Having worked in the communications industry in China for 18 years, I think that years from now we will look back on the rise of Sina Weibo as the start of a new era for communications in China.
It’s not just the impressive numbers, although Sina Weibo now boasts 368m users, according to its Q2 financial report. More importantly, Sina Weibo has a significant power user base consisting of influential journalists, government leaders and corporate CEOs.
While there are rivals like Tencent Weibo, Sohu Weibo, and others, Sina Weibo dominates the China microblogging scene. As a result, Weibo presents an unprecedented opportunity for companies in China to converse with an influential community in a real-time and genuine manner.
But here’s where things get interesting. The rise of Weibo also calls out the broader question on how companies should be communicating since the traditional style doesn’t align with a platform like Weibo.
From my perspective, Weibo is changing communications in today’s China in terms of speed, choice of language and even openness (authenticity).
Weibo’s shelf-life, compared to traditional media, is much shorter. Speed is of the essence. Companies are expected to constantly monitor their social media channels, listen to their influentials and respond fast to their audience.
For typical Chinese companies that are hierarchical, where decisions are usually made, and only made, at the very top of the pyramid, to respond to the public via Weibo in a swift manner remains a challenge.
For those companies who do not have in-house resources committed to managing their corporate Weibo account, this challenge becomes tougher.
And during a time of corporate crisis and scandal, the need for speed becomes more pronounced. Thousands or even millions of opinionated stakeholders demand quick and transparent information.
The idea that the ‘first 24-hours’ is the golden period for crisis response has become history. The speed of information transmission via Weibo is now calculated in minutes and even seconds. The same is true for corporate responses, and even apology communications, when things become really bad in crisis situations. McDonald’s successful handling of their recent crisis in the Sanlitun outlet is a perfect example of effectively leveraging Weibo to address stakeholders’ concerns, contain the crisis, and start rebuilding trust with consumers.
Choice of language
Choice of language also represents a challenge for many Chinese companies conditioned to communicate with an official and somewhat cold tone. Within 140 Chinese characters – worth noting Chinese characters can represent words so Weibo does offer a little more room to navigate – official and cold doesn’t cut it. To really connect with the target audience and generate responses, the language needs to be conversational and informal.
I suppose there’s some irony in Weibo bringing a form of democratization to communications in China. If you’re dull and official, few will pay attention. If you’re clever and responsive and warm, you will attract audience who in turn will engage and participate. In this way, a humble smaller company can outperform a large entity.
Welcome to the world of authenticity!
Many Chinese companies as well as entrenched MNCs in China are known for “zero tolerance” when it comes to bad news, negative feedback and criticism in the public domain. For many of them, the rule is either good news or no news.
As you would expect, these companies are struggling to deal with the Weibo era. They’re not ready for a Weibo account. Yet, the issue is deeper than being effective with this particular social media platform. These companies are still getting to grips with the idea that they don’t have “absolute control” over such communications. It’s a tough one because the mentality of “command and control” is entrenched.
On the other hand, there is also a small group of companies that are making genuine headway on this front, who know exactly when to put things aside, when to take the high ground and when to engage in a sincere conversation.
These companies have the opportunity to gain a from of a first-mover advantage. They understand that when their brand is not viewed through rose-tinted glasses in the social media world, the best move is to engage with honest communications.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming years and if other forms of communications will be “Weibo-ized.”
Of course, the wildcard that no one can predict are the actions and decisions from government.
Regardless, communications in China is fast demanding critical thinking and problem-solving expertise in a way that didn’t exist before.
Based in Beijing, Chris Tang is the Hoffman Agency's Asia-Pacific managing director.