FOCUS: MEDIA & ADVERTISING
a fair characterization, given the time Chinese Internet userstypically devote to MP3 downloads, chatting with friends,playing online games, and watching online videos (see p.32).Perhaps their focus on entertainment is attributable in partto the PRC government’s well-known censorship policies, which often render news and political reporting formulaic,staid, and not reliably objective. And yet, for all the frivolousdistraction and political redaction, the Internet has developedinto China’s first real public sphere—a space, in this case vir-tual, where a huge range of ideas can beand are openly expressed. China’s legions of Internet users, now numbering over a quar-ter-billion and growing fast, are also grow-ing more vocal, strident, and conscious of the power they wield. Though censors may limit what is said online, anyone who “lis-tens in” on Chinese cyberspace will likely be moved by the heated debates, candidcriticism, and bold attempts to “push theenvelope.” (Visitors to Chinese cyberspace will also likely be struck by the often vicious and puerile tone of the invectiveand by the utter lack of self-restraint exhib-ited by Chinese netizens.)For all its shortcomings, China’s Internet has become thecrucible of the nation’s contemporary culture, where newlanguage is created, new literary talent finds voice, and newmusical phenomena are born. It is the place where a brandmay be elevated to greatness by the web’s marvelous powerto amplify good word-of-mouth. But it is also the place where a brand may encounter the destructive force thatChina’s netizens seem to unleash so capriciously.
Weighing Internet tools
The surging popularity of social media is at the heart of the consumer revolution in China, just as it has been in theUnited States. That does not, however, mean that USbrands should engage social media in the same way whenin the China market.
When companies begin to devise social media strategies,they often first consider monitoring or setting up blogs.Generally, companies want to learn what is being saidabout their brands in cyberspace, perhaps to identify thereal influencers for outreach or to allay the concerns of dis-satisfied customers. More ambitious companies want to domore than monitor blogs. They want to start blogs of theirown, believing a blog would be a good way to connect withcustomers, encourage their feedback and engagement, andgive the company a human face. Though these are excellentmotivations, blogs are often the wrong place for companiesin China to learn what China’s netizens are saying about abrand (see p.30). For example, at the time of this writing,the most popular blog in China was from a stock marketanalyst with a stock-picking algorithm and a book to sell.The next most popular blogs were from “blogging celebri-ties,” such as movie stars, writers, and singers. China doesnot have many bloggers who have gained fame as bloggers:no one like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the left- wing
blog, or even like celebrity-gossip bloggerPerez Hilton (the pen name of Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr.). Most Chinese blogs are little morethan online diaries, and of these, the vastmajority do not have enough of a regularreadership to be of much concern to mostcompanies.That does not mean that crises for for-eign-invested enterprises (FIEs) never orig-inate with blogs. For example, in 2007 aChinese Central Television English-lan-guage news reporter named Rui Chenganglaunched a personal, and ultimately suc-cessful, blog-based crusade to oustStarbucks from the Forbidden City inBeijing. But this case is an exception, andtracking blogs for mentions of a company is simple enoughusing free tools, such as Google Alerts. A company can easi-ly set up that service to deliver daily, or more frequent, e-mail alerts for any mention of the company, its brand, orits top officers in mainstream online media and in mostblogs. Companies that have not been using such a serviceshould start using one now.
Bulletin board systems
The real place where conversations about brands occuron the Chinese Internet is in bulletin board systems(BBSs), which are online forums where people can post,usually anonymously, threaded messages about any topic.Sam Flemming, an expatriate American who is the co-founder and CEO of CIC Data, LLC, an Internet word-of-mouth research and consulting firm in Shanghai, haspreached the value of tracking consumer opinions on BBSsfor years. Used less frequently in the English-languageInternet, BBSs are extremely popular in China, where they have attained a surprising level of sophistication.Of China’s roughly 1.5 million commercial websites,about 80 percent have a BBS attached to them, and ordinari-ly these are among the liveliest and most frequently visitedparts of a site. Tens of millions of messages are posted tothem daily, and about one third of Chinese netizens routinely post on a BBS, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Some BBSs, like the influential forumTianya, are regarded as more highbrow—the place to go if your tastes run to politics or literature. Other BBSs are rowdy free-for-alls with no semblance of civility. And on the million
Use the Internet to monitorrelevant discussions and engageconsumers;
Be aware that creating andmaintaining a blog takes enormous time and resources—and comeswith risks; and
Engage consumers transparently.