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Chinese Social Media: a new marketing frontier

How companies are adapting to Chinese social media to market their products


Chinese Social Media: a new marketing frontier

How companies are adapting to Chinese social media to market their products


Upon stepping their very first foot on Chinese web soil, many foreigners are bewildered at the absence of certain very popular websites in China: Youtube, Google (occasionally), Facebook, and any number of newspaper websites are all often blocked by the so-called “Great Firewall”.

As disorienting as this may be, this shouldn’t lead to thinking that Chinese people don’t use the web as much as Westerners; on the contrary, data shows China’s internet nation counts as many as 591 million users (twice the user base of the United States), and shows no sign of slowing down; they add a new user every 1.6 seconds.

China internet users vs US internet users

China internet users vs US internet users

Chinese netizens are active, too, being among the world’s most engaged and active with browsing and e-commerce. Most of all, and quite surprisingly, perhaps, Chinese netizens are truly fond, no, almost obsessed with social media, in spite of attempts to restrict its use. That’s right, even though many major Western social media are almost completely blocked in the country (Facebook reports to have “almost zero” market share in China, while Twitter states it has a mere 50,000 users), Chinese people love going social, and 91 percent of netizens has at least one social media account, that’s almost 25 percent more than in America.

Chinese use the social media for a wide range of purposes, too. They range from sharing personal opinions and special moments through to instant messaging, spotting promotions, and following their favorite celebrities, and reading news updates; the list goes on.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many companies have turned to Chinese social media as the new frontier of advertising. Social media campaigns are cheaper and reach a wider audience than many standard marketing strategies. They are often more effective, and a creative campaign is sure to bring some points home.

But because of the Chinese media’s peculiarities, those campaigns have resulted in using quite a different model to the usual Facebook and Twitter stuff. But to what extent, and and are these strategies successful? Here is a look at some of the best practices of the two (arguably) most popular Chinese social media – Sina Weibo and WeChat.


The Sina Weibo Logo

The Sina Weibo Logo

The Twitter-like Chinese micro-blogging platform is insanely popular in the Middle Kingdom, increasing its user base by as much as 153 percent  in 2013 alone, and accounts for well over 500 million registered users and some 280 million active users (roughly the population of Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined), according to Social Media Today, and this is all despite the censorship that has recently hit some of the most innovative and active users.

Weibo is quite similar to a few well-known Western social media (namely Twitter), allowing users to follow official and corporate pages, and corporate accounts to share content with their followers every day.

Therefore, companies have approached it in quite a traditional way. Campaigns usually revolve around content, videos, and images that are posted to attract views and new users. The aim is spreading awareness of a company’s values or products through publishing authentic, user-oriented content. Companies then generally go on to adapt a test-and-learn approach to their campaigns, adjusting to what Weibo seems to like the most.

However, nobody ever stops at content-sharing. The aim is always, as in most “traditional” social media, to get some of your company’s content to go viral, in order to reach out to the whole netizen population.  Thus, many companies have tried to get as creative as possible rather than just reblogging information. Hashtags, pictures and videos, celebrity endorsements and coverage of mainstream events have yielded the most success.

Pizza Hut is often seen as a skillful Sina Weibo user. A look at their page reveals a colorful background and a friendly intro to their updated 26 menu items, while their feed goes well beyond marketing promo, ranging from banter to discounts and e-vouchers.

But it is Danone’s Mizone’s Weibo strategy that proved to be one of the most particularly effective and inspiring examples. Mizone exploited the massively-followed event that was the football World Cup, and rode the wave of the Chinese’s frustration for not participating, to advertise its products:

During the World Cup, Mizone used Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, to reach football fans with a series of creative comics. After England’s surprisingly early exit, Mizone created a comic featuring a tearful Queen’s Guard that referred to England as the “Three Kitty Cats” instead of the usual nickname “Three Lions.” It read: “Don’t cry, Three Kitty Cats. At least you were in the tournament. We [China] were just spectators.”

Mizone’s Weibo post comforted World Cup-crazy Chinese fans’ disappointment in seeing a favorite team bow out of the tournament early, by humorously referencing the failure of China’s own football team to even qualify. The brand said its message came from the “Mai Meng” team, a pun that integrated Mizone’s Chinese name with a current slang term that is hot online and means “playing cute.”

The Mizone Mai Meng team created similarly mocking Weibo posts for 17 losing teams, each with the hashtag #Don’tCry#, accompanied by cartoons depicting crying icons representative of each country. The creative campaign generated massive buzz. Various forms of the #Don’tCry# hashtag were mentioned by netizens 355,000 times, surpassing Nike’s World Cup Weibo hashtag #Risk Everything#, which had 93,000 mentions, and Adidas’ #All In Or Nothing# which had 113,000 mentions.  Adidas and Nike spent millions of dollars to appear on every TV screen during the World Cup. Mizone reached an incredible number of Chinese without spending big money.



A Tencent's WeChat spokesman

A Tencent‘s WeChat spokesman

WeChat is a new world for most companies. It is such a diverse application that it makes advertising particularly challenging, and accordingly creative. It is also notably different from all the other social media, at least in terms of the following:

  • It provides an incredible array of tools, that can be compared to a mix of what WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebookyet it also boasts features that none of the mentioned social media offers.
  • Tencent, the app’s developer, is yet to release the metric and analytic tools to allow  companies to track their pages and test their strategies, unlike other social media such as Facebook and Google. Companies have no data to understand if a campaign helps them and to what extent.
  • WeChat is mostly used as a messaging app, and most Chinese use it through their cell phones. It boasts more than 355 million mobile users.
  • Other apps can be embedded into WeChat, making a virtually unlimited amount of tools available for both online and offline marketing.
  • About  81 percent of Chinese netizens use a smartphone to surf the internet. Smartphones are more popular than any other device because of their ubiquity and agility.
  • WeChat’s official pages can only share one post a day. The app is mostly used to engage customers in one-to-one or in small groups (less than a hundred members).

For all these reasons (and many more), advertising on WeChat is a lot of fun. Rather than publishing content, companies have to come up with initiatives specifically targeted to small groups of users, based on the information they can gather from their accounts or on their geographical position.

Most companies have tried to arrange automatic message replies, in the style of automatic call-centers. They text users and try to engage them in conversations, which use automatically generated content as well as information on the company and its products.

Another popular initiative has been to use the users’ geographical positions to provide them with QR codes and time- and place- sensitive discounts to generate short-term sales.

However, embedded apps have proved to be the most creative and user-oriented marketing system, and a few companies have been really successful in engaging millions of users. Take Pepsi China’s “Bringing Happiness Home” campaign. It featured an embedded app that let followers send their own voice recordings to the account and have them remixed into a customized Pepsi theme song to share with friends. It was funny, easy to use, and quite new to most of the public: a perfect mix for success.

McDonald’s WeChat marketing campaign was similar (both in means and success) to Pepsi’s. It featured an app allowing users to record a “Big Mac Rap” in the style of the host of the hit singing show The Voice of China.

The most successful example, though, was probably set by Italian online clothing seller Yoox. Its WeChat page has a brand history, allowing readers to become familiar with the company (without sending out millions of text messages), as well as an online selling shop and a social game called “Shake the Style”. According to Tech In Asia:

“This mini game allows the brand’s WeChat followers to shake his/her phone to make various fashion matches that the user would then share directly on WeChat or other social media. That in turn helps spread the Yoox brand in China.”

Things have gotten really creative in the advertising field of Chinese social media. Users are taking full advantage of all the discounts, and, most of all, they are enjoying the campaigns.

But this is not all. There are a million other best practices on Weibo and WeChat, but China also has a ton of other popular social media. From RenRen to QQ, to Tencent Weibo and Douban, China’s short history of social media marketing already shaped a landscape that is set to make advertising campaigns even more challenging and creative in the future.  As far as social media marketing is concerned, it is just the beginning.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Flickr user Cheon Fong Liew