Advertising in China is notoriously troublesome. With almost everything that reaches the consumer being censored, it can be difficult for a brand to make a genuine connection with its audience.
This difficulty is heightened by the fact that the Chinese tend to distrust any information that comes to them through official channels. Their skepticism is only natural in a nation where censorship is the norm. However, the distrust seems to break down along generational lines. Older Chinese are more likely to approve of and trust officials while younger people are becoming increasingly suspicious. This skepticism is also more common among Chinese who are better educated and more affluent.
In short, some of the most desirable of Chinese consumers are less likely to believe a brand’s message if it is delivered through official lines. This distrust is one of the main factors behind the popularity and incredible influential power of Chinese social media stars. A blogger is often seen as a key opinion leader (KOL) who can be trusted to deliver a reliable message, especially when that message relates to goods and services.
Censorship has kept many of the most popular social media platforms in the west from being developed in China. This means that Chinese Internet users are dependent upon local social media channels. Studies estimate that there are some 600 million social-media users in China. The country also boasts an approximate total of 734 million Internet users, including those who are regularly present on social media. Those are numbers that are hard to ignore.
Other statistics show that the Chinese spend an average of 25 hours on the Internet every week. A full 40 percent of that time is on social media. With this kind of out-of-control popularity, it’s no wonder that western brands are keen to capitalize on this marketing channel.
However, there are pitfalls that must be discussed when it comes to Chinese social media networks. For every genuine blogger or KOL, there may be many users who have set themselves up to appear like a key opinion leader through the use of “zombie” followers.
These “zombies” are a significant problem in the realm of Chinese social media. In many popular platforms like WeChat and Weibo, there could be thousands, if not millions, of “zombie” accounts that were not activated by a human. Some of them are created by bots for the sole purpose of boosting the number of views on an article or blog or to dramatically increase the number of followers a certain social media participant can claim.
Some of these “zombie” accounts look genuine. They may have a profile picture and possess the ability to make posts. However, digging deeper into the account reveals that there is no true person participating in the profile. Others are more obvious shams, possessing neither a profile picture nor generating any posts. Nonetheless, this “zombie” account may be following one or more social media participants in an effort to boost their numbers.
Being seen as a key opinion leader in Chinese social media is highly sought after. A person who can establish themselves as a KOL may receive numerous offers from well-known brands to provide endorsements or otherwise encourage their followers to favor a certain product. The rewards for these social media stars can be incredibly attractive, increasing their fame and turning into a tidy profit. It’s for reasons such as these that many people seek to bolster the number of views or followers they have. If they can boast thousands or millions of followers, then their profile escalates, propelling them to the kind of visibility that can be extremely good for advertising.
Chinese social media companies are aware that they have a problem with “zombie” accounts. Major efforts have been made to weed out these accounts and correct counts of views and followers. As a result of this crackdown, some social media users who were seen as highly influential have been unmasked as being only moderately successful. A technology reporter who used to boast in excess of 27,000 views per article now shows adjusted numbers of about 1,000 views. Perhaps the most dramatic take down was for a Chinese singer who lost a disheartening total of eight million followers.
The upshot is that it can be incredibly difficult for a western company to determine on its own who is a genuine KOL in China and who is artificially inflating their numbers. Social media advertising is an absolute must for any company that wants to succeed in China. Given the general air of mistrust around official communication, it’s only natural that the Chinese people would turn to others like themselves to help them determine which products deserve their hard-earned money.
People in China see social media stars as experts. They turn to them to shape their opinions and to make lifestyle choices. If one of these KOLs can be recruited to spread a positive message about a particular brand, it may have the power to reach thousands or even millions of enthusiastic followers.
Navigating social media channels in China is famously tricky. With “zombie” accounts being used to inflate numbers, it can be hard to know who is a genuine influencer. That’s why it’s vital to have a competent, knowledgeable guide to Chinese social media.
– by Anna Khegay