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New Age of Ads

How social media turns personalities into profit


New Age of Ads

How social media turns personalities into profit


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.

Wei’s tragedy sparked a considerable outcry among the Chinese public that threw the concept of “paid listings” into the limelight, with many demanding the search engine’s paid listings for medical facilities be banned. According to an ad hoc online poll conducted by Sina.com, which attracted more than 17,000 responses, over 50 percent of the participants thought “the inaction of medical regulators” was the main reason for Wei’s death, while more than 35 percent blamed Baidu’s system of search engine optimization.

China’s new regulations in this area have deeply impacted some of the country’s most prominent internet giants. Among all the segments of China’s online advertising industry, “search-engine advertising” makes up the largest, with a 32.6 percent market share. Baidu is probably the best example, allowing paying clients give big bucks so that they can show up at the top of the search results, with just a little label reading “promoted by Baidu” next to the ad. Before the regulation came around, approximately 96 percent of Baidu’s revenue in 2016 was to come from internet advertisements. E-commerce giant Alibaba was expected to rely on ads for 59 percent of its estimated income in 2016, and Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform, was going to obtain 87 percent of its revenue from ads, according to data from Credit Suisse.

Wang was quick to add the “广告” sticker to his wuxia articles to get in line with the new regulations. “We should let readers know that they are ads. It’s not good for the accounts to abuse their reputation,” says Wang.

Other social media accounts, however, have not been so scrupulous and are nearly impossible to regulate. A social media account is very far indeed from a search giant like Baidu, so Song doesn’t believe the new regulations will change things on the social media front. “Sometimes a woman can just post a video of her makeup application, in the name of sharing some makeup skills, and those products she uses and displays on her desk are product placements for which she is paid,” Song explains. “In this case, the online celebrity won’t label her article as an advertisement, even after the new regulation. That person can always insist that they were just sharing personal experiences.”

This type of stealth marketing is the bread and butter of the social media advertising sphere. For example, you may find a post published by an online celebrity on his or her Weibo, sharing her experiences on losing weight. In the article the writer will suggest a low-calorie diet, exercise routines, and just happens to casually mention a “slimming tea” brand you should try. In these cases, the authorities are forced to wonder, how do you regulate a recommendation?

The regulations aim to draw a clear line between online ads and non-ad information to fight against misleading and malicious ads, but Song still has reservations about how effective these new guidelines will be. “Of course it will make a difference to regulate the paid searches; both the advertisers and the search engine will be more careful. But, you know, search engine optimization is a comprehensive campaign and paid listings are not the only method,” says Song.

The most common search engine optimization route takes a little longer than simply doling out money to a search engine. “If you want a certain cosmetic brand to have a good spot on the search result page when you search ‘cosmetic products’, you can publish articles on news websites, online forums, and social media, with the brand name and the key words like ‘cosmetic’ inserted in the title,” says Song, describing the old but effective method of bumping a product up the search engine algorithm chain. Regulating this sort of advertising blitzkrieg, which has been around since the internet itself, is difficult.

In an age where every social media personality is a potential ad platform, there are platforms like Weiboyi.com and Chuanboyi.com, where advertisers and social media accounts can find their perfect match. Potential advertisers can check out the number of followers, average views, and business scope of an account. Account holders, meanwhile, can search for advertisers that might be seeking to hock items in which they are interested. On these platforms, social media profiles become more than just a record of one’s life and interests; they are goods on display.

“Online advertising is a mature industry,” Song says. “These social media accounts are a precious resource.”

“New Age of Ads” is a story from our newest issue, “Climate Change”, coming soon. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store