The key to advertising is not being noticed, and new media has provided a whole new dark forest for the advertising industry in China, one that is increasingly difficult to regulate. Not getting fooled by ads used to be easy—but now they’re hiding in search results and lying in wait in your favorite WeChat accounts.
Wang Xiaolei runs the WeChat account “dujinyong6” (六神磊磊读金庸), a successful example of social media advertising. Wang writes about the novels of Chinese wuxia writer Jin Yong and reviews ancient poetry from his WeChat account. In the early days of new media, this sort of account wouldn’t have been worth much, but for advertisers today Wang’s WeChat account isn’t that different from a primetime TV show; his articles, after all, routinely hit more than 100,000 views, and those views are worth money.
According to iResearch, a market research and consulting company, in 2015, China spent 66 percent of its advertising RMB on online and mobile technology services, with only 24 percent going to traditional media. In the new media era, anyone with enough influence can be a billboard that can reach millions. Those with millions of followers on Weibo or WeChat can make serious money just by posting ads, and the more popular they are, the higher rates they can charge.
Unlike most social media accounts trying to rake in ad revenue, which try to hide their ads in their content, Wang’s advertising is straightforward. He just puts the ads at the end of his articles. Sometimes they’re relevant to his topic, sometimes not.
“I hate those advertorials, because they hide their intention to advertise. When you advertise something, you need to let others know that it’s an ad. You can torture your readers with your articles, but you can’t fool them,” Wang told TWOC. Like many, Wang began his WeChat account for fun back in 2013. A year later, advertisers came knocking. Today, his account is making him considerable sums of money. When asked, he was cagey but said, “If your content is good enough, you are interesting enough, and work hard enough, it’s very possible for you to earn one million [RMB] a year.”
“You can’t let the ads affect your content. You need to guarantee that if you cut out the ads, your articles are [still] acceptable. That’s my bottom line,” says Wang. “My readers always say they love reading my ads. But I understand that nobody really does. People say so because they are making allowances. But you can’t write ads every day. If someday no advertisers come to me, it won’t affect my writing…However, some people just can’t stop themselves when they see an opportunity to make money.”
“You can tell who is writing seriously and who is just writing for money,” a fan of Wang, surnamed Li, says. “Actually I have unfollowed a lot of accounts because of their annoying ads. But it’s not because they publish too many ads; it’s because those ads have made their content boring.”
But Wang isn’t representative of the social media account advertising industry. Most social media accounts pay more attention to the traffic than the quality. It was recently found that many WeChat accounts with page views of more than 100,000 saw their views fall to only a few hundred after Tencent’s background interface updated to cancel bots making fake traffic. On September 29, Tech.qq.com, a site owned by Tencent, published articles disclosing this “fake traffic” phenomenon with a screenshot showing an account with page views that dropped from over 20,000 to around 600 that day. The website further named eight WeChat accounts with the biggest drops.
This kind of page view fraud is very common and won’t disappear anytime soon. Advertisers believe in statistics, so social media accounts need outstanding figures, including page views or “like” numbers, to attract the big bucks. When they can’t earn it, they buy it. For them, it’s a necessary investment. “It’s a little ironic,” says a senior staff member in an online marketing agency preferring to be referred to as Song. “In this case it is the advertisers who are fooled.”
Both advertisers and social media marketers are finding that they need to pay more attention to how their ads hit the eyes and ears of the public, because last year the long arm of the law started to reach into the realm of new media advertising. In July, 2015, China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) amended the PRC Advertising Law to cover internet advertising. Previously, advertising laws did not apply to new media. The new regulations went into effect last September but were largely unenforced. This year, the SAIC updated new provisional measures for online advertising, which include the stipulation that all internet advertisements need to be labeled with the Chinese word “广告” (advertisement), and not other words where advertisement is only implied.
The event that triggered deepening restrictions for online advertising was a tragic one: the death of a college student named Wei Zexi. Wei had a rare form of cancer, and after searching on Baidu, he was led to try dubious and expensive cancer treatments. The hospital he went to claimed a high success rate in their ad, and they were featured prominently in the search results. But Wei didn’t get any better and found that the alleged “most advanced technology in cooperation with Stanford University” was a lie. In April this year, Wei died. Afterward, an investigation exposed that the hospital had subcontracted Wei’s controversial treatment to the Putian Medical Group, an organized group of entrepreneurs originally from the city of Putian, Fujian Province who set up private hospitals all over China. It also appeared that Baidu had close ties with this medical group, with a party official from Putian stating that these hospitals may have made up 12 billion RMB of the 26 billion RMB Baidu reported in ad revenue in 2013.
“New Age of Ads” is a story from our newest issue, “Climate Change”, coming soon. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store