Last week, I attended the Ad:Tech conference in Beijing and participated in a panel discussion on microblogging, a relatively new phenomenon on the Chinese Internet, as it relates to marketing. The reason microblogging (for example: Twitter, Sina Microblogging, fanfou, etc.) has received so much attention is that the format is fresh to most Chinese netizens and is growing very quickly. As a result, the potential opportunities are worth paying attention to.
Since blogs and web 2.0 hit the world, information no longer spreads merely from top to bottom or from the minority to the majority. The microblog enables information to have more sources and become more diversified and authentic. However, microblogging has not yet become hot in China. There are several reasons for this, such as the controls on the Internet in China (Twitter and Fanfou are blocked), the level of knowledge amongst netizens in China, the polarization of thinking, etc. Microblogging appears ready to explode in China due to its growing energy.
The panel discussion on microblogs began with its potential impact on ads and promotion. As a result, the opinions of attendees on microblogs in general were not expressed. For some, microblogs are a new method of promotion by ad service providers. To web portals, it is a tool to help generate page views. What on earth is a microblog? I am a Chinese blogger and a Twitter user. I am co-founder of BloggerInsight, a startup that relies upon Chinese professional bloggers for social sourced intelligence. From my point of view, the microblog is a simplified version of the traditional blog. It focuses on short length and convenience so that people can post their opinion quickly. It shares many characteristics with traditional blogs in that it is characteristic, social, and passes trust to followers. But it has its unique features as well, such as breaking and hot news that connect people more directly. Blogs and microblogs are not one-way marketing that leads directly to more sales or larger market shares. Blogs and microblogs represent character–and to some extent, the formulaic, industrialized, big brands have unfortunately lost their unique characteristics and are not able to adapt to the microblog. Topics on microblogs are posted quickly, but also fade away quickly as well attracting attention for only a short period. For the promotion of topics that need longer-term attention, it is necessary to use microblogs in conjunction with other outlets such as websites and traditional blogs.
Now back to the panel questions we discussed. The first question asked was whether the microblog is a good or bad thing for ads and marketing.
For brand owners, microblogs are positive as it allows for additional contact with consumers. That is a relatively obvious and positive opinion.
To web portals which need traffic to attract more ads, microblogs are also beneficial. The attention span of modern netizens is becoming increasingly short. With the ability to generate a large number of hits in a short period, microblogs enable new issues to spread faster and attract more concentrated visits. As traffic increases, it can be roughly viewed as a gathering place of readers, which means that it’s a gathering place for an audience to view advertising. As a result, a web portal can sell more ads.
Personally, I believe that microblogs do no harm. To companies that consider consumers God and really want to know about the demands of the market, utilizing microblogs is a way to convey a grassroots feeling and close the gap between companies and consumers. But to those who still have the intention of “educating” consumers and “guiding” the target market, to those which fail to change or listen to the demands of consumers and to those who still place themselves above consumers, microblogs probably represent the beginning of a nightmare as the microblog has the ability to screen information. Information that is unconvincing, not beneficial or boring will not be spread. Every blogger is a processor who selects information he/she wants to spread.
Another phenomenon we have to pay attention to is that the young generation in China has changed its way of consuming information. The impact of ads on traditional media like TV, radio, newspapers, etc is. decreasing and many people tend to say, “Ads are just bragging.” This tells us that people don’t trust ads very much. On the other hand, recommendations from friends and sharing experience via the Internet are booming. People gather together to share good products and warnings of bad products. There is no right or wrong in it–it’s just their choice in the market.
The above are just personal observations, the reasons for which are relatively complex. One point that cannot be ignored is that bloggers want their content to have an impact. They hope that companies openly receive their suggestions and that their value is respected. Those who have high value naturally become opinion leaders on the Internet (distinct from “Internet Stars” who are promoted to entertain netizens).
How to define opinion leaders in the world of blogging and microblogging?
Openly available data include the amount of contributed content, the number of followers, time started, etc. But that information alone is not enough. We are all aware that information no longer spreads in limited directions: opinion leaders are not limited to a few individuals, but can arise from a large number of microbloggers. What’s more, an opinion leader should be someone who has unique perspective or rich knowledge in one or two fields, has been contributing a decent amount of content, and has a large number of active users following him. Generally speaking, microblogs create communities. It’s human instinct for people with similar characteristics or interests to gather together. Microblogs are just a platform that reflects the instinct of the Internet to classify opinions. Those who can gather a community are anything but ordinary. Last but not least, the ability to influence others is actually as important as how trustworthy the content or opinion is. If a piece gets lots of promotion (retweets) once it is published, it shows that people who are paying attention agree with and trust what the blogger puts forward. Then there are bloggers who are rarely trusted, and they cannot get extensive retweets even if they say “Please RT this for me” in their messages.
I want to especially put emphasis on the fact that opinion leaders are not objects for netizens to make fun of, nor are “Internet Stars” there to entertain the public. They are important amongst their community and they are strongly connected to their followers.
Opinion on paying bloggers to write Ads
As to this question, all three panelists disagreed. Let’s look at some facts first. Once there were some companies that closely interacted with many top bloggers and tried to use their blogs as a medium to promote clients’ products. The result was that no company was able to survive through this business model, which shows that this approach to promotion is not appreciated by the market. Ad agency, Blue, also claims that they wouldn’t promote this way. It takes some time for famous bloggers to build up their audience and gain their reputation. Insincere characters and opinions cannot survive or be spread in the virtual world of the Internet. Fake information is not accepted by most bloggers and as a result, it is not worthwhile to write phony articles for money. On the other hand, there are companies who pay bloggers to tell the truth. They ask the bloggers to share their real experience of using a product and express their true feelings to a product or a brand. That is different. Under that circumstance, the money represents respect, not a buy off.
I regret to say that most of Chinese netizens are lazy and are not content contributors. We are far away from the ideal web 2.0 world, with each netizen as an independent knowledge disseminator. These people are easier to be led and used. They will thus become stepping stones for companies which pursue nothing but profit. Fortunately, I am witnessing Chinese netizens, especially bloggers, become increasingly mature and many networking techniques such as microblogs will bring us together and produce social intelligence, which will soon realize its value in the development of companies. The chance to take advantage of ignorance will disappear and this may catch many people off guard.
“Microblogging, flattening the world” (“微动力，广天地”)
Only those who understand the character of the microblog and its value can truly enjoy this Chinese phrase. It is a tendency for micro values to be gathered and become the energy supporting companies to grow. I would say more and more tech or applications will be innovated to empower social intelligence. BloggerInsight is one of them.