Saturday, July 24, 2010

Social Media in China – Great Expectations

Social Media in China – Great Expectations

Great expectations

Perhaps no other recent phenomenon has generated as much expectations among marketers as social media. Fazed with increasing clutter and deteriorating ROI from their investments in conventional media, marketers are salivating at the thought of social media providing them with an opportunity to link up once again with the increasingly elusive and promiscuous consumer. In a research conducted by TNS among marketers in China, a large proportion of them said that social media is one of the most effective marketing tools today. In fact there is a common perception that social media is on its way to replace more and more of conventional media.

However the marketers are also clear that the potential offered by the media is far from realized today – in fact they feel that only a fraction of the potential of social media is tapped today – because “very few companies understand social media”, “the social media scene changes so fast that it is difficult to keep up”, “there are so many options to chose from” and lastly a complaint that their organisations are not able to find right agency partners or vendors to work with.

Vibrant social media on China

There is no denying the fact that social media has been growing rapidly. Specialist social networking sites such as –, kaixin001.oc, and have gathered a huge following in the last one or two year. If you consider other parts of social media such as blogs, bbs and video sharing nearly everyone is involved. Why is there such a powerful social media landscape in China? Why has social media exploded in China?

The key to answering this question lies in understanding the way the Chinese consumers look at the Internet. In the developed economies, consumers look at internet as a work tool, to increase efficiency or provide information. However, the Asian countries like China and India also look at it as a tool for self-expression. The fact that traditional forums for discussion and airing your views are scarce is a definite encouraging factor. Often debate and dispute is not possible at home – as many of the young people don’t have a sibling to fight with! It is not surprising that Chinese consumers are among the biggest bloggers in the world.

What has marketing got to do with this?

While it is interesting to know and acknowledge that people in China are fond of interacting socially with their friends and colleagues online, like to discuss juicy topics (like how well dressed is Xili Ge is, or about Furong Jie or the spicy details of the Shoshou Men), we need to still evaluate its relevance for brands. The relevance for brands comes from the fact that people are discussing about products and brands online. According to a TNS survey 86% of the social networking users have come across a negative comment on a brand online. Marketers have to be there to defend themselves. But it is not just about crisis management. 90% of the consumers we talked to have come across a positive comment online for a brand – pointing to the tremendous opportunity that the media offers to brands. It seems apparent therefore that people are talking about brands on social media – some are saying good things about brands, some are saying bad things about brands, Marketers can take of the risk of ignoring it or the can try to see how this can be monitored, moderated and veered in the positive direction.

Why do people talk?

The reason marketers are excited about social media is that they feel they can engineer positive conversations by persuading consumers to sing paeans about their brands. However, the major trigger for positive word of mouth is a high degree of consumer satisfaction. Consumers want to share their happiness from consuming wonderful products, or relish their gratifying experiences. So the best way to make them talk is to delight them. Another interesting trigger is the possibility that either a new brand or its advertising catches their attention. So every time marketing has something new to talk about, there is an opportunity. Hence triggering positive word of mouth can only be based on a sound foundation of solid product performance and genuine newness – it can not emerge out of nothing.

Mismatch of expectations and reality

The views of the marketers about social media are very clear and they see a distinct role for the medium– they expect social media to create WOM (word of mouth) or buzz and do strengthen the emotional bond, which is very different from that of conventional online advertising. While the role of social media is seen to strengthen the emotional bond and to develop loyalty, conventional online advertising has the job to create awareness and to inform (essentially the same job as that of advertising in traditional media such as television, but without TV’s ability to enhance image). Hence there is an expectation that because marketing communication works in an environment of social interaction, warmth and bonhomie, it will have a more profound effect on the consumer psyche than conventional advertising. But is it really so?

If you ask the consumers – there seems to be a mismatch , the consumers say brand exposure on social media makes them aware of the brand – put it into the consideration set – even nudge me to try it - but generating loyalty and bond with the brand - a bit unlikely. This indicates a gap between the marketers’ expectations from social media and the reality – which for us is a cause for reflection. Are we using social media appropriately? Is it that quite often marketing communication on social media websites is actually conventional advertising, and makes little attempt to engage the consumers or to generate a dialogue? It seems clear that if the great expectations from social media are to be realized, marketers and their consultants need to work harder in imbuing their brands’ presence with a character that connects more intimately with the consumers.

Written by Ashok Sethi