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China’s social media landscape offers unique ways to connect with customers; photo by Sinchen.Lin

By Lisa Sun

I’ve been trying to write this article since last week. And yet, I’ve found so many ways to procrastinate despite having no access to Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Why? Because in China, there are just as many Web 2.0 distractions. In fact, with some 538 million users, more than twice that of the United States, the Chinese internet can be even more full of hilarious memes, cute kittens, and all of the other things we procrastinate with.

With the powerful Great Firewall, the Chinese implement a strict block-and-copy strategy for Western Web 2.0 services. And most of the local social networks that seek to replace foreign ones are often built with Chinese characteristics. There are quite a few of them, but I’m going to cover two of the most popular ones, Weibo and WeChat, and how they can be used to connect customers.

Weibo

If you’re a China-watcher, or even just an avid consumer of international news, you’ve likely heard of Weibo (roughly, “micro-blog”), even if you know of it simply as “Chinese Twitter.” As the comparison implies, the platform is very much like the Twitter we know in the U.S., with slightly different bells and whistles. Unlike Twitter, however, there are multiple Weibo services in China – the word itself can refer to micro-blogging generally – of which there are two primary competitors: Sina Corp and Tencent. The services have been duking it out over market share the past few years, but many observers consider Sina to be dominant, and that’s one we’re talking about here – more on Tencent, which also owns WeChat, in a little bit.

Like Twitter, Weibo has a 140 Chinese character limit – but you can fit quite a bit more in 140 Chinese characters than you can using English. And even so, many express much more than even that with tools like Chang Weibo.  The free service converts longer messages into picture formatted for Weibo display. (This trick also helps micro-bloggers avoid sweeping censorship software that is based on keywords.) Weibo also integrates with some popular Western services, including Tumblr and Instagram. The most recent Weibo update includes Craigslist like-functions, hobby groups, micro-magazines and Facebook-like “Like” features. So overall, you can think of it as an augmented version of Twitter.

The ambitious Sina Corp platform currently has more than 400 million users, including the majority of China’s well-off urban middle class – some 247 million people. So unsurprisingly, many businesses are using Weibo to market directly to their customers. According to Sina Corp., corporate users have reached 230,000 in the third quarter of 2012, a 50% increase from the previous quarter.

starbucksweiboTake Starbucks, for example. They have several Weibo accounts for various regions in China, on which they advertise discounts, new coffee flavors, promotions and provide space for customers to ask questions and post comments. Popular promotion posts, such as buy-one-get-one-free coffee, can spread virally with loyal followers – again, not unlike Twitter. The big plus to this tool is that if you’re clever, you can reach a lot of people in a very short amount of time, with a lot less money than it takes to run a traditional ad campaign. No big surprises there.

A corporate Weibo account is a perfect platform for any small business looking to reach your customers without the hassle of website maintenance. In addition, you can react quickly to customer complaints because they are filing a complaint directly to you. But of course it goes without saying they can spread those complaints around quickly as well.

Overall, Weibo is a copy, in some respects an improved one, of Twitter. This means if you have the language skills to use it, or the money to pay for someone who does, it’s relatively easy to gear up on the platform if you’re already used to using Twitter to market your product or service.

There are, however, some significant problems with the Weibo format. For one, there are too many what Chinese people call Zombies, 僵尸粉 jiangshi fen, and the Water Army, 水军 shuijun. Zombies are computer generated accounts that inflate the number of fans each account has. When my dad was abroad, my boyfriend bought him 10,000 zombie fans as a joke. That’s no much in a sea of 400 million, but if this is the case for all Weibo accounts, the number of actual users is heavily inflated – in fact, folks at HP Lab’s Social Computing Lab have claimed that over 49% of retweets on Sina are from Zombies. It might be difficult for an individual user to tell the difference, but the pollution of the space is widely recognized.

The so-called Water Army are marketing professionals who comment and post things favorable to a certain company or policy, not unlike the infamous fifty-cent party, workers paid 50 cents a post for writing pro-government comments on blogs. They can influence the public opinion to some degree, or can sometimes even become the public opinion, and not necessarily in favor of your brand. It is not uncommon for a company to hire Water Armies to slander a competitor – a simple thing like a rumor could explode if a Water Army is pushing it.

WeChat

WeChat is a mobile messaging application that’s emerged as a major power in 2.0 communication in the past year. And, as a product of the aforementioned Tencent, it’s a significant threat to Sina Corp – according to Caixin, the company has already bested Sina Weibo in terms of monetization, and at 200 million users, it’s only half the size.

In a word, the service is revolutionizing the way Chinese people communicate. In China, cellphone reception is notoriously bad, in part because the market is an oligopoly. The WeChat mobile app helps people beat the system. With a strong wifi internet connection, you can send short voice messages, text messages, and even call another person. It’s free and you can use it anywhere in the world. Sound awesome? It is. And it’s a big threat that’s already wrecking China Mobile’s messaging business.

So how can you use WeChat to leverage your brand?

In marketing terms, WeChat users are quite valuable. For one, to run WeChat, you need to own a smartphone or tablet (and be tech savvy.) That itself eliminates less sophisticated consumers – read, customers with less money to spend.

For another, the service is more personalized and geared toward higher user engagement. Take Tencent News, for example: This is a WeChat add-on that pushes you a daily newsfeed from their website. In the recent weeks, I’ve read all my breaking news first from this app add-on. And what’s more, it creates a kind of intimacy with user, kind of like reading a mini-ad every day for Tencent. As a result, I’ve grown to prefer Tencent News to Baidu News, my previous choice. It doesn’t stop there either. I recently added a fashion and style tips account because of an interesting survey that went viral on WeChat. Now they send me helpful tips weekly, a bit like a micro-magazine. This intimacy creates quite some potential for businesses to tap into this if you can produce high-quality content.

The big strength here is that WeChat is more exclusive then Weibo, as the messages are sent directly to you from other users. This eliminates the noise problem Weibo suffers from – irrelevant posts like “I had tasty hotpot today” that drown out other messages.

There is a flipside to this exclusivity, though. The challenge for corporate users is to ensure customers add your WeChat account. There are a number of ways to do this. Dairy Queen, for example, has promoted theirs with an ice cream incentive that uses a QR code that scans directly into WeChat. After showing the staff that you have successfully added the company account, you can receive your ice cream.

The bonus for that extra work getting the customer subscribed to your account is that they pay better attention. Not everybody checks their Weibo account every day, but everyone checks their cell phone messages. During the commute, on the toilet, in line at a shopping mall… everywhere. If your company can send these people just one message a day, you can almost be sure that this message, sent by WeChat will receive their full attention, at least for a few seconds. That’s a lot better than an ad inserted into a fast-moving micro-blog stream.

On the whole, web 2.0 in China has created a silent revolution in the way people send and receive information. In the past, a strict hierarchy of top-down organizations such as TV station and newspapers ran the show. People were told what to think and censors gleaned out undesirable information. To build a brand, you find Don Draper and display interesting ads. But now, almost everything has changed. How people talk about your business is your brand, the power has shifted to the consumer (or at least the talkative ones.) The trend in China is to embrace this freedom. You probably should too.


Lisa is a TV director with the China Business Network and a recipient of the China News Award. She has lived in Shanghai for 13 years.