Tim Cook Shows Why Brands Still Need China's Weibo

Apple's CEO Got 200,000 Followers in an Hour When He Signed Up

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Tim Cook unveils the Apple Watch.
Tim Cook unveils the Apple Watch. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Apple had news to spread Monday about its efforts to protect Chinese forests, so CEO Tim Cook signed up on microblogging platform Weibo to post about it. In an hour, his account had 200,000 followers. And Mr. Cook's arrival on China's Weibo became a big story in itself.

For brands, Mr. Cook's debut is a reminder that Weibo can still be a useful platform with big reach. Twitter-like Weibo, which launched in 2009 and had 175.7 million monthly active users at the end of 2014, is often seen as past its prime.

When digital marketers get enthusiastic about new campaigns, they're often talking about WeChat, the all-in-one mobile app people use to chat with friends, post news, share photos, shop and more. WeChat has 500 million monthly active users, and it's changed the way people in China use their smartphones. But there are some things WeChat can't do. Unlike WeChat, Weibo is easily searchable, making it a good place to look for news, trends and thought leadership pieces.

Though brand engagement is down on Weibo, personalities still do quite well there, said Jonathan Smith, managing director of China-focused digital agency Hot Pot Digital, which works for Mulberry, Galeries Lafayette and Gilt Groupe.

"People really want to connect directly to the individual -- on Weibo many fans are asking (Mr. Cook), 'why are you updating from the iPhone 6 and not the iPhone 6 Plus?'" Mr. Smith said.

What Mr. Cook should avoid is "setting it up seemingly as a personal account but then ultimately using Weibo as a platform for more commercial product and brand-related content," Mr. Smith said. "You've got to make sure to make content is relevant and authentic. You get a lot of celebrities arriving, posting two or three China-related posts, then a couple photos from a recent China trip to create relevance, and that's not a bad way to start. Then more often than not usage will drop off. It would be great to see someone of his stature use it and actually maintain it as an ongoing broadcast platform."

Mr. Cook will also have to be watchful for any flare-ups of negative sentiment about Apple that might show up on his page, and respond to them. (Chinese state TV once attacked Apple's warranty policies, claiming they discriminated against Chinese consumers; after a steady stream of negative publicity Mr. Cook changed the policies and apologized.)

Apple is having a moment in China. From January to March, it sold more phones in greater China than in the United States, according to Bloomberg News. Market research company IDC reported Monday that Apple had surpassed local player Xiaomi as the top smartphone vendor in the first quarter. Apple has 21 stores in greater China, and it's planning to have 40 stores by mid-2016.

Given the importance of the China market, Apple has been showering the country with extra love lately. Mr. Cook's Weibo account is one form of China outreach, and so is Apple's initiative with the World Wildlife Fund on responsibly managed Chinese forests to provide paper for Apple packaging. On Weibo, Mr. Cook wrote in English and Chinese: "Hello China! Happy to be back in Beijing, announcing innovative new environmental programs."

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