The king of Twitter in Hong Kong is @JayOatway. He has 106,194 followers. The Queen of Sina Weibo (literally translated as microblog; the answer to Twitter in China) in Hong Kong is singer/actress @choicharlene (Charlene Choi). She has 3,582,094 followers. I, a John Doe in Hong Kong, still manage to have 26,440 followers within a year.
If numbers don’t lie, who doesn’t love Weibo?
That’s why after a year of dominating the Weibo market by Sina, a challenger finally arrived. I would argue that the Weibo war in China unofficially began after Chinese New Year in February 2011. It’s the moment when Tencent, a leading China online company publicly claimed its users exceeded 100 million. Meanwhile, there is market speculation that the arguably no.1 Weibo player in China, Sina Weibo (estimated 70-80 million users), will be going for IPO as an independent company.
Many industry experts predicted Weibo would still be the focus in the online media market in China this year. As one of the advisory board members attending the first Social Media Week in Hong Kong last month, I found the most frequently asked questions were about Weibo. The heat is on not only in China but also in Hong Kong and other cities where inbound customers from Mainland China is their key business growth.
You might think Weibo is like the twin sister of Twitter. And there are also marketers managing both in similar manner. However, from cultural to functionalities, you should consider Weibo and Twitter as two different entities. Some differences are obvious while some relatively subtle. Let me go through the top five differences with you in sequence of obviousness.
1. Self-censorship Issue
First thing first, this is the most fundamental if you choose to play the Weibo game in China. I don’t want to be involved with the debate about political censorship. My suggestion is, dear marketers, play safe.
If you don’t want your post to be censored or mysteriously disappear:
- Don’t use any sensitive keyword/picture in your post. However, the tricky part is those sensitive keywords/pictures can be seasonal. You have to be streetsmart and use common sense to evaluate. Prepare a conversation calendar and ask a local Chinese to screen it for you. As Andy Grove said, only the paranoid survive.
- Don’t post any links that are already or potentially blocked in China. For example, posting a YouTube video or an external link from Facebook is a bad idea.
2. The Power Of V
A verified Twitter account is not new, but Sina Weibo introduced it much earlier. An account with or without V (verified) makes a huge difference. ‘V’ stands for authoritativeness and status symbol of your account. If you plan to use Weibo, don’t brainlessly open an account and launch it. To maximise your efforts, apply for a verified account before you actively tweet on Weibo. A Weibo account without a ‘V’ will have a much harder time attracting followers.
I also strongly suggest key managers from your organisation apply for a verified account. I believe the friendly support team at Sina or Tencent would be happy to assist. You could choose to either disclose your identity or keep it anonymous. In Chinese society, managers of an organisation would always be seen as a key opinion leader or even a semi-celebrity. So if you are managing your company’s Weibo account with your personal one simultaneously, it means you will always have a spare bullet in your pocket. You can also be more experimental with your personal account to test-drive the response of different posts before implementing them via the official one.
3. Weibo – Twitter On Steroids?
However, if someone tells you that you can squeeze more content in 140 Chinese characters than 140 alphabets in English, she is only telling you half the story. It’s true you don’t have to worry as much about word limitation when writing a 140-word post in Chinese. However, it doesn’t mean you should over-utilise the word limit.
4. The Importance Of Visual Impact
Some “Chinese experts” might tell you China is a nation of textual communication. However, in Weibo, besides the 140 words, pictures still rule. While we all understand a picture can tell a thousand words, complementing it with the 140 words could make your marketing messages go further. It’s like posting on the Facebook wall, you always get better responses when attaching a picture or video, right?
If you have a long story to tell such as live tweeting an event, you are better off to #hashtag your tweets and break it down into numerous bite-size posts (with pictures please). Don’t try too hard to squeeze everything into 140 words. Use a picture to complete your story.
5. Weibo Users Are Keener to Retweet
The good news is as long as your post has value for people to share, the Weibo community will be very keen to help spread. Whether it is branded content or a message that doesn’t directly relate to your brand, from my observation on some of the popular Weibo accounts, on average, the number of forwards could reach a couple of thousand, which is usually three to four times of the replies. Internet users in China are generally hungry for new and valuable information. And Weibo users following specific personalities or corporations are also hungry for information. If they like/hate your post, they would be very enthusiastic to respond to it. You’ll be surprised that the atmosphere of participation and level of engagement for a commercial Weibo account could be so enormous that it would make even most Twitter users envious.
A record high number of forwards from one of the most popular commercial Weibo accounts in Hong Kong – Harbour City Shopping Mall (@harbourcity), was a post about a blessing dedicated to the victims of the Qinghai earthquake in 2010. It received 14,861 forwards and 2,855 replies. This is a case more for the goodwill of the brand. But you can argue that the volume of forwards would have helped the brand to increase its likeability. Another more business-related example was a post about a chocolate exhibition that the shopping mall launched recently. It received 5,577 forwards and 930 replies so far.
The microblog trend is growing frantically in China. While the industry is still speculating how Sina or Tencent will monetise the platform; thousands of marketers, locals, or international are already flooding the channels. In China, or even Hong Kong and Taiwan, I bet Weibo will still be the center of attention in social marketing this year. And I expect more auxiliary social functions to be built around Weibo by third-party companies. Last but not least, social monitoring companies will also play an important role in the Weibo movement. Without a scientific method of measurement and estimation, your Weibo marketing efforts will hit a bottleneck quickly and be very hard to move to the next level.