Back in February 2016, I attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona as a guest of Huawei Technologies, a company whose name at the time I could neither pronounce nor spell. Yet, I was told that I had been selected as a founding member of something called Huawei KOL.
The letters stood for Key Opinion Leaders, a term that made me wince at the time. I’m uncomfortable with descriptions such as guru or thought leader, and consider myself a journalist who has made some good calls over the years together with a few wildly inaccurate ones, such as this season being the first AR Christmas.
I did not behave as a gracious guest in Barcelona. There were two reasons:
1. I had just started research on The Fourth Transformation, and was almost totally immersed in AR and VR. Huawei’s PR representative promised me there would be much to see. Within an hour of the first session I was told there was little or no AR involved in what I would see or hear about. This made me suspicious, and left me wondering why I had been invited at all.
2. I was sick. I had a fever and wanted to crawl under the covers and be left alone. Instead, I felt obliged to attend one of the largest events I had ever seen. There was a lot of walking, pushing, crowding and jostling going on, and I didn’t like it.
The deal I had cut with Huawei had been straightforward: my travel would be covered and I would be compensated. In return, I would write something — anything I wished, favorable or negative — about my experience.
Seemed fair enough. I would have to be transparent about being paid, but I would be free to cover Huawei and the event itself as I saw fit. There would be no prior review by the company. That started a journey of my cautious, tentative curiosity about Huawei, China’s biggest phone company and the world’s third largest, after Samsung and Apple.
Why the hell had they assembled this diverse group to parade around and receive company pitches from many of Huawei’s top officials? Why were we given personal tours of the small, mysterious city that was Huawei’s World Congress exhibit area? What was the common thread among this highly diverse group called KOL?
Eventually, I would learn that all the KOLs were social media practitioners. We covered many diverse areas, but social media was a common component of who we were and what we did.
There was something else that impressed me in all the meetings we attended. While the presentations were standard corp-speak of why this company was wonderful and destined to do great things, the Q&A seemed to be generally candid. I learned the core competency of this company was telephony, and that it’s immediate future would be the Internet of Things, particularly Smart Cities. But, the message was also clear that Huawei was playing a long-and-global game as a fierce and dedicated competitor, and somehow, we KOLs had something to do with that.
The company seemed to me to be classically top-down in structure, and I very much doubted I would enjoy being employed in one of their factories. I had visited Samsung in South Korea and walked away with a similar impression. Certainly, my hometown favorite Apple was also classically top-down in culture. Abuses in the factories of Apple’s Chinese affiliates were well-recorded.
This always concerns me, but at the end of the day, I am interested in digital products that change work and life for people. The more competitors there are in any personal, digital product category, the happier I am because innovation speeds up, prices go down and people get empowered.
I believe that what is good for the customer, is good for the manufacturer. So, if Huawei aspires to be a global player in smartphones and they make quality phones, then I am absolutely all for it.
I went home from Barcelona, and shortly after my health recovered, wrote a somewhat tepid piece, revealing that I was writing in part to fulfill my requirement for being paid to attend the Mobile World Congress as a Huawei guest. I complained because the PR agency that had invited me had promised there would be a good deal to cover in Augmented Reality which turned out to not be true.
After that, I gave Huawei very little thought. I got immersed in the new book, AR and starting an education consulting business. I found myself snuggling into the closing months of 2017, when I received another invitation to attend the Huawei Global Mobile Broadband Forum in London, again as a KOL.
The Walter Jennings Factor
This time the invitation came — not from a PR agency — but directly from Walter Jennings, Huawei’s vice president of corporate communications. Walter, who has lived in China for many years, is a native of New Jersey and one of the best corporate communications operatives I’ve seen. He is smart, open and candid while remaining true to his employer. He has the ability to joke mildly about his employer while demonstrating a deeply rooted loyalty.
Walter is important to this post because he is the glue that binds together the loosely structured network called KOL. I don’t know how the concept actually got started, but to each of us in KOL, Walter feels like a personal friend and demonstrates a profound sensitivity to what each of us is attempting to accomplish.
This was not clear to me in Barcelona two years ago, but became clear to me in London two weeks ago.
The result is that KOL has emerged into a small, but strategically important component of Huawei’s global aspiration to be a respected brand. KOL is empowering them to do it at low cost and high speed through social media. Because of KOL,they are reaching nascent market targets that most global brands have not yet considered.
My three days in London as a KOL were enormously different than my Barcelona experience. The overall quality of the experience was quite high.
While there were still corporate gatherings, often singing harmonious songs of content-free praise, I found a few of the talks enlightening. Most keynoters gave useful and informative presentations that were technically glitch-free.
Ken Hu, Huawei’s rotating CEO, talked about how Huawei plans to reshape the world though 5G, the IoT and smart cities. I also greatly enjoyed hearing Gary Coombe, president of Procter & Gamble Europe, talked about how technology keeps undermining established marketing and advertising practices.
Quality and Diversity
I was also pleased with the quality of the exhibits. While I wandered around cavernous acres of exhibitions at the Barcelona World Congress finding little to do with immersive technologies, I found a good deal to interest me in the small, congenial exhibit area of the London event. It was easy to chat with the exhibitors at a leisurely pace. Out of perhaps 35 kiosks, there were at least five that dealt with what I cover.
What struck me the most, however, was the diversity of the KOL members. There were about 15 of us. We came from the US, the UK, and France, of course, but also from Turkey, Morocco and Australia. There were at least five authors who have published 15 books or more, and many of us have contributed to major media properties including the NY Times, Forbes, AOL News, the China Observer, and similar quality publications.
Our backgrounds are equally diverse, coming from health tech, fin tech, academia, telecommunications, IT, disruptive technology, public relations, marketing, global economics and startup acceleration, to name a few.
KOL members share certain common threads — the most obvious one being social media prominence. Not one of us has what you would call a mass level of followers, but collectively we have about 2 million, giving us a level of collective influence about equal to the NY Times.
Not all KOLs could attend this event, so we can safely add on at least another million people to this number. We reach people all over the world. All of whom care about personal digital technology, probably own smartphones and talk about them online.
An old time marketer might compare the cost of assembling KOLs a few times annually to the cost/reach of a one-page ad in the Sunday NY Times and conclude that Huawei is spending wisely. But that is an old model, one that the European president of Proctor & Gamble pushed aside in his talk.
Now, because of social media, customers influence each other. We choose what devices we buy by what our friends have to say on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram and old-fashioned blogs are replaced by quick Snapchat snippets.
This brings me to anther aspect of how Huawei has evolved, and why I keep comparing it with my Barcelona experience. Back then, Huawei tried to put social media practitioners in front of as many Huawei representatives as they possibly could. They tried to fill our heads with Huawei data and claims.
This time, Walter, assisted by the charming and competent Sarah Edwards, a director of Ogilvy PR, ensured that the KOLs got to focus on each other more than on Huawei and its partners. The strategy was to develop and enrich a social network built by Huawei, rather than feed us marketing messages.
At each event during the three-day conference, there was a place where the KOLs got to hang out with each other. Instead of us being brought to meet key Huawei people, those people were often brought to us.
The third day, my favorite of the visit, was dedicated to just us KOL’s. The venue was moved from a huge and impersonal convention hall in East London, away from anything we might want to see, over to Ogilvy’s amazing offices in a refurbished old building that hangs over the Thames River providing breath-taking views of the most fabled parts of London.
There a small panel of us were assigned to discuss the changing nature of influence to a room of our peers, a room where every attendee was qualified to speak from the front of the room. I have always found it surprisingly intimidating to speak to a group of my peers. I always fear that I am telling them what they already know.
Each of the panelists gave very articulate — and accurate views — from diverse professional perspectives. I was the last panelist, and I concluded my talk with the best example I had ever found related to social media and the changing nature of influence.
It was a thought that came to me for the first time, when Jennings was escorting Soukaina Aboudou, the youngest member of our KOL group, on a tour of the exhibits. Aboudou’s social media platform of choice is YouTube where she has over 175,000 followers, nearly all of them young Muslim women. She does fun videos that are about makeup, lifestyle and what appears to me to be Western ways.
Soukaina had just visited one of the five AR booths at the event. She put on a HTC Vive and saw how she will soon be able to virtually visit each of her 175,000 followers, give them hugs or fist bumps, then just sit in their living rooms and chat with them. In short, Soukaina saw her future and it goes beyond YouTube — if YouTube cannot adapt to changing social technologies.
Just think about this for a moment. Think of the influence she has over young Muslim women who are on the Internet.Think of the power she has to influence purchase of mobile digital devices all over the world. Tell me, a single example of any better way Huawei — or Samsung or Google or Apple — would have to influence purchase decision that could even dust the heels of Soukaina’s influence.
In fact, she illustrates and ties together the points I am trying to make. The power of social media is not how marketing departments distribute content on social media platforms, nor can real engagement be measured by any of the data crunching mechanisms I have seen.
It can be measured by people with passion and knowledge sharing that passion and knowledge online. If you just happen to be an Asian phone company wishing to nurture a rapidly emerging demographic, such as young Muslim women, can you think of what you might do with say ten million dollars of ad spend that could possibly come close to what Soukaina Aboudou can do for your brand?
This is actually a vision that Robert Scoble and I shared when we wrote Naked Conversations in 2005. It was a book that envisioned empowering peer-to-peer influence at the expense of traditional message mongers in corporate brands. It is the sort of future that P&G’s Gary Coombe was talking about in his keynote, but neither Coombe nor Huawei can harness the power of what Soukaina can do without destroying that power.
To me she answers the question that was asked of my panel. She — and others emerging in all sorts of diverse categories — will use social media to significantly influence the purchase of nearly everything.
Many of today’s leading brands may not meet this particularly challenging twist into marketing in the near future. It appears that Huawei has. I think KOL is the ace in the hole that Apple, Samsung and Google may have overlooked.