Building a successful brand presence in China with Weibo

Let’s face it, if you’re a brand manager for a western brand, getting access to a Chinese audience isn’t an easy job – government control of social media channels, the language barrier, the unique rules of engagement, managing multiple time zones, etc. means that getting your message across to Chinese consumers requires a clear strategy and execution plan specifically focused on the Weibo social networking platform aligned to the goals for your brand. It is simply not good enough to just re-purpose your existing brand materials from Facebook and expect good results. After all, engaging consumers via social media is not about going for the hard-sell, it’s all about demonstrating that your brand’s values are consistent, that your brand cares and that you are keen to engage in a relationship with your audience, sharing interesting and relevant content, whilst engaging in a dialogue with your loyal following.

For those not familiar with Weibo, it is known as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, with a membership of more than 600 million users. As western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are not freely accessible in China, having a Weibo presence to reach those huge numbers of Chinese consumers is critical. Whilst the potential marketing power of Weibo is clear, mastering the platform and your interactions with Chinese Weibo users take a clear strategy and plan for execution to get it right. There is no one-size-fits-all model – you will need the right expertise and experience to create an individual strategy to suit your product or service, it’s market and your budget.

Having said that, below I have listed some basic dos and don’ts that you should consider as you begin your journey reaching out to China’s Weibo community with your brand

Ever feel like you’re shouting and still not being heard? Make sure your approach, tone and personality hit the right notes without getting lost in a sea of social noise.
 

Most digital marketing specialists will already know how critical it is to get the message right for their chosen audience, but take a moment to think about your strategy, goals and audience preferences. For Chinese Weibo users, a brand’s interaction with its fans can be the key to its success and having a dedicated individual or team working just on this platform can be hugely beneficial. Weibo fans like personal interactions and want their favourite brands’ social persona to be truly representative of its values and image. For example, whilst luxury brands generally wouldn’t use emojis in the west, they are very much part and parcel of communications on Weibo. Other examples may include simply liking comments, prompt replies to messages, following fans’ accounts, generating interesting content and keeping it fresh – it all adds up to create a much more personal and likeable image for your brand.

Be aware of the potential impact of time zone differences, especially if your social media team is working from the UK. You need to be aware of what times your audience is active, and make sure you team is available at these times to interact with the audience and make the most of the interactions. It’s all well and good having the intention to reply to fans, but if your social media team miss out on the ‘rush’ of comments due to a time zone difference, and only reply to fans several hours later, the impact of this interaction suddenly loses its edge.

There are many other important aspects of your social strategy that you’ll need to consider, including focusing on generating buzz and interest through fresh & interesting content rather than going for the hard-sell, not appearing desperate to ‘go-viral’, keeping content fresh & regular, ensuring consistency of your brand message and social interactions, measuring impact and improvement over time, use of Weibo’s built-in tools to gauge success, etc. which I will pick up on in future articles.

Based on the above, it is easy to see why out-sourcing your social media team to China may be beneficial, however, before you make that decision consider the following…

 

Ever wonder why some brands seem to have way more followers than their content deserves? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that numbers alone will help you build a loyal fan-base.
 

When starting out on Weibo, many western brands have been convinced to outsource their social presence in China to local teams on the basis that they know the ins and outs of the Chinese market and can help brands successfully navigate the journey. Beware, however, as many of these entities employ ‘paid-for’ fans. In China, it is theoretically simple to grow a huge audience – you can simply ‘buy’ bundles of supposed fans through popular websites such as Taobao - around £10 will get you an easy 10,000 fans!Gastropub Restaurant Near Cambridge

Whilst this may sound good on the surface, the reality is that is doesn’t always work out as you’d hoped. If your strategic goals are to develop a well-crafted quality brand image with your Chinese audience, how does paying for fans – who initially give you a surge in attention and yet fail to participate in your social interactions again – really benefit building quality relationships?

Social media gurus here in the UK warn about the dangers of buying fans and the long term damage it can do to a brand’s social presence, however, the pros and cons aren’t quite as clear-cut when it comes to Weibo. Some, in fact, argue for the necessity of buying fans on a platform as large as Weibo, citing that ‘nearly everyone does it’, whilst others argue for more natural growth.


A quick search on Weibo reveals several big name British brands who appear to have out-sourced their Weibo marketing, and it reveals the results of opting immediately for paid-for fans. One high-end account had a respectable following of nearly 30,000, however, opening their followers list revealed that of those 30,000, only seven were real accounts, and the remaining 29k+ had all been deleted after Weibo scanned for spam accounts and paid-for accounts. Thus, on the surface level, whilst the numbers look good, the negative impact of this approach is telling. Every post is empty, with no comments, no shares, and no likes. In this case, how could there possibly be any benefit to buying fans at all and what impression is it conveying to your genuine fans who care about and are loyal to your brand? Do you really want them sharing equal footing with the paid-for fans who will never likely engage with your brand at all?


So… is there a definitive answer on the best method of building a fan base?

Simply put, not really – it will depend on your brand and your strategy. As a Chinese TV & Media company using Weibo, Propeller TV’s own experience has shown that the best path to take for its own social media strategy is one of ‘natural growth, followed by enhanced growth’. This approach has helped us build a stronger, more vibrant following with a wider audience. When starting out, it isn’t actually difficult to grow a small following of several thousand on Weibo – with the correct posts and good material – however, it gets much harder to break into the larger numbers. As users do begin to notice your brand, larger followings help boost users’ confidence in your brand – thus, if you have established a base of several thousand loyal fans who actively engage with your content then enhance your follower count with some paid-for fans you could help to grow the strength of your Weibo presence, making it a better destination for all. Think of it as similar to search-engine optimisation or Google search rankings that will help you get your great content visible to a wider audience, thereby attracting more of the people that share the values of your brand and who will choose to participate in your social journey. Just keep in mind that this approach can work as part of your overall Weibo strategy and most certainly should only be used sparingly and rarely – not as your main strategy.

Clearly, reaching out to the right audience revolves around getting your message right, so it’s worth also considering the following points…

 

Having an understanding of Chinese internet etiquette – and avoiding the many pitfalls of getting it completely wrong – is critical to your success.http://www.thechequersoforwell.co.uk/

Perhaps most important is understanding the ‘etiquette’ of Weibo. This can be quite hard to pin down, especially if you have little to no understanding of Chinese internet culture. In general, there is a certain way of talking and presenting yourself on Weibo that can differ greatly from your brand’s own image and how you present it on other social platforms. And knowing the ins and outs of this distinction can mean all the difference on Weibo.

Say, for example, you represent a high-end, luxury brand. On western social media, you might be more inclined to speak formally and present your brand personality in a way that is very consistent with your mainstream brand identity. However, almost all brands that achieve success in China adopt a much more ‘netizen’ approach on the Weibo platform.

From luxury brands, to media companies, to universities – all brands need to embrace the ‘netizen’ culture of Weibo, employing friendly and approachable language, and using emoticons. You can think of Weibo as another country you’ve never visited before – you need to adjust your behaviours and language in order to fit in and be successful. Whilst at first, this can definitely seem contradictory, particularly if your brand is high-end luxury, deviating from your established brand-guidelines is ultimately worthwhile because it will demonstrate that you are approachable to your audience and that you understand the platform.

Establishing the right ‘brand persona’ on Weibo will no doubt strengthen your audience interaction as you nail getting the cadence of content, interactions and responsiveness right. Again, whilst it might feel easier to out-source the social media team to a local presence in China, think about how many brands’ presence are being managed together and how you are going to measure the quality and impact of your message rather than just hitting numbers. Regardless of whether you out-source to China, manage internally or partner with a UK agency focused on China, you need to be actively driving the strategic goals in order to achieve the results you want.

Bringing it all together…

I have laid out three important aspects of your social execution to consider when marketing on Weibo. By no means exhaustive, these tips should be considered as a starting point for anyone beginning to think about engagement with Chinese audiences on Weibo. I will pick up on some more of the finer points of Weibo engagement in future articles. For now, see the infographic below for a summary of the key points outlined above.


Simon Dalton is Director of ‘Access China’ at Propeller TV in the United Kingdom. He heads up a talented team of individuals who specialise in managed social media services, digital marketing and content development for Chinese audiences both in China and in the UK. Simon has a track record in helping global and luxury consumer brands connect with audiences through innovative content development opportunities. He can be contacted at simon.dalton@propellertv.co.uk.