Weibo what? How to talk social media marketing in China

China's answer to Twitter and Facebook has 360 million users and offers rich marketing opportunities. But it's not just a question of translating your tweets ...

I recently went on a trip to Kuala Lumpur where I was conducting social media boot camps for telecommunications, banking and on-line retail companies based in Malaysia, Indonesia and China. While many were very interested in social media case studies and best practices from North America, I was equally interested to learn how North Americans can better tap the massive Asian market using social media and social networks, particularly China.

In many markets, like India, you can use some of the world's most popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for marketing purposes. In fact the number of Facebook users in India, according to Facebook, will surpass North America in the next 24-36 months.

China, on the other hand, provides some unique challenges and opportunities.

The biggest challenge is of course that Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are essentially blocked by what one of my attendees called the Great Firewall of China; a massive government system that filters and sensors content.

There is an upside, of course. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), run by the Chinese government, there 513 million Internet users in China (up by 55.8 million from last year) and 250 million of them are on Sina Weibo – China's answer to Twitter and Facebook. Globally, Weibo has 360 million users. When you also take into account video-sharing sites and niche social networking sites in China you soon realize that over 25% of the world's online social networking and media activity happens in China.

Our own mayor Gregor Robertson has recently taken to Weibo in an effort to engage Chinese Vancouverites who use Weibo, many to stay in touch with contacts and family in China. According to, over 80% of Weibo users were born after 1980 and 50% of users are currently enrolled in university. Major brands active on Weibo include Abercrombie & Fitch, AVIS, Decati, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Fendi, IBM, MAC Cosmetics, Mastercard, The New York Times, Visa and Zenith.

As with any social network that you join as a business, it can be a glowing success, a non-event or worse – you can shoot the foot off your brand right out of the gate. On domestic Internet sites marketers are still struggling with social media. Most corporations who have a Facebook page still fail at some social media basics such as responding to customer comments or posting content that is engaging. Add to that cultural differences and language barriers and you could be in for a rude awakening.

With Weibo, most of the anecdotal stories brand managers shared with me all pointed to some of the fundamental rules that have applied to Twitter and Facebook since their inception. Here are some of the key strategy pieces:

Use a 10/45/45 ratio in your social media communications. That's 10% branded messages and offers, 45% engagement and conversation and 45% helpful and/or entertaining content posted daily. Too many people see Weibo as a tool to advertise to the Chinese market. Only people that are engaged and get value from us online are motivated to respond to our marketing on social networks.

Localize your content and tone. Hiring someone to merely translate what you post to Facebook and Twitter to your Weibo account is not enough – in fact, it will hurt your brand. Invest in an individual or team that's well versed in markets you want to enter. This means having a businessperson who speaks and writes Chinese and understands best practices in social media communications. Too often we outsource for just language or technical knowledge but miss the business and specific market expertise, which make or break most efforts.

Scale through community. Build relationships with influencers in China who already have large online social media communities on dominant platforms like Weibo. You may never have more than 2,000 followers yourself, but you can build relationships with 10 people who each influence 30,000 people in your target market. Have a systematic strategy and process in place to identify and engage these key people.

Build a home base and have a back-up plan: Weibo could end up being the Chinese version of Myspace (defunct) or they might just get throttled by the Chinese authorities if things get our of hand. Make sure you're driving people back onto your website (built for the Chinese market) and use whatever leverage you can to capture their email address or create a redundant connection on another social network. Only engaging through a single network can expose you to significant losses when your audience moves or someone turns off the network all together.

One of the most important aspects regardless of what country you're in and what brand you're representing in social media – it's still about people talking to and building relationships. If you can address some of these key strategy points and approach the market with a long-term commitment, networks like Weibo can help open the door to new customers and partners in China.

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