Companies can use China’s Twitter platform to market their products and services in China, but effective Weibo marketing campaigns require careful planning.
by Zaheer Nooruddin and Leon Zhang
Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is a powerful digital communications and marketing channel. Use of this real-time microblogging social technology in China has been unprecedented, and companies have a unique opportunity to use Weibo to reach and engage new audiences in China. Weibo has an estimated 300 million registered users in China. Users cover a broad swath of China’s internet population, including youth, domestic and international celebrities, CEOs, professionals, and media personalities. First developed as China’s answer to Twitter, Weibo has developed its own features that some would argue make it a unique marketing and communications proposition in China, and in many ways a more diverse and dynamic platform than Twitter. Because of these differences, international brands and companies cannot necessarily assume that their Twitter strategy will work for Weibo. Weibo requires its own strategy. For example, 140 Chinese written characters on Weibo can tell a full story, but the same number of characters in English on Twitter gets a sender only as far as a teaser message or a one-liner with a link.
How can a company successfully create a sustainable and results-driven Weibo program for reputation management and marketing in China? Traditional marketing and communications strategies should be the core of a company’s Weibo program, but it should also consider Weibo’s unique features to reach more people and increase audience engagement.
These seven steps will help you develop a successful Weibo strategy for your business in China.
STEP 1: CHOOSE YOUR DIRECTION
Before moving into a strategic planning exercise for your organization’s Weibo account, clarify your business and communication objectives, as well as your target audience. For example, a business may want to increase a product’s sales by 20 percent in China’s Tier 1 cities in one year. This specific business objective can help guide a company’s Weibo strategy.
A company should not only map specific business objectives, but also communications, digital, and social media objectives. These objectives can include the company’s target audience. For example, if a company wants to generate talent leads, it would need a dramatically different Weibo strategy than if it wants to engage with loyal customers. Generating consumer leads on Weibo requires a completely different strategy from a customer relationship strategy. Because these concepts are so basic and fundamental, they are often overlooked. It is essential to confirm the company’s overall business direction at the very beginning before developing a tailored and strategic plan for Weibo.
STEP 2: EXPLORE YOUR POTENTIAL
A good Weibo strategy requires that a company review audiences and environments inside and outside of the company. A company should analyze four groups: the target audience, the organization’s direct or potential competitors, the company’s employees, and everyone else. The organization should also understand Weibo’s latest social technologies and features, including:
Weibo Voting This built-in polling system allows brands to develop surveys as a way to engage and gather useful information from their followers and audiences.
Weibo Live Interviews This feature allows users to broadcast live events, allowing users to interact with interviewees in real-time.
Weibo on the Wall This is a stream of tweets that can be projected onto a real wall at live offline events.
Because of Weibo’s unique features, companies should not assume that their Twitter strategy will work for Weibo.
A company’s Weibo stream should feature a mix of content, including useful articles, funny stories, and promotional material. A successful Weibo stream requires ongoing maintenance.
Understanding audience preferences and meeting these needs will help meet targeted marketing and communications goals. For example, an analysis of audience tweets, comments, and shares over a seven-day or 24-hour period will help a company identify the best times to engage. What days and what time of the day is your audience most likely to engage with content? For different organizations and different audiences, behavior will be different.
This calls for companies to use analytical tools to better understand their core audiences, to deliver targeted content, and to develop marketing strategies and plans.
Companies need to understand their competitors, including basic facts about a competitor’s Weibo presence. For example, a company should understand some basic metrics about their competitors’ Weibo accounts, such as number of followers, number following, total number of tweets, when they posted their first tweet, and the topics the competitor posts about. If your company already has a Weibo account, include your metrics as a comparison. This analysis will help the company identify opportunities and challenges as it develops a powerful strategy.
If your organization already has a Weibo presence, then it is essential to analyze your state of play. Think of it as a “digital checkup.” First, assess your current condition and compare it against benchmarks to identify any problems. Only then can you determine the prescription. In addition to the competitor comparison, you can also conduct other analyses from different perspectives to determine the direction of the strategy. This includes an analysis of the organization’s existing Weibo account, an analysis of target users, and a comparison of industry best practices. For example, you should review the effectiveness of your existing activities by comparing the 24-hour distribution of company-generated tweets with shares and comments from your target audiences during the same time period.
STEP 3: DEFINE YOUR GOALS
Weibo communication and marketing objectives should be consistent with business and integrated communication objectives. Follow SMART goals: specific, measureable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
Companies should set achievable performance metrics. The number of followers is easy to understand, but the number of active followers can be defined differently and can be more important. There are different levels of follower activity. For example, there are followers who share or comment once a month or those who share or comment three times a week or more. Once performance metrics are confirmed, the criteria should not change very often. Otherwise, it will be impossible to compare different time periods.
When setting performance indicators, avoid ranking quantity over quality. If a Weibo stream has 2 million followers, but a tweet attracts only one comment and two retweets on average, then the relationship between this Weibo stream and its followers is weak. The accumulation of high quality followers is similar to the accumulation of brand advocates: It requires sustained effort, building trust and relationships. Companies should not expect success overnight.
STEP 4: DESIGN YOUR ‘PRESENCE’ BY PLANNING YOUR STRATEGY
After deciding your communication objectives and performance indicators, the next step is to plan a strategy and tactics. Companies may have multiple Weibo accounts, and their relationships determine how a company should operate and manage them. There are five Weibo management strategies that companies operating in China can consider: distributed, centralized, coordinated, multiple hub and spoke, and holistic (see Chart).
As with Twitter and other social media channels, designing and building the right brand presence on Weibo is critical to a brand’s corporate reputation management and marketing efforts. A distributed Weibo structure is uncoordinated and works better for start-ups and small businesses. A centralized Weibo structure works well for companies with a single well-known brand and several product lines. A coordinated or hub and spoke approach to Weibo maintains an organized structure, and it is useful for larger organizations with multiple divisions and markets. A holistic approach to Weibo can work for companies that empower their employees to speak consistently, yet independently of each other, as the voice of the company. No matter which structure a company chooses, the following steps will help companies develop and execute a Weibo strategy.
Follow - A company should develop a follow strategy that includes both who the Weibo stream should follow and how it can attract followers. Following other influential Weibo streams is a smart way to increase followers. An organization’s Weibo stream can reward active brand advocates—such as those who continuously engage with the company’s Weibo content—simply by following them back.
Let the world know - To attract followers, a company can promote its Weibo presence using all types of media available to the organization, including owned, paid, and earned media. Promote social media streams on company websites, emails, and blogs, through traditional paid advertising, and by attracting new followers through current followers.
Content - A strong content strategy is vital to the success of your Weibo program. Ensure the quality of your content, and post valuable content at the right times. While developing a content strategy, take advantage of the most frequently shared topics on Weibo—social news and events, helpful information and tips for users or their friends, and humor and interesting news. Tell stories, be generous, and be funny. Organizations can and should take advantage of these topics and integrate them with corporate positioning, business objectives, and communication goals.
The 1/3 principle - A corporate or brand Weibo account must also align with corporate or brand communications objectives—not simply be based on what’s trendy and popular. A general rule of thumb is the “1/3 principle” for content. Divide your content among three main areas of focus: value-added, engagement, and branded or promotional content. Value-added content, such as how-to and other informational articles, provides useful information for users and their networks and can increase shares and exposure for your posts. Engaged content, such as asking your followers questions, encourages users to interact with your stream. Promoted content is related to the company’s branding, products, or events. Reviewing audience feedback will help to fine-tune the content proportions specifically to the company’s strategy and program.
Posting - A company should also decide when it is best to post content on Weibo. A company can develop annual, quarterly, monthly, and weekly posting calendars depending on business needs. Prepare and maintain a posting time-line—much like an editorial calendar—and develop and keep content ready in advance to guide daily posts and updates.
Define a process to respond and engage The goal of an engagement strategy is to guide your Weibo activities with your audience, such as when to share (retweet) and respond to users. Guidelines and management processes can help Weibo operational teams engage with users in different situations while ensuring compliance with legal and company marketing rules.
Reporting Companies should collect data through continuous monitoring, analyze data for insights and recommendations, and take action based on these insights and recommendations. It is necessary to develop a measurement and reporting system that is in line with your performance indicators as the foundation for continuous monitoring. This system will provide guidance for future improvement through regular review and analyses with an organization’s management team.
STEP 5: MANAGE YOUR STREAMS
A company’s official Weibo presence is just as much a part of its corporate identity as a website. Just like a website, a company’s Weibo stream is not a one-time investment—it requires ongoing operation and maintenance. These steps will help companies direct long-term maintenance, relevant activities, and integration with other communications marketing channels.
Form a community
Weibo users behave differently. Approach your audience segments differently to manage them more effectively and build stronger relationships and advocacy. For example, Burson-Marsteller segments Weibo audiences into creators, sharers, critics, and spectators. Weibo management principles can be developed based on a group’s unique interests and characteristics.
Managing a company’s social media influencers, or “key opinion leaders,” is not simple, short-term, or static. It is a long-term and dynamic process that requires support and resources. Opinion leaders should be analyzed for their relevance, influence, and cooperation opportunities. An influencer’s relevance should be evaluated against the company’s communications objectives. Influence is the opinion leader’s power among peers and followers. Cooperation opportunity is the probability of working with the influencer.
Plan a Weibo campaign
The basic principles for planning a Weibo campaign are to be consistent with overall business objectives and communication objectives; tailor particular communication approaches for target audiences; and select the most suitable Weibo features for a given marketing campaign.
Weibo is one of many social media marketing and communications tools available—just one approach to achieve an organization’s overall communications and marketing objectives. To be truly effective, a company must integrate Weibo with other marketing, communications, sales, and customer service programs. Doing so will serve overall company objectives and show stronger value and results.
Ready your resources
Organizations often jump onto Weibo without planning resources and investment, and they end up failing, giving up, or achieving a very low return on investment. Companies must not overlook proper resource planning, including allocating talent, financial, and material resources for a Weibo marketing program. All are fundamental to ensuring successful and smooth operations.
Most companies acknowledge that Weibo’s potential for marketing and communications is great. But when customers complain or say negative things, organizations tend to be unprepared to respond or deal effectively with a crisis. To manage crises, real-time monitoring on Weibo is critical.
There are many digital monitoring tools available for organizations to choose from, but only a handful can effectively monitor Chinese social media conversations and sentiment in real-time and analyze results. Select a program that works specifically for the Chinese social media environment.
STEP 6: PLAN YOUR ACTION
After a holistic strategy and specific planning process, take action. Develop an action plan—lay out the exact information of who will do what and when—and then take action.
Empower your team
It is important to assign roles and responsibilities within the organization or agency and set up the right team structure. Weibo management requires team members with different specialties and skills. For instance, general Weibo content development and editorial calendar planning requires content and copywriting skills. Video content requires video production skills.
Get set, go!
Depending on the organization’s requirements, a company may want to outsource certain tasks to a professional agency in addition to its own internal staff. A typical approach that many organizations use is to assign an in-house person—a social media manager or online marketing manager—to take charge of Weibo. Other companies hire agencies—a PR firm, or an interactive agency—to help with planning, execution, monitoring, and optimization.
STEP 7: OPTIMIZE
It is essential to maintain your presence on Weibo to optimize its performance. For optimization, an online monitoring tool, such as Weibo’s platform statistics and analysis, can help assess a Weibo account’s performance. The tools not only allow companies to monitor data from their own Weibo account, but they can also provide information about conversations on all social media platforms. Analyzing data provides companies with valuable insights that can serve as further direction for future optimization.
CONTENT IS KING
With your Weibo strategy now off the ground and in motion, remember that content is king. The shelf life of digital assets, channels, and programs is related to the maintenance of a company’s Weibo presence. A good digital housekeeper will ensure that the content is fresh and frequent, and will quickly address any bugs and quirks. There is no better way to conduct quality assurance for a digital campaign than the utilization of real-time monitoring tools.
Zaheer Nooruddin is regional director for digital and social media at Burson-Marsteller, Asia Pacific. He is also digital and social media practice leader for China.