Becky Li, one of China's most famous fashion bloggers, has launched a mini-program through WeChat to sell her own line of clothing.

SHANGHAI — Converting followers into cash is the holy grail for online influencers but China’s cream of the crop are doing just that by utilizing WeChat “mini-programs.”

Mini-programs are a relatively recent innovation that allow WeChat’s “subscription” accounts — commonly used by brands, celebrities and influencers, known as Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs in China — and followers a new level of interaction within the WeChat ecosystem. Whereas previously, subscription accounts were limited in their ability to link to outside sites, the “app within an app” mini-programs allow followers to easily move between subscription account content and mini-programs.

Already the platform’s top Chinese KOLs, such as Gogoboi, Becky Li and Hugo Ge, have created their own mini-programs to create online shopping experiences that are instantly accessible to followers via the widely seen content on their subscription accounts.

Whereas brands previously might have partner with KOLs to front campaigns, post about products or collaborate on limited editions, they are now able to collaborate in a much more direct way to sell product through mini-programs to fans of the KOL — consumers who are most likely to trust their product recommendations and want to buy them.

Kim Leitzes is founder and chief executive officer of ParkLu, an online marketplace that helps connect Chinese KOLs with brands that want to work with them. He says mini-programs can take brand collaborations to a new level for WeChat KOLs.

“Now when a brand looks to work with a WeChat KOL they can do more, they can ask for a more integrated content experience. Previously, the KOL could take photos or video and write about a product, but now the brand and KOL can work together on a more integrated e-commerce offering,” Leitzes said.

“This can double or as much as five-times increase the click-through to e-commerce conversion rate by having this seamless user experience. This means that KOLs can monetize in two ways more easily — through their own e-commerce site, but also by being affiliated with other e-commerce sites — so they can get paid to post about a product but also get paid a percentage of the resulting sales.”

KOLs who primarily use the Weibo platform have previously had a sell-through advantage because of Sina-Weibo’s affiliation with Alibaba, which makes it easy for influencers to link to their own Taobao stores via their Weibo account. With mini-programs WeChat has somewhat leveled the playing field, with the added advantage of WeChat KOLs in general communicating intimately and often with their fans by writing detailed and long-form posts on their subscription accounts. This makes their fans particularly enthusiastic and trusting when it comes to their favored influencers — more so than with influencers on a platform more likely to be skim-read or swiped-through in a hurry.

Since mini-programs were unveiled a year ago, WeChat has seen more than 580,000 launched within the app, and the innovation is only tipped to grow bigger this year as WeChat’s recent annual conference pointed to mini-programs as a focus for 2018.

Hugo Yu, also known as Yu Xiao Ge, was editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar China before leaving in 2015 to launch two apps, iSnob and iDS “Da Yan Jing,” or Big Eyes. In September, iDS — which stands for independent, diversified, sophisticated — added a mini-program through its WeChat subscription account called iDS BuyBuyBuy, which sells a well-curated, niche, high-end collection of beauty and lifestyle products.

According to Yu, beauty device-maker Iluminage sold three million yuan worth of its products — each priced at more than 3,000 yuan apiece — in only eight minutes. In BuyBuyBuy’s first five months, sales revenue has surpassed 50 million yuan, or almost $8 million.

“No advertisements, no discounts, no traffic investment, it’s purely organic and it’s just a beginning,” she said, adding that smaller brands now looking at a more targeted e-commerce strategy in China are partnering exclusively with BuyBuyBuy rather than getting lost within massive e-commerce platforms such as Tmall.

Hugo Yu speaks with Chantecaille founder Sylvie Chantecaille, who has chosen mini-program BuyBuyBuy as its exclusive Chinese e-commerce partner.  Huahao David Luo

“We have more than 300 beauty travelers and fashion influencers working as our buyers. They have very good taste, which makes BuyBuyBuy totally different from traditional e-commerce in China. More and more top luxury beauty brands, such as Chantecaille, By Terry and Leonor Greyl, are choosing BuyBuyBuy as the exclusive online e-commerce platform in mainland China,” she claimed.

One of the first WeChat KOLs to launch their own mini-program was Gogoboi, real name Thomas Ye Shi, whose WeChat e-commerce boutique “Bu Da Jing Xuan” collaborates with international e-commerce sites, including Yoox, Net-a-porter, Farfetch, Revolve, and Ssense, as well as department stores such as Harrods and LuisaViaRoma.

His acerbic commentary on celebrity style and fashion trends have made Gogoboi one of the true stars of fashion blogging in China, with more than seven million Weibo followers and an average readership of more than 100,000 for each of the WeChat articles posted to his subscription account. His WeChat boutique has also served as a launchpad for limited-edition products in China, with Givenchy partnering with“Bu Da Jing Xuan” to sell its Duetto handbag collection last July; it sold out in 72 hours.

Becky Li, whose “Becky’s Fantasy” handle boasts a combined five million followers on social media, has also proven a winner when it comes to brands collaborating on sales events. Thus far, nine collections have sold out in under two hours, for sales of three million yuan, or $476,000.

“My followers trust me and my recommendations, that’s why they buy almost everything I recommend. I guess one of the reasons is that I didn’t come from a professional fashion background. I love shopping, compare different items and share with everyone which one is most worth buying. I am not a model figure, so I know what an ordinary girl would concern when they want to buy jeans or a skirt,” Li said.

Last December, Li launched a WeChat mini-program to sell her own ready-to-wear line of basics aimed at fulfilling the needs of modern working women in China’s first-tier cities.

“Most of my readers are busy working women who have little time to go shopping. No matter what I recommend to my readers, the most frequently asked question I received was, ‘Where do I buy it?'” she said.

The answer for readers of Li’s WeChat articles is now: Right here, right now, without leaving the app and by using WeChat’s own digital payment platform. It’s the zenith of see-now-buy-now.

But these success stories don’t necessarily mean there will be a barrage of WeChat KOLs opening mini-program e-commerce operations in the near future, with those making headlines, and money, from the innovation all considered top-level influencers on the app already.

According to Leitzes, there are few KOLs with the audience or the resources to make a mini-program e-commerce operation successful.

“What you’re seeing now, the ones who are doing it have teams at their disposal already, not just content teams, but also development teams that can create the user experience they want for their mini-programs,” she said.