LinkedIn China: Opportunities for Marketers?

China is known for blocking Western social networks, so it’s no surprise that LinkedIn made headlines when it unveiled “领英” this week, a beta version of its localized service, in a joint venture with Sequoia China and China Broadband Capital.

However, LinkedIn has quietly amassed 4 million members from China even before a localized service was made available. In Asia Pacific, the business-networking site recently revealed that it tripled its member base to 50 million in the region from May 2011, the same year it set up an Asia hub in Singapore for regional sales and marketing, member engagement, and strategic regional partnerships.

When LinkedIn announced its localized platform for China, there was no mention of making its ad solutions, such as sponsored updates or even company pages, available in the market.

Rand Han, founder and managing director for Resonance China, a leading Shanghai-based social and digital agency, tells ClickZ that LinkedIn China might have the greatest effect on B2B marketers, small businesses, and entrepreneurs trying to reach others in their networks more efficiently.

“However, this may take some time since LinkedIn is a value-add promotion via content vehicle, which requires its most successful members to create content, rather than employ aggressive random push messaging,” Han notes.

This strategy is still somewhat new to the average Chinese marketer, he adds.

LinkedIn’s successful global strategy focuses on influencers who impart business wisdom to the network as the foundation to organically attract hundreds of thousands of potential advertisers on a consistent and scalable basis.

As such, Han expects LinkedIn would create a similar content vehicle customized to the China market. This could be in the form of content partnerships with media companies such as the Financial Times or Forbes before collaborating with consumer brands, he speculates.

China is already home to a number of LinkedIn clones that were introduced as early as 2011, but Ushi stands out as one of the more promising professional-networking sites founded by Canadian-Chinese Dominic Penaloza.

At its peak, Ushi was reported to have attracted major advertisers such as Citibank, Microsoft, and Dell, to allocate $23,500 for a three-month ad campaign in exchange for white-collar eyeballs in China.

However, from Han’s experience on these local sites, he says they are generally not on par with global standards.

“Ushi never had that mix of global and local audience that LinkedIn can have,” he notes.

Han thinks that LinkedIn will be in a better position to get Chinese people to connect with a global audience as well as get their resumes online, which will provide an enormous value to marketers in the form of qualified employees with less trial and error, thus saving time and money. “Which then leads to ad dollars from a greater range of big brands and increased spend from hundreds of thousands of small companies, HR departments, and entrepreneurs,” he adds.

For now, LinkedIn is more concerned with the censorship requirements that the Chinese government imposes on Internet platforms. But Forrester analyst Wang Xiaofeng says that LinkedIn is “not that sensitive to the authorities,” as members talk about their professional lives, their work, and news about their industries.

Unlike Han, Wang says, “The big question is what kind of China-specific content it could offer to rise above competitors.”

To localize, LinkedIn launched in simplified Chinese and integrates with local micro-blogging platforms Sina and Tencent, which allow members to easily import their Weibo contacts and invite fellow professionals.

According to Forrester’s 2013 Asia Pacific Technographics online benchmark survey, 67 percent of metro Chinese online adults surveyed accessed social networking sites on their mobile phones weekly or more, while 75 percent surveyed said they use mobile apps.

It’s no coincidence then that LinkedIn China partnered with Tencent-owned WeChat, China’s popular mobile messaging platform, to help members share news and insights across both networks.

In January, LinkedIn appointed Derek Shen as China president. On his LinkedIn profile, Shen says his goal is to build a team and globalize more than 150 million Chinese professionals.

Shen is a seasoned Internet exec, who was previously chief executive and founder of Nuomi, China’s leading group buying site. He also has experience in senior roles at Renren (China’s Facebook), Google, and Yahoo.

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