Five Questions With Sina Weibo's Ken Hong in China

At Microblogging Service, Former Publicis Exec Helps Turns Fans Into BFFs For Brands

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China has a unique digital media ecosystem, due to the internet firewall that blocks western sites like Facebook and Twitter, but China's internet users are at least as social and connected as their counterparts in other countries.

For the past two years, the leader of China's social media market has been Sina Corp.'s Sina Weibo, a microblogging service with features first developed by companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Pinterest, all rolled into one very popular Chinese platform. Sina Weibo had over 400 million registered users in the third quarter of last year.

Eager to monetize its user base and popularity, Sina Corp. hired industry expert Ken Hong last year as general manager of Sina Weibo as well as CEO of Convections, a Sina Corp. division that offers social media marketing products and services. Previously, Mr. Hong was China managing director for Publicis Groupe's two digital agency networks, Razorfish & Digitas, working with advertisers like Nike, Unilever, L'Oreal and Cartier.

This week Mr. Hong talked with "Thoughtful China," an online marketing-affairs talk show produced in Shanghai, about Sina's strategies and products, such as branded Enterprise accounts for turning online fans into your brand's new best friend, and what he thinks about Tencent's rival WeChat platform. Here is an edited version of the interview. (See the full episode.)

What does the company name "Convections" mean?

Ken Hong: When Sina approached me, they said they wanted to form a team and perhaps even a separate company that offers social media marketing products and services that also has some independence outside of the Sina organization.

The word "convection" in English means the transfer of heat, and 's' stands for social media. What we are trying to do is harness some of that power within the Sina Weibo platform, the transfer of energy between consumers and brands, [so] I made up a word but it stands for "Convection Social."

In a recent speech "Turning fans into BFFs," you claimed marketers miss the bigger picture when using social media. What did you mean?

Mr. Hong: A lot of the brands are still focusing too much on getting more fans, and not enough on thinking about what they want to do with these fans. They should be thinking more about growing the relationships between brands and these consumers in social media, on the Weibo platform. [I wanted to] find an easy phrase for people to remember this idea and thought that "BFF" is maybe capturing what brands are trying to accomplish in social media, turning fans into best, not just friends, but also best fans forever.

Are marketers better at creating apps for Sina Weibo?

Mr. Hong: A lot of brands right now are building campaign-based website pages and apps. Those are necessary to support campaigns but brands need to think more about providing apps that are utility-based. As you want to build these long-term relationships, you've got to give them a reason to want to come to your Enterprise account, for example.

Can you give an example?

One of our partners developed this hotel online booking app, a utility-based app that solves specific problems for consumers. They can come to the Enterprise Weibo account, look up and enter room information, and make the booking. Close to 2,000 hotels have installed the app on their own Enterprise Weibo accounts.

Does the rapid growth and popularity of Tencent's WeChat concern you?

Mr. Hong: I get this question a lot [and] personally I am a WeChat user as well, but honestly if you look at these two products, they are very different. [Weibo] is a great platform for brands to quickly get their message out to a very large audience base.

WeChat is also a good product, but I think it is more fitting for one-to-one direct communications. It is effective in terms of, I just want to send a specific message to you, but what WeChat does not have is the secondary viral effect in terms of the message; how do you share that with your other friends? Brands should look at these products again for different purposes, so I do not view them as direct competitors.

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.

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