Working Smarter

Understanding Social Media in China

With hundreds of millions of Internet users and millions more coming online, having a presence in China means not ignoring social media.

It’s not surprising that China, the country with the world’s largest population, also has the world’s largest online population — at 618 million Internet users. What is remarkable is how quickly the country is adding to that group. It’s estimated that by the end of 2015, China’s online population will reach 800 million. And of today’s Internet users, a majority — about 500 million — access the Internet primarily through mobile devices, according to Percolate, a New York City–based technology and content-marketing company.

Those statistics became very real to Kristin Mirabal, CMP, a global events consultant, as she traveled to China while working as director of global programs for The Optical Society (OSA). It was amazing, she said, to see the central role that mobile devices play in Chinese culture. “Everyone,” Mirabal said, “was on Weibo.”

Weibo, Chinese social-media expert Tricia Wang told Fast Company, is “like Twitter, but Twitter on crack.” OSA is on Weibo, along with the Chinese platform Renren, which is analogous to Facebook, and Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. Social media in general is important to OSA, Mirabal said, and so is expanding its presence in China.

And as OSA has found, if you want to reach a Chinese audience on social media, you need to use Chinese platforms, because most Western social-media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are all but impossible to access in China. Facebook and Twitter are flat-out blocked by the Chinese government.

Although Weibo and other Chinese social platforms can be accessed in the United States, Mirabal recommends using China-based companies or contacts to establish and monitor social-media accounts. It’s important to have someone working on behalf of your organization who is proficient in Mandarin, Mirabal said, not only to translate and post messages but also to engage social-media followers.

Jackie Liu, who works for MCI Shanghai and serves as the China affiliate relations manager for the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE), maintains Weibo and WeChat accounts for ISPE. The fifth most-downloaded smartphone application in the world, WeChat is a micro-messaging service that has been described as combining the best features of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, allowing users to share articles, photos, and videos through a “friends circle,” Liu said via email.

ISPE uses Weibo and WeChat to promote its own events and activities, update conference programs, publish volunteer profiles and technical articles from the society’s journal, and share industry information and regulatory news. Social media in China “is not just a matter of tweeting something out,” Mirabal said. When the information is retweeted and comes back with comments, “you have to keep those conversations going. That’s the challenge in China. How do you manage that?”

The Rise of WeChat

MCI Shanghai’s Jackie Liu helped the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) establish an account on WeChat, a rapidly growing China-based global social-media platform, last September, after noticing how many Chinese ISPE members were using it. Weibo was once ISPE’s dominant platform, but the growth of followers on ISPE’s WeChat account illustrates its rising popularity — and the ability of WeChat to amplify information. In the last six months, ISPE posted 19 times on WeChat and grew by 487 followers, Liu reported. By comparison, during the same period, ISPE published 141 posts on Weibo and gained 518 new followers.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.