The unique implication for Chinese social media
Social media in China is considered a place for a user of the Internet to speak their minds and generally feel free. This is very different compared to the West, where liberation on the internet does not appear distinct compared to everyday interaction. Of course, the big difference in with Social Media in China comes from political constraints created by the government.
As Chinese a user of the Internet are looking for ways to express and describe their freedom on the internet, social media campaigns should cater for this by placing opinions and ideas at the heart of their message. Whether this means having a user of the Internet as ‘Brand Ambassadors’ or whether you employ a reward scheme that favors expression and creativity, or broadcasts a netizen’s idea to the community- it has to promote freedom.
The easiest way for Western Brands to tap into China’s desire for free expression, when creating social media campaigns, would be to offer BBS boards or customizable avatar profiles. It should be noted that it is not good enough just to offer the user the ability to create an avatar on joining the campaign community, and then have no development or activities based around that creation.
Instead, games, contests and community interaction should be promoted around the avatars, with rewards allowing further expression and customization of one’s profile/avatar. It is important that the individual’s achievements, profile, and activities are available to the whole community, the more public, the more suited to Chinese netizens’ lust for expression.
Archaic Social Media Prevails- BBS
BBS was the first online communication tool on the internet, and due to Chinese netizens’ fast adoption of the internet and its community functions, BBS became popular in the nineties and remains the center of the Chinese internet community today.
Currently 98 million Chinese a user of the Internet participate in publicly sharing topics, perspectives and passion via BBS. Within the 98 million over 98% have contributed content to a BBS (Readwriteweb, Jan 2008). User’s interaction with BBS is also fairly intense for a social medium, with 96% of users spending at least 1 hour a day on BBS (Readwriteweb, Jan 2008). The BBS’ role in China is extremely unique, serving as a modern ‘water cooler’ for the Chinese people, usurping the original places for Chinese chatter, within hutongs and bars. BBSs are now a staple inclusion in almost every commercial portal, SNS and gaming website in China.
Anyone who has used BBS will know that the core value of BBS lies within content, not individuals (although the social element obviously plays a role). This is typical of Chinese society, where sharing and affirming opinions and information acts as a cornerstone of their collectivist culture. The opposite could be said to be true of Western social media, where SNS sites like Facebook and Twitter celebrate the individual.
There is also a level of exclusivity within the latter sites, where one chooses and picks who they consort with; BBS, on the other hand, creates open, public conversations that are usually free to all a user of the Internet. The desire for free conversations open to everyone are a clear side-effect of China’s heavily government-controlled culture.
Due to the strong value of sharing and actively participating within BBS culture, the BBS posts have often been the birthplace of many famous online Chinese social memes. For example, the story of Jia Junpeng (see references) was a viral meme spread on August,09, beginning from just one BBS post. The relevance and ‘insider’ nature of the BBS platform, means one post with a single line of characters can contain a rich amount of social information and application to the community. As a result, viral memes often spread from single posts, fueled by the quest to extend and add value (often comedic) to the subject at heart.
The key value is that Chinese users of the Internet find in BBS stems from its ability to allow the open sharing of opinion. A survey by CIC in 2012, showed that this was the clear motivation on BBS, as over 72% of respondents chose this motivation. Opinion sharing in Chinese culture is important but heavily monitored in everyday life. Therefore BBS social communities offer the opportunity to express their values and feelings in a safer environment.
Unique implication for Chinese social media
On a basic level, if you want to get your audience talking about your brand or campaign in China, you should have a BBS board somewhere in your campaign. This is an extremely far removed notion when considering the creation of social media campaigns in the West, and therefore this is a classic example of why Chinese social media is extremely unique.
With 98 million a user of the Internet using BBS boards every day and 96% of these contributing for at least 1 hour, this may be one of the best platforms for gathering/creating buzz or feedback about your campaign or product in China. It could also be said that BBS boards are the perfect place to hear what people really think about your brand/product in China, due to the ‘water cooler’ nature of BBS in China’s closely controlled society.
It should also be noted that the BBS is the ideal place to start a Viral Marketing campaign in China. As BBS boards are mainly text driven and publicly open, the audience is massive and the cost is low. The BBS audience in China are the best advocates of social memes and will ensure the growth of an ingenious viral marketing idea.
There has never been any doubt surrounding the government’s ability to censor and control the internet. With regular blocking of Google, continued blocking of Western SNS sites such as Facebook, Twitter and even Chinese SNS websites such as Fanfou.com.cn, the government have control of social media.
This control has become even more obvious in recent months, with the government developing internet legislation research departments, potentially enforcing website blocking via the Greendam Mandate, and even introducing new SNS regulation law. The latter point I will elaborate, as it involves the creation of a law allowing for the greater potential of Government buy-in within China’s SNS (this is in stark contrast to the West where government buy-in to SNS would meet with social uproar):
Simply put, SNS sites can apply for licensing by the government, which allows some government control in Chinese SNS operations, but also has benefits for the SNS with government investment, backing and promotion; however, the new law introduced by the government means those who do not seek licensing, wanting to remain independent, could face compulsory licensing by the government. If the SNS did not want to become licensed it could equally be culled by the government.
Therefore the government has technically restricted independence from SNS sites. Even if the government did not enforce the licensing mandate on an SNS site, the regulation also allows for the government buy-in, meaning the government could slowly invest in sites such as Renren.com and therefore increase control on services and output in this way.
Perhaps the biggest implication of these regulations is the potential for all SNS sites to be government controlled. The government can easily cull or alienate any SNS which does not follow the trend of becoming licensed by the government, or simply push it out of the market with investment and backing of their government controlled SNS.
Unique implication for Chinese social media
Creating social media campaigns in China may be more tricky due to government red-tape and less freedom to express the brand/product via means you may have used in the West. For this reason, it is important to adapt your campaign to fit closely with the terms and conditions of the SNS.
With social media undergoing large changes in legislation and constantly changing blocks on various SNS, it could be considered risky to invest a large amount of capital on certain SNS that are not favored by the government or are not licensed. For example, it would obviously be a large waste of time to invest in Twitter, Fanfou.com.cn or Facebook.com in China as the sites are currently blocked. Although many users are using CGI proxies to get around the Chinese firewall, the government are constantly cracking down, and, consequently, many large social media owners in the West bare little significance in China.