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Social Media in China: Maximising Sales Potential

Interview with Matthew Kwan, principal consultant, Adams Company Limited

“The use of social media is a must!” said Matthew Kwan, principal consultant of Adams Company Limited and an e-marketing expert on China market. “After all, among all advertising and marketing channels, “word-of-mouth” is still the most effective. Nowadays social media sites are one important channel in spreading word-of-mouth, and the key is how best to entice user groups to keep on sharing posts.”

WeChat: viral growth

Mr Kwan pointed out that, currently among all mainland social networks, Weibo is still the leader. The so-called “web celebrities” and “web experts” on Weibo are very active. The fans of a web celebrity may number as many as several million to tens of millions, while a web expert in a particular field can also have hundreds of thousands of followers. WeChat, another social network which has been growing rapidly in recent years, is an instant messaging app also under Tencent, a mainland Internet company. Mr Kwan reckons that WeChat will grow at an even faster pace.

One special feature of WeChat is that it allows advertising. It also provides forums or platforms on which companies can talk about themselves. Companies can also use the “Drift Bottle” feature to disseminate information or they can cooperate with WeChat in carrying out joint marketing activities. In contrast, WhatsApp, an application well known to the people of Hong Kong, does not in principle allow any commercial activity. A company can utilise platforms such as WeChat to expand its contact base and subsequently set up its own group of fans.

Instant messaging and e-tailing all the rage

Chatting concurrently via several instant messaging apps is commonplace in China nowadays. On this, Mr Kwan reminds Hong Kong companies intending to expand into the mainland market to take note of the “ecosystem” on the mainland. “If you want to develop your mainland business, how can you afford not to use the primary, most common communication tools of mainlanders such as QQ, WeChat and Weibo? How can you afford not to have a presence on leading e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and Tmall?” said Mr Kwan, adding that “Some Hong Kong companies are still not prepared to adopt the mainland communication formats. The days are gone when one can communicate effectively in the mainland market by using emails, Hong Kong telephone lines and websites only!”

“Instantaneity” is crucial

According to Mr Kwan’s experience and observation, the ecosystem of operating business in the mainland has become rather “instantaneous”—be it B2C or B2B and irrespective of what messaging app is used, the other side would always expect instant replies or else the business would be lost easily. Even for online sales, if no “online customer service” is available to solve customer problems instantaneously, an order could still slip away.

To Hong Kong manufacturers which have been involved mainly in exports but now want to expand into domestic sales, Mr Kwan suggested that they must pay attention to setting up a dedicated customer service team. Nowadays the cyber world is virtually operating on a 7/24 basis and the peak login hours in the mainland are from 9 to 12 in the evenings. If there is no “online customer service” during these hours, online retailing may be seriously affected. “A great majority of mainland netizens are using their mobile phones to access the Internet. Whether a company’s website is mobile-friendly or finger-friendly will therefore have a big effect on consumers,” said Mr Kwan.

Dedicated social media marketing team indispensable

Many mainland enterprises are now actively using social media as a publicity and marketing tool. Some have even set up teams of dozens or even more than 100 people to roam social media sites every day. They will post on these sites information about their company’s products and services, chat with other people, and invite them to browse their company’s website.

“Even if there is no full team, there should at least be a marketing person to formulate specific strategies for social network promotions based on regional distribution, product type and product grade,” Mr Kwan said. If a company does not want to set up a full social network sales team internally, there are professional services firms in the market that can help carry out social network advertising. But at least the company itself should have a dedicated marketing manager to coordinate developments in this area. It is difficult for any service firm in the market to fully replace the company itself. For example, when it comes to handling customer complaints, it is necessary for the company to respond directly by itself.

If a company wants to start its own blog, it should make sure that there will be constant updates of content. A company blog should be treated as a professional magazine that provides different related information to attract readers to come back browsing. For baby products, for example, the blog should provide practical tips related to mothers and infants so that there is a balance between “soft sell” and “hard sell”. This will require a definite amount of creative thinking and inputs. For example, reporting, copywriting, editing, use of graphics, sound effects and multimedia related to the products should all be handled with careful planning. Mr Kwan said all these would involve an investment period and, in the short term, sales turnover may not be in proportion to investment until the number of fans on social networks has reached a critical mass.

External help can be sought initially

Mr Kwan suggested that, to reach a critical mass, a company does not necessarily have to depend on its own contacts but can try using external help initially. In the mainland, companies can seek help from web celebrities or web experts on Weibo, but of course they should take care to choose those whose fan numbers are not overblown. Currently it is said to take upwards of Rmb1,000 to upwards of Rmb2,000 to ask a web celebrity to write a post (of not more than 140 characters). Since the conversion rate of reading a celebrity post to eventually browsing a corporate website is not high, the key to reach a critical mass of fans is how best to convert the visitors into one’s own fans by leveraging the Weibo celebrities and experts. Through these fans, a company’s reach can then be extended.

Putting a “human face” is important 

In striking up relationships with customers in social networks, one should give due attention to human touch: one must avoid using a business-like tone in making contacts but chat in a personal and friendly manner. For example, using the name of a person or even a fictional character in making contacts on social media would be more effective than using a company name. “After all, social media are social!” said Mr Kwan.

Content provided by Picture: Billy Wong
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