Sina Weibo’s emergence into the international media spotlight has been spurred by the same kind of public movements that galvanised the growth of its English-language forerunner, Twitter. In the Chinese microblogging platform’s case, most people point to last month’s tragic rail crash, or an earlier Red Cross scandal; for Twitter, the protests in Iran are often viewed as a tipping point.
Yet for all of its utility as an emotional outlet, it is the service’s corporate credentials that are proving of particular interest to the country’s PR community. A combination of speed, dexterity and a highly influential user base means that China’s answer to Twitter is dramatically changing the way that companies in China view communications.
“Microblogs in China have become very important to communication and marketing very quickly,” says William Moss, Beijing-based director of communications for Motorola Mobility in North Asia. “Many campaigns now include a microblog component, and any company that wants a read on public sentiment knows to keep an eye on the microblogs. They're also a force in crises, amplifying public sentiment and the speed which which information spreads.”
To understand why, it is worth examining the benefits that Chinese microblogs - whether Sina’s more urban-focused Weibo, or Tencent’s increasingly popular version - can offer organizations, particularly in comparison to Twitter.
Unlike Twitter, for example, comments on Weibo are threaded under an initial post, helping spark more engagement and interaction than you are likely to see on the English-language service. Verified accounts have been clearly identified since launch, and both pictures and video are easily viewable without leaving the Weibo page.
Weibo portal pages also include plenty of information on account popularity for marketers to sift. And Chinese microblogs are often integrated into other, bigger, online platforms - ensuring greater popularity and regulatory acceptance.
“Sina and Tencent Weibos allow for faster and better interaction than some of the Facebook clones like RenRen and kaixin001,” says Beijing investor Bill Bishop.
As an EastweiMSL white paper points out, microblogs have effectively synthesized the most popular qualities from all of China’s existing social media services: The social networking characteristics of SNS; the convenience and immediacy of instant messaging; the individual touch of blogs; and, the variety of subjects of BBS discussions.
With 200 million subscribers, Sina Weibo certainly offers considerable reach, but the most compelling factor in its rise may be the influential nature of its users. The service is popular with journalists, government leaders and corporate CEOs, leading to what Text 100 social media lead Jeremy Woolf calls “more professional and intellectual discussion.”
“Corporate usage is likely to increase thanks to Sina’s recently-launched Enterprise Version Weibo,” says Woolf. “This adds marketing functions such as bulletin boards and videos on the home page and the ability to put the most important tweet on top.”
Neither should Tencent’s version be overlooked. It has more users, even if they are less engaged, thanks to its integration with its popular QQ instant messaging platform. And, in some respects, the platform’s functionality outshines Sina’s. “Don’t get me wrong, Sina’s Weibo platform is still ahead,” wrote Ogilvy Digital Influence’s Jeremy Webb in a recent blogpost. “The growth of Tencent Weibo, however, should be watched closely by marketers.”
The PR industry, particularly its digital wing, is not often slow to proclaim the wondrous utility of the latest technological fad. Yet in the case of Sina Weibo, there is good reason to believe that China’s communications landscape may be irrevocably altered.
Much of that comes down to the harsh reality that typifies current public relations practice in the country, where corporate communications rarely appears to strike a chord with everyday consumers, and results are often measured by character count or kilogram of press coverage.
“The popularity of weibo is forcing companies to question how they communicate,” explains Woolf. “Whereas China has historically been a market in which good news flourished, companies must now be prepared for the likelihood of having to respond to criticism or negative feedback. There’s no way to absolutely control a discussion – but weibo presents an opportunity to drive a public conversation with an influential community.”
The shift to real-time communication and genuine interaction will bring plenty of challenges but must come as a welcome development for the country’s PR community. “I think the power of microblogs in China has forced consumer marketing companies in particular to adapt very quickly, and learn how to communicate and listen via microblogs,” says Moss.
Moss goes on to list the ways in which Motorola Mobility is using the service - integrating it with events, campaigns and media outreach. “But, like any other smart company, we're always trying to figure out what we're missing or how we could do better.”
It is not only in the consumer realm where Weibo’s benefits are becoming apparent. Woolf points to Text 100 client NXP, a semiconductor company that uses the platform to interact with news media and influencers. “Interestingly, 30 percent of our readers are NXP’s most critical audience – engineers. The Weibo takes an informal and conversational tone and has proved popular with NXP’s audiences.”
Beyond news and announcements, NXP uses its Weibo to achieve genuine consumer engagement, recently inviting opinion leaders to test a new e-meter. That trial generated more than 500 comments and retweets within a week, creating significant demand for the product.
There are many examples of this ilk (see below). But for all of Weibo’s successes, it is worth keeping its limitations in demand. Bishop notes that the platform would benefit from better analytical tools, to aid understanding of message and brand engagement. “And they need to bring social media management in-house with full-time, dedicated staff.”
That last comment will ring a bell with social media strategists the world over. Sina Weibo may bring a uniquely local flavour to the table, but its success or failure as a PR tool will ultimately depend on the confidence and speed with which companies choose to embrace it.
Five corporate Weibos to watch*
SAP -- The Ogilvy PR client eschews mass reach, focusing on a tightly-knit community and authoritative information that helps IT people do their jobs.
IKEA -- The IKEA microblog has been hugely successful because both tonality and the content is just right. The EastweiMSL client demonstrates that tuning in to reader needs takes careful research and perseverance.
Nike -- The iconic sports brand’s Tencent Weibo brings its offline events online, and makes the most of Tencent's lesser-known Enterprise Weibo platform.
Dell -- It will come as little surprise to find that the PC giant has been able to translate its Western social media savvy into China, confidently extending its Weibo presence to cover customer service, as well as promotion.
NXP -- The Text 100 client takes an informal and conversational tone, proving popular with a B2B audience.
*With thanks to Ogilvy’s Jeremy Webb and EastweiMSL.