Until last year, Zhang “BB” Xi was just another 20-something with a dream of making it big. The 23-year-old from the sprawling city of Chongqing had around 300,000 fans across all her social media platforms who watched her beauty tutorials and vlogs. It was a large number, given her youth, but she hadn’t yet been able to make major inroads into the cut-throat influencer industry.

But her success had set off an alert among the team of talent scouts at Ruhnn Holding, one of China’s largest key opinion leader (KOL) – or influencer – management companies.

The scouts scour social media to identify amateurs with more than 5,000 fans who may have the skills to make it big, says Mac Zhou, vice-president of Ruhnn: each month, the company might look at more than 800 people. Among them, last year, was BB.

Prospective candidates then undergo a battery of tests. They’ll be given a stack of 100 pictures and asked to pick out what they think will be the best-selling products worn and held in each photo – an attempt to identify their marketing nous. This is important given China’s influencers often set up their own e-commerce businesses to sell products to fans.

Ruhnn, which launched an $125m initial public offering in April, also invests a small amount to see whether a wider audience is interested: they’ll spend 2,000 yuan (£229, $290) on advertising to direct 10,000 people to each amateur’s accounts. If the new audience stick around, Ruhnn feels more confident about backing the individual.

This hyper-commercialised version of talent scouting reflects just how sophisticated China’s influencer industry has become – and how China could serve as a model for other countries’ social media stars looking to make money.

Survival of the fittest

From the 800 amateurs Ruhnn identifies every month, between five and 10 are offered a contract. This gives Ruhnn exclusive portrait rights (the influencer has to ask permission from Ruhnn for any commercial use of their image by a third party) and the right to operate the influencer’s social media accounts and e-commerce stores. Influencers work closely with Ruhnn to decide which products to market.

From the 800 amateurs Ruhnn identifies every month, between five and 10 are offered a contract

In exchange, the influencer receives a support team plus four months of intense training, covering things like how to present yourself on camera, how to produce different types of videos and how to sell products.

The model isn’t unique to China: a similar style of management, under large umbrella companies called multi-channel networks (MCNs), proliferated in other countries in the early 2010s as YouTube became a major media platform and some of its early stars celebrities. But it failed because many early adopters took a fee for managing their talent while providing very little in return. MCNs still remain in the West, but many have changed to become more traditional talent management agencies.

Ruhnn goes further than these traditional agencies “in how committed they are and the amount of resources they’re putting behind these influencers,” says Lauren Hallanan, a Chinese social media marketing expert who analyses the KOL market. “I typically use the term incubator to describe them, because it’s very similar to what you think of as a start-up incubator.”

China’s influencer industry has accelerated far more quickly and provides more lucrative careers for its creators – David Craig

David Craig, clinical associate professor at USC Annenberg and co-author of Social Media Entertainment, a book on the social media industry, says that while the industry may arguably be newer than its Western-based counterpart, China’s industry “has accelerated far more quickly and provides more lucrative careers for its creators”.

Being a business

Hallanan believes the Chinese model could be a sign of things to come in the West, particularly as social media platforms mature and start to prioritise established names for their most high-profile public pronouncements over smaller independent stars. At YouTube’s 2018 Brandcast event, designed to highlight the best of its programming, series starring mainstream celebrities such as Jack Whitehall and Kevin Hart were front and centre.

And what big social media platforms say goes. As a result, the more established celebrities they choose to prioritise will be more likely to attract advertisers than smaller creators.

There was controversy when YouTube’s 2018 Rewind video featured Hollywood actor Will Smith at the expense of some of the platform’s more beloved homegrown names. Putting the squeaky-clean, vetted celebrity at the heart of its year in review video was an attempt to show advertisers that YouTube was a safe space to invest, populated by professional faces. But some creators worry they’ll be cut adrift by platforms if they aren’t linked to a management company, as platforms like Instagram and YouTube prioritise keeping advertisers happy in the face of negative headlines caused by some independent creators.

The same is the case in China. “It’s almost like you can’t be an independent influencer anymore,” says Hallanan. “Social networks really are encouraging these influencers to work with the MCNs.” Working with large companies reassures advertisers and social networks that influencers have been vetted and will act responsibly – while also ensuring they are dependable in their posts.

The system does mean that independent influencers can get left behind, and that those who are represented must hand over a fair cut of their income – though Ruhnn wouldn’t disclose how much – and a decent chunk of autonomy to their agency. (They must also abide by social rules imposed by the government on all social media in China – an important reason why the influencer industry has become more professionalised and centralised.) But the pros may outweigh the cons. “You’re part of a community of influencers and you can typically create a lot more professional content because you’re provided with resources,” says Hallanan.

What’s happening in China represents the formalisation of an industry that is still relatively youthful

What’s happening in China represents the formalisation of an industry that is still relatively youthful. Ruhnn, which was founded in 2011, only took its current form in 2014 as the offshoot of an online store on digital retail platform Taobao.

And that integration of e-commerce into social platforms stands China’s influencer industry in better stead than other countries like the UK or US, reckons Craig. “The reason MCNs have fared better in China than in the West is because the two industries are quite different,” he says. “There are dozens of platforms in China that feature better and more seamless integration of e-commerce revenue streams and online payment systems.”

What’s cooler than a million yuan? A billion yuan

The first influencer that Ruhnn invested in was Dayi Zhang, who Zhou calls “the queen of e-commerce”. Last year Zhang sold more than one billion yuan (£114m, $145m) of products through her online store, which puts out more than 1,000 products each year. She’ll livestream more than 20 times a year on Taobao.  

Last year Zhang sold more than one billion yuan of products through her online store

Zhang, 31, recently attended Paris Fashion Week and sent pictures of the latest catwalk designs back to China, where Ruhnn’s in-house clothing manufacturing team designed virtual prototypes within four hours, complete with designs that can be immediately broadcast to her fans. “In the evening, our KOL can demonstrate that example clothing on their Taobao live stream,” says Zhou.

But the interactivity doesn’t end there. While on the live stream, the influencer can solicit responses from fans – whether they’d like items in a certain colour, cut or fabric. “We can convert those ideas and fashion trends into sales,” says Zhou. “This is a fast-responding industry.”

It’s that vertical integration – plus proximity to the hubs of manufacturing for fashion, cosmetics, consumables and electrical items – that has helped supercharge the Chinese influencer industry, reckons Zhou.

“There are some special characteristics in China that help this social e-commerce industry, but I believe this is a new trend,” he says. And it’s one that could be replicated by the Western influencer industry, too.

Since signing with Ruhnn, BB has seen her follower base grow to closer to a million people across all platforms. “The number is still rising,” she says. She’s keen to build her following on social media, and eventually to transfer over to TV and traditional media, as well as improving her online fame.

“My main work is to increase my fanbase, and expand it on social platforms to become more and more famous,” says BB.

“That’s all possible in my career goal.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter,  a handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, Travel and Reel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.