In China, it's awkward being Twitter. At CES Asia in Shanghai, the company's new China head pitched local tech brands on why they should use it to reach consumers overseas. What went unsaid is that Twitter isn't accessible to the masses inside the mainland, because the government blocks it.
Onstage during the event's opening day, Kathy Chen noted that brands can tweet in English or in Chinese, which is helpful for communicating with Chinese people living outside their country. "Therefore those overseas Chinese will become a very important tool for spreading your brand," she said.
That might be true, but there are nearly 1.4 billion in mainland China, and any social media would naturally love to reach more of them too.
About 80 people attended the talk in a half-empty conference room, where Ms. Chen appeared unexpectedly after Aliza Knox, Twitter's VP-online sales, Asia Pacific and Latin America. Ms. Chen's name wasn't listed on the official program; perhaps more people would have come had they known she would speak.
Ms. Chen's appointment as managing director for Greater China caused a stir last month when people discovered that she had once worked for the People's Liberation Army and a joint venture that was partially owned by China's Ministry of Public Security; more recently she was with Microsoft and Cisco. Soon after signing up for Twitter, Ms. Chen tweeted that she looked forward to working with two Chinese state media giants, CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency, leading some to wonder if her appointment was a way to get closer with the Chinese government. Twitter says her role is about growing the business.
Ms. Chen will pitch the service to Chinese companies that want to buy ads to reach consumers abroad, or use its big data services. The company opened an office in Hong Kong last year to do that. Twitter told the South China Morning Post in April that it had increased the number of China advertisers 340% in the past 12 months.
It's unclear how big Twitter's China revenue is. Probably small, said Sandy Shen, a Gartner analyst. For reaching foreign audiences, "Google is still the main ad platform for Chinese businesses, and social platforms are distant followers, even Facebook," she wrote in an email. (Google and Facebook are blocked in China too.)
Many big Chinese companies, including Huawei and Xiaomi, already use Twitter. The presentation highlighted a case study involving ambitious tech and entertainment brand LeEco. With a Twitter handle targeting Indian consumers, it got 80,000 followers in two months.
Ms. Chen mentioned that Twitter also wants to help Chinese-language content go global; she talked about how a music streaming platform called KKBOX uses the social network to promote songs in Chinese to the rest of the world. And Chinese tech companies can use Twitter for customer service, as Apple does, she said.
Twitter has a stand at CES, where employees served cupcakes with Twitter's blue bird logo on them. There were apparently roundtables with Chinese media happening too. Ad Age was originally offered a seat at a Twitter roundtable that was later retracted; Twitter says the meetings were only for Chinese media, to educate them about how the platform could help China's companies go global.
Clarification: Due to inaccurate information supplied by Twitter's PR agency, an earlier version of the story suggested Twitter was not engaging with English-speaking journalists at CES because of the PR storm over Ms. Chen's hiring. Twitter says the roundtable invitations were for meant for Chinese media, to educate them about how the platform could help China's companies go global.