Use of social media in China is exploding in popularity. In the decade 2000 to 2010, the number of Chinese Internet users increased by an astonishing 1800 percent. Yes, you read that right: for every single one of China's twenty two million internet users in the year 2000, there were seventeen more by 2010. That's like the population of Taiwan far surpassing that of the United States in just one decade. At present, one in four users of social media worldwide is Chinese. With that social media super nova there has been an understandable rush for businesses to get in on the action. But as with any emerging field, there are as many potential pitfalls as there are advantages. Chinese social media clearly offers fantastic business opportunities, but only if you know how to use it. What are the major mistakes that business make on social media in China? Read on to find out.

1. Zombie Hunting

It's tempting to assess the quality of a Weibo account with a quick glance at the number of followers. Sure, a middle-school student with six followers isn't going to provide a lot of media clout. But a business account with a million or so followers might actually not have much to offer either. This is due to so-called "zombie followers". We're not dealing with hordes of the undead shuffling their way through Weibo, but that's not too far from the truth. A lot of Weibo accounts are just dead: they were set up purely to add to the follower count of another, and then immediately abandoned. Or, even worse, they're run by automated 'bot' software. All of this is easy to do when labor is cheap and email accounts are free. "We had a client request that we get them 150,000 followers within three months simply because their competitor has that number, although they are fully aware that most of them are Zombie followers. Educating clients about this is challenging, and wastes valuable time." Linda Yu, head of Red Ant Social Media told us.

The implications of this are clear. Trying to engage with an audience of dead accounts and mindless software does nothing except waste your marketing budget. Don't be impressed by the sheer volume of followers a Weibo account has, as the figures are often astronomical. Quantity is only one half of the social media equation: reach. The other part is engagement, and it's engagement that makes social media so powerful. Your campaign needs to have users replying to, re-tweeting and commenting on your social media content. This is far more important than the raw number of users that might be seeing your posts.

2. Chasing Quality Without Quantity

Having said that, it's also possible to go the other way, and focus too much on engagement without getting enough reach. It's not very difficult to get a small group of dedicated followers replying to, re-tweeting and commenting your content. At first this can feel like a great success. You seem to have overcome the language barrier, cultural differences and zombie followers, and now have a group of real people engaging with your content. Even with a 100 percent conversion rate from them, though, you're not going to make a lot of sales. Going to extremes of quality at the expense of quantity is just as costly as making the opposite mistake. What's really needed is a reasonable combination of both; it's better to convert 60 percent of 2000 users than 100 percent of 1000 users.

Another point to remember is that quality and quantity are by no means at opposite ends of the same spectrum. They're two separate scales that affect each other very directly. This is most obvious in one of social media's most powerful features: its viral potential. If you can get the right people in the right quantity to engage with your campaign, they will actually become part of the marketing effort by spreading the word to their followers. This snowball effect is what you're trying to achieve, but it can only happen with good snow and enough of it.

3. It's Not About Control

Just as a snowball gathering momentum can often get out of your control, your presence on Chinese social media can do the same. This can be very positive or very negative, but always remember that once the ball gets rolling, it's almost impossible to control. Attempts to control your entire social media presence nearly always fail - all you can do is make well-judged nudges to set it rolling in the right direction, and let the users do the rest. If you get this right and leave users with a good impression, they may very well go on to do your promoting for you in the most powerful way: by word of mouth between trusted friends. You don't want that working against you or your brand.

Siemens found this out the hard way last year, when it went into a social media situation with completely the wrong attitude. Luo Yonghao, a prominent Chinese blogger, began complaining about his Siemens fridge on Weibo in September. These isolated posts quickly gained attention as other customers experiencing similar problems added their voices. The snowball had started rolling. At that point, Siemens had a precious window of opportunity to step in and get it rolling in a direction that would work to their advantage. Instead, they attempted to ignore and deny the problem, which turned out to be a costly mistake.

The dissatisfied customers had now acquired several more members, including two more prominent Chinese social media figures: Zuoxiao Zuzhou and Feng Tang. They worked out a simple plan to punish Siemens for their lack of a satisfactory response, and arranged to take their defective appliances to the company offices in Beijing and violently smash them up with hammers. The killer blow came when Chinese social media superstar Han Han joined in by having his own Siemens fridge shipped to Beijing to participate in the carnage. This was now an irresistible story for both traditional and social media, and got massive coverage. Along with its fridges, the Siemens brand took a real battering. If their early intervention had been to seek compromise and find solutions for their dissatisfied customers, they could have drawn attention to the quality of their customer relations. Instead they let the social media snowball smash into their reputation.

4. Failing to Target by Platform

When you hear figures like "four hundred million social media users in China", the natural inclination is to rush in and try to grab as many of these potential customers as possible. It can seem like customers grow on trees in the realm of Chinese social media, but not all the fruit is good to eat. User bases differ drastically by platform, and as every marketer knows, successful marketing is all about targeting. Whilst a Weibo element is essential to every campaign (three hundred and fifty million users and counting), it's the secondary platform choices that can really make social media marketing work in China.

Successful use of Chinese social media will of course require deep research and planning, but let's take a quick look at the demographics for the main Chinese social media platforms. RenRen, often described as a Facebook clone, mostly attracts university students. In fact, it started out with the name Xiao Nei - "on campus" - and maintains that focus under its new name. KaiXin is built around addictive online games and attracts (or distracts?) white collar office workers looking for something to do online. QZone is Tencent's entry into the social media market, and allows users to share personal content such as diaries and photos with users in their network. Inevitably, this functionality is most popular with younger teens, and also dominates the rural market due to cross-promotion with Tencent's ubiquitous QQ chat software. As you can see, different social media platforms in China can be divided into broad demographics at a glance, and only get more intricate from there.

“Brands need to understand how each tool plays a role in consumers’ lives and identify how they can play a role and tailor their brand idea towards each experience, rather than tweaking the idea to work across everything seamlessly. Sina Weibo is a great tool for marketers and is often the obvious choice. However, there are many example of other platforms where brands can reach different types of people and sometimes engage on a much deeper level. For example, if your target audience lives in Tier 3 cities, Tencent Weibo may be a better fit than Sina Weibo." Darius Karbassioun, Engagement Planning Director from BBH Shanghai pointed out.

5. It's Not Twitter or Facebook

Media organisations in China and elsewhere love to explain Weibo and RenRen at a stroke by describing them simply as a "Twitter-equivalent" and "Facebook-equivalent", or even the more disparaging "Twitter-clone" and "Facebook-clone". These explanations are actually unhelpful, and do little to capture what these social media platforms are like and how their users interact with them. Weibo, RenRen and the rest may have been inspired by the success of Twitter and Facebook, but they were designed from scratch with different business purposes and different user bases in mind. There are also language issues to consider. A well-known example is that 140 characters in Chinese is more of a miniature article than a miniature message as it is in English. This seemingly trivial difference makes a huge difference to the kind of content you produce and how users engage with it.

The functionality of Chinese social media platforms is also very different. Sam Woollard of social media specialists Dragon Trail describes Weibo as "essentially a combination of Twitter and Facebook", as it combines functionality from both platforms. Unlike Twitter, Weibo also allows users to comment and reply in-line to other users' posts. These responses appear directly with the original content, making them a much more significant part of the platform. As mentioned above, this closer focus on user interaction can work for or against businesses. If you manage your Chinese social media campaign well, you can reap the benefits of authentic praise from customers appearing together with your content. Mishandle it, however, and you'll end up with dissatisfied voices smearing your campaign.

6. Don't Buy into Bloggers

The old saying goes "money makes the devil dance". Most promoters think they can buy their way into popular bloggers online, especially in China where it is assumed that "Money works in everything." While using popular bloggers is a great way to promote your business and brand, you have to know the right way to communicate with bloggers.

"Don't assume it's just about money, it's more about establishing a good relationship. Always aim for a value-exchange approach rather than paying for single posts. Establish relationships between influencers and brands through direct contact and aim at bonding them to the brand for a long-term relationship rather than a one-off post. From our experience, this generates more personal and impactful references that bring clear benefits to the brand. Identify people that have an interest and passion for the brand and then get the value exchange going, which increases engagement and cements the relationship. “ Tobias Eisenmann from Red Ant mentioned.

If you want to establish a long-term and more rewarding relationship with the bloggers, make a little bit of effort instead of trying to bribe your way into everything.

7. Don't Copy

Copying the competition is also a common mistake in China. The best results come from new ideas and new tactics, so doing something because the others are doing it brings you up to a certain point, but you will lack originality and your followers will realize this in the long term.

“Lacking in creativity is also one of the big problems in Chinese social media. There’s a tendency to go for the easiest way available here. It starts with small things like copying Weibo posts. Too often, content and the content direction of competitors are imitated, and the value for users of following a new brand account becomes less and less.” Tobias Eisenmann from Red Ant pointed out.

Finally...

It's essential to remember that Chinese users often see social media and the Internet as the same thing. Social media has permeated Internet use to a much greater extent in China than in many other countries, and a significant number of Chinese people get online purely for social media. This often means that your social media presence is your entire online presence in China. You might have a website that performs admirably for web users in other countries, but this kind of static content could easily fail in China, where interactive social media dominates the scene. Marketing departments ignore this at their peril in China, where social media marketing is online marketing.


Article written by Amber Wu and Hugh Grigg. Check out Hugh's personal website for more articles.