* Weibo is now dominant platform for directly reaching
* Multinational firms turn to Weibo for marketing
* Can also be effective tool in countering negative news
By Melanie Lee
SHANGHAI, Nov 16 What do the International
Monetary Fund, Louis Vuitton and Unilever have in common?
They are the among a clutch of Westerns institutions to join
Weibo, China's most popular microblogging platform operated by
Sina Corp, which has quickly become the place to be to
promote, lobby and win over a large, important audience.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms
popular abroad are blocked in China by a government worried that
unfettered Internet access could undermine Communist Party rule.
But with more than 250 million mostly educated and white
collar users, homegrown Weibo, which is similar to Twitter in
that it allows users to post 140 character "tweets" and gather
followers, is becoming a major influence in Chinese society.
"Sina Weibo is becoming the national watercooler of China,"
said Sam Fleming, founder of Shanghai-based social media
"It's where people are sharing news, gossip. If you want to
see what's happening in China, you open your Weibo account."
Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, became the latest
Western luminary to hop on the Weibo bandwagon last week.
"To my Chinese speaking friends, here's a translation of my
APEC Summit statement," Lagarde, wrote to her more than 120,000
followers on Monday.
A sophisticated social media strategy has become
increasingly important for Western companies, with firms from
Ford to Nestle increasing the proportion of
their ad spend on the Internet and Facebook pioneering the
mining of online data about users' likes and dislikes.
Now that trend is spreading to China.
More than influence, the ability for multinational
corporations (MNCs) to reach the Chinese public directly with
their message is one of the reasons why Weibo is growing in
popularity, branding experts say.
"It's the quickest way to communicate with Chinese
audiences," said Rand Han, strategy director at Resonance China,
a Shanghai-based social media digital agency.
"When done right MNCs can quickly locate their target
markets, gather information, habits, etc., from available data,
and begin connecting almost immediately at significant reduction
in costs versus traditional media."
For many of these companies and brands such as LVMH's
Louis Vuitton, Unilever Plc and Coca Cola Co
, China, with its burgeoning middle class, is a rapidly
growing market for them and gathering insights via Weibo is
essential in crafting branding messages.
"A lot of our brands which are growing in China, the
multinational brands we work with see Weibo as an immediate
opportunity to set up a stake in a way that they then have a
voice directly to their consumers," said Zaheer Nooruddin, lead
digital strategist for Greater China for Burson-Marsteller.
BILL GATES TO MARIA SHARAPOVA
Celebrities have also caught the Weibo fever. Tom Cruise,
who is affectionately known as "A-Tang Brother" in China, opened
his account in February and now has almost 3 million fans.
Bill Gates, tennis star Maria Sharapova and actress Emma
Watson have also taken to Weibo to promote their ventures and
strengthen their fan base in China. Weibo says it has verified
these accounts to be genuine.
The Chinese government has also taken note with numerous
government departments and officials using the platform.
Shanghai's Communist Party chief said on Tuesday that
government officials must respond swiftly to the needs of the
people expressed through Weibo and other new media outlets and
not hide their heads in the sand.
For foreign companies, the key benefit of Weibo is that it
provides them with a clear dominant platform to go to in what
was once a fragmented social media scene, experts say.
This has allowed foreign companies to move beyond the
traditional marketing to more creative approaches, such
interactive campaigning, that resonate with the Chinese people,
If used properly, Weibo can also be effective in countering
Last week, official media reported that China's quality
watchdog found toxic content in five brands of tea, including
the Lipton brand.
In response, Unilever posted on its Weibo account (www.weibo.com/unilevercn)
that its "Tieguanyin" tea product was in line with national
standards and included photo scans of tests done on its product.
"People universally respond to honesty
and true connection. If brands are willing to give (that), then
they can turn a negative situation positive," Resonance China's
(Editing by Kazunori Takada and Alex Richardson)