Internet & Tech

Selling via word of weibo

Companies discover online microblogs are effective marketing tool

Zhang Xin: loves to use weibo

“Low fat cake is now on sale for Rmb18 (original Rmb25), come now and get a free ice cream!”

Simple promotional messages on weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) like this have helped CCsweets, a small shop in Beijing, drum up neighbourhood interest in its daily pastries.

The company, which now has 6,500 followers on weibo, says more than half of its customers found out about the store through the microblog. “This is real direct marketing. I don’t think I will do advertisements elsewhere,” Carol Chow, the owner of CCsweets, told the South China Morning Post.

Sina.com, provider of China’s most popular microblog service, has more than 1,000 companies like CCsweets experimenting with weibo marketing. Most of them see the popular online hangout as a low-cost, easy-to-use channel for connecting with their customer base.

Compared to other social media, microblogging is fast and cheap, says Gallie Ng, senior marketing executive at Sina Hong Kong. Enterprises are using it to update their product or service information, promote their brands or deal with customer questions and enquiries.

The commonly agreed technique is not to be too commercial about it. “On microblogs, hard selling will not work,” says Ng. “Rather, you should relate to customers as friends, make two-way communication and post more interesting and `soft’ information.”

Zhang Xin, chief executive of property developer SOHO China, is one of those eschewing the hard sell. Rather than pitch SOHO projects directly, she has been sharing ideas about parenting (she is a mother of two), discussing social problems, and explaining changes in property market rules.

Zhang seems comfortable with this more understated online presence. With more than 1.6 million weibo followers, she declared in December: “We just cut our marketing budget for next year! We will fully focus on the internet. Goodbye paper media! Goodbye advertisements!”

The leading banks are getting in on the act too, having established microblog accounts for a similar purpose.

China Merchants Bank, in particular, has been successful in connecting with weibo users. Between retail banking and its credit card division, the bank now boasts over 430,000 followers on Sina Weibo, with content richer than those of most of its rivals. That means not just new rules and regulations in the finance industry, but also promotional offers, as well as recreational and entertainment news.

According to a study by Analysys International, CMB also scores highly on keeping its readership engaged with trivia games. One game, with iPad prizes, became the most read post on the bank’s weibo for the day, and was then forwarded thousands of times to recipients not previously on the CMB weibo subscriber list.

Others have been following suit. China Everbright Bank, which has about 23,000 followers, has used popular slang to phrase its own marketing messages. Analysys says punning on words is a good way to connect with younger internet users.

But as companies fight for attention on weibo, there’s also risk. One of the biggest challenges for marketers is how to control negative press, and in the weibo age bad news spread fast. A horror story from an aggrieved customer can pass from blog to traditional media in a few moments, says CBN Weekly.

Public relations teams complain that their workload increases sharply once their employer sets up a weibo account. That’s because plenty of customers latch onto weibo to file complaints or ask questions, and companies can hardly ask for feedback and then ignore the outcome. China Merchant Bank now assigns 30 staff to answer weibo comments and queries on a daily basis.


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