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Marketers Like Starbucks Are Learning to Use Microblog Sina Weibo in China

Often Compared to Twitter, Chinese Service is More Diverse and Bigger

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Tencent's QQ instant-messaging platform used to be the darling of China's marketing community, but with astonishing speed -- even by Chinese standards -- Sina Corp.'s microblogging service Sina Weibo is the new front-runner. Often referred to as China's Twitter, the two-year-old microblog has taken off among celebrities, executives, politicians and, unsurprisingly, advertisers.

Sina Weibo, launched by one of China's leading portal sites in August 2009, has dramatically altered that country's digital behavior, pulling users' time and attention away from other websites such as QQ, video-sharing platforms Tudou and Youku and, most of all, Facebook clones such as RenRen and Kaixin001. (Twitter is banned in China).

Chinese social-networking sites should be "very worried" about Sina Weibo, said digital marketing consultant Eugene Chew on this week's episode of "Thoughtful China," an online marketing affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.

While other digital companies, including Tencent, offer weibo, which means microblog in Chinese, Sina's is by far the biggest service, with over 200 million registered users who send out up to 75 million messages daily.

Eager to follow and engage with these users, advertisers are dabbling with ways to tap Sina Weibo for brands, albeit with limited success so far. While international media often describe Sina Weibo as "the Twitter of China," that 's not quite true. The two services are really quite different -- but understanding and optimizing those differences baffles even big brands.

Western marketers use Twitter in multiple ways, including as a free platform for customer service, to tweet special offers and deals, and to monitor and resolve complaints. Companies can also pay Twitter to promote products related to a trending topics list and through sponsored tweets, but Twitter's open, crowded and fragmented platform can become a cacophony of tweets drowned out by spam.

While Sina has taken "a lot of functionality" from its Western rival, said Scarlett Lok, head of digital at TBWA & Tequila in Shanghai, "it is truly an innovator [that foreign companies] are going to start copying."

Sina Weibo goes far beyond Twitter. The microblog allows private groups, threaded comments that better enable personal conversations, polls, games, apps, e-commerce, search, photos and streaming audio and video, "enterprise pages" that feature brands and group-buying services. The most-popular user, actress Yao Chen, has 12.5 million followers.

Sina Weibo even has its own currency called the weibi and a "light blogging" side service for users who produce original content and want extra space to post multiple pictures, audio and video files, and text with unrestricted length. And the company announced plans earlier this year for an English-language version of Sina Weibo, although that hasn't happened yet.

"There is more to share and more ways to share" on Sina Weibo, said Sam Flemming, the founder and chairman of CIC, which provides social-media intelligence in China.

A handful of companies are already figuring out how to use Sina Weibo well, including sportswear brands Nike , Li Ning and Adidas, French skincare and cosmetic companies such as L'Oreal and Estee Lauder, Chinese-made Herborist, and U.S.-based Benefit Cosmetics. Successful advertisers on Sina Weibo post daily updates beyond their own brand and product offerings and talk about lifestyle issues and trends.

Starbucks is the "clear leader," Mr. Chew said. "They were one of the first to go into location-based [marketing], one of the first to go into weibo. Not only do they bring out lots of coupons and deals which fans love, but they ask interesting questions, they thank and reward fans, so it's a genuine two-way relationship and their tone and manner are very much like your friendly neighborhood cafe vs. a brand talking to a mass of consumers."

"More and more" luxury brands such as LVMH, Burberry and Swarovski have turned to Sina's microblogging service too, especially to tweet alongside offline events, said Hong Kong-based Gallie Ng, a Sina Corp. assistant manager of marketing and PR. (Sina Weibo didn't participate in the "Thoughtful China" video show, but Ms. Ng responded to questions later by email). "They can leverage this platform as a channel to deliver the most-updated information and events coming up to their followers [and] share instant updates and joy with users who cannot attend."

Lenovo, for instance, has set up both its own corporate account and a separate customer service account on Sina Weibo, she said. And Enterprise Weibo lets companies create Facebook-like fan pages that include photo albums and video, and provides tools to analyze fans' data and behavior, she said.

Sina and Twitter do have one big challenge in common: learning how to monetize microblogs. Sina Corp. has one big advantage -- its Sina.com portal is China's third most-visited website, with deep pockets, a vast user base and strong brand awareness.

There's "no question" Sina is making money from companies such as package-goods brands "who didn't traditionally advertise on Sina's portal," said T.R. Harrington, founder and CEO of Darwin Marketing. He said Sina tells advertisers, "if you want access to our weibo, [first] advertise on the homepage of the portal, and then we'll talk. Indirectly, definitely, they are finding ways to monetize it."

Why have weibo sites grown so quickly in China? The service has tapped into the psyche of Chinese digital-media users. While its decentralized nature feels "relatively free of censorship," said P.T. Black, Thoughtful China's senior creative director in Shanghai, its core appeal lies deeper.

"Chinese are famously generous to their friends and family, anyone in their social circle, but notoriously unsympathetic to strangers. Weibo is all about the interior. It's like a massive karaoke room."

Normandy Madden is senior VP-content development, Asia/Pacific at Thoughtful China, and Ad Age 's former Asia Editor. See earlier episodes of Thoughtful China at www.thoughtfulchina.com.

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