai describes.

Infographic showing the estimated income for KOLs

“Passion Is Everything. We’re the next-generation’s network, to empower creator to build their own digital creative content.” – Ruth Ng

Along the trend of online influencers is the emergence of a new industry specialized for social media marketing. Ruth Ng, who works as an assistant project manager in one of the KOL agencies in Hong Kong, said all it takes is passion to become a KOL, or what they call, “creators”.

“We use “creators” or “influencers” instead of KOL because it’s simply more explicit. People who are able to create their own content and attract a decent amount of followers have the power to influence their audiences,” Ng explains, “Also the same with every career, if you have passion, you can overcome all the difficulties and hardship.”

Ng adds that her company not only serves as a platform for businesses to connect online influencers to utilize YouTube Video for branding, but also provides a place with hardware equipped for potential creators to produce their original ideas.

“And the most valuable part brought by creators is the very down-to-earth and interesting storyline and presentation for a commercial video.”

Ng further explains that the price per project fluctuates a lot within the market, and it also depends on the number of followers of the selected creator. So, she suggests youngsters who wish to start a career being an influencer first take it as a side job.

“They’re commercializing everything.” – A group of concerned KOLs

But, not everyone is happy with the changes alongside the influencer marketing. There’s a special group of KOLs who want to be the “vigilantes” for the online world.

The Facebook page, the Hiking Boys, was created by a group of concerned hiking lovers when they spotted wrong information related to hiking was being disseminated in online platforms. The initiator of the group who is in his 20s said they want to raise awareness and challenge online audience to think critically.

“If people learn those wrong information online and they go off to hike, it could lead to lethal accidents.”  

The page, the Hiking Boys, targets KOLs who disseminate false information. Photo by Thomas Ng

He adds that the commercialization of information for promotion could go wrong, especially for the nature. He cites the recent case in Cape D’Aguilar, where the marine life was disturbed because of the large influx of visitors following media coverage and online promotion.

“If those online travel magazine and influencers promote certain hiking trails, those places will become very popular. But with a sudden surge in visitors, it would only bring detrimental environmental impact to the place.”

But, he does think that the Hiking Boys fall into the category of online influencers. Even with that being said, he refuses to disclose his identity because he said he doesn’t want to be famous and the monitoring job he is doing online might upset some people.

“I think just like power comes with responsibility, with the influence we have, we have the responsibility to point out what’s wrong.”

Just a few days ago, the online influencers which the Hiking Boys have criticized of giving false information online have apologized to the public and shutted down their related online platform.


Produced by Thomas Ng and Zoe Law

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