Chinese Companies Scale the Great Firewall to Build Brands on Facebook, Twitter

But Marketers Are Stymied by Lack of Access and Limited Knowledge

By Published on .

Air China's Facebook page is pretty standard stuff. Photos of attractive flight attendants. Snapshots of airplanes against the sunset. And pandas, of course. But considering the social-media site is blocked by China's government, it may come as a surprise that the state-owned airline has a Facebook page at all.

Air China worked with Swedish shop Rodolfo to build a presence on Facebook.
Air China worked with Swedish shop Rodolfo to build a presence on Facebook.

As Chinese companies reach out to consumers abroad, more are trying their hand at Facebook and Twitter, both blocked by the Great Firewall. The ban is intended to keep the masses off foreign social networks it can't control, but it's clear skies for businesses using Facebook.

When Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg visited China last month, she posed for a photo with the head of the government's State Council Information Office. Their meeting reflected a practical reality: Chinese companies want to use Facebook to build their brands abroad, and Facebook wants their ad revenue.

Facebook said it is working with reseller Pzoom -- China's largest search-engine-marketing company -- to help Chinese companies buy ads on Facebook, which will be seen outside the mainland. The social network has held training sessions with Chinese app developers and plans to attend conferences in China to connect with marketers here.

So how are Chinese companies doing on Facebook?

Many want to break in but just don't know how, said Kevin Ti, digital strategy manager for H-Line Ogilvy in Beijing.

"The biggest obstacle is that they don't have access to these platforms, so they have limited knowledge in terms of how to communicate with followers, not to mention the inherent cultural difference," he said.
Air China, which has 24,300 followers on Facebook, caught a serendipitous break in Sweden, where it had offices in the same building as ad agency Rodolfo. After meeting in the stairwell a few times, "we decided to take a meeting," said Ludwig Jonsson, Rodolfo's co-founder. Rodolfo developed a Facebook check-in campaign at Asian restaurants in Sweden to raise awareness about Air China's routes to Asian destinations beyond China.

At the start, however, Mr. Jonsson says the Air China representatives were "not at all" familiar with the platform. Air China did not return emails seeking comment.

China has its own highly developed social networks, including Twitter-like Weibo and mobile app WeChat. Not all Western social media is blocked. (Vine, Instagram and Pinterest work fine.) It's also possible to get around the firewall by using a VPN, or virtual private network, but most people don't bother.

But brands' interest has been piqued. Ogilvy's "Pambassador" tourism campaign for the Chinese panda capital of Chengdu had a big Facebook component. It got companies thinking about what Facebook and Twitter could do for them, said Amber Liu, founder of Chinese digital agency Amber Communications.
Mr. Liu's company has done campaigns on Chinese social media for Coca-Cola; soon it will help a Chinese shipbuilder get onto Facebook.

Some Chinese companies have a very localized presence on Western social media. Clothing brand Bosideng has 13,000 retail outlets in China and one shop in London. Its Facebook page is for only that one store.

Telecom giant Huawei was a rare early adopter, going on Facebook in 2004, the year the network launched.
Smartphone-maker Xiaomi uses Twitter to reach 8,300 followers with news, jokes and odd tips like, "if you think someone is giving you a fake [phone] number, read it back to them incorrectly. If they correct you, it's legit." Emoticons abound.

In competitive foreign markets, Xiaomi's cutesy Twitter persona might not fly, said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media and the internet.

"One of the problems with China's restricted information environment is it does make it difficult for Chinese media and advertising to go abroad, since they exist in a curiously sheltered environment here," Mr. Goldkorn said, adding: "It's so different out there from in here."

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