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West Discovers Wonders of Weibo

Growing number of institutions use mainland’s most popular blogging forum as a way into Chinese minds

What do the International Monetary Fund, Louis Vuitton and Unilever have in common?

They are among a growing group of Western institutions to join Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging platform.

Operated by Sina Corporation, it 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 on the mainland by a government worried that unfettered internet access could undermine its rule.

But with more than 250 million mostly educated and white-collar users, home-grown 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 mainland society. For foreign companies, the key benefit of Sina 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 traditional marketing to more creative approaches, such interactive campaigning, that resonate with the Chinese people they say.

“It’s where people are sharing news, gossip. If you want to see what’s happening in China, you open your weibo account,” said Sam Fleming, founder of Shanghai-based social media consultancy CIC.

Chistine Lagarde, head of the IMF, became the latest Western luminary to hop on the weibo band-wagon 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 last Monday.

A sophisticated social media strategy has become increasingly important for Western companies with firms from Ford to Nestle increasing the proportion of their advertising spending on the internet and Facebook, pioneering the mining of online data about users’ likes and dislikes. Now that trend is spreading to the mainland.

“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, multinational companies can quickly locate their target markets, gather information, habits [and so on] 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 and Coca-Cola – the mainland, with its burgeoning middle class, is a rapidly growing market for them and gathering insights via weibo is essential in crafting branding messages.

Celebrities have also caught the weibo fever. Movie actor Tom Cruise, who is known as “A-Tang Brother” on the mainland, has attracted almost 3 million fans since February.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, tennis star Maria Sharapova and Harry Potter actress Emma Watson have also taken to weibo to strengthen their fan base in China.

Weibo says it has verified their accounts to be genuine. The Chinese government has also taken note with numerous government departments and officials using the platform.

(Sources: Reuters in Shanghai)

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