How to Use Weibo for China Marketing (2021)
Sina Weibo, commonly known just as Weibo, is often compared to Twitter. It did start out as a similar platform but has since grown into its own thing. Nowadays, it is often compared to a combination of Twitter and Facebook as it contains features of both platforms.
Interviewing people about their browsing habits, I learnt that Weibo is mostly used for getting the latest news, catching up on trends, and updates from their favourite brands and celebrities/idols.
On the whole, WeChat is prioritised when it comes to marketing in China, so it’s often common to overlook Weibo. But, just as you wouldn’t probably ignore Facebook while planning your marketing campaigns in Western countries, it’s worth looking into how you can use Weibo to increase your brand awareness in China.
Compared to WeChat, it is much easier to get users’ attention on Weibo and advertising is much more affordable. Furthermore, Weibo’s users are more likely to share posts with their followers—not only it fits into their habits, but the shareability of Weibo posts is just much higher compared to long WeChat articles.
What you’ll learn in this post:
If you’re not familiar with Weibo at all and would like to have a look at it from a user’s perspective, here’s our tour of Weibo video:
And before we start: This blog post was created with the help of our social team who shared their 10+ years’ marketing experience with me over a series of conversations. All tips and information we share have been tested in the real-life marketing strategies we create and constantly improve for our global customers.
First, let’s look at Weibo’s user base to give you an idea of the audience.
As of November 2020, Weibo has had over 520 million monthly active users (MAU), and 230 million daily active users (DAU). Among them, people aged 16–30 account for 80% of the MAU, and more than 50% of them are located in third and fourth-tier cities (and even smaller).
At present, Weibo has more than one million recognised content creators, covering topics in 55 categories.
Weibo’s position has deteriorated over the years, with many inactive ‘zombie’ users. However, the platform has once again become a permanent fixture in people’s daily lives. This is due to the speed—and spread—of Weibo’s news and trending topics coming to the rescue during the COVID-19 pandemic. No other platform in China could keep up with that.
During the pandemic and heavy lockdown, various media outlets worked on Weibo 24-hours a day, releasing a total of 2.28 million epidemic-related posts, which received 300 billion views. They also broadcasted more than 10,000 livestreams of epidemic news conferences in various regions. The number of live viewers for these exceeded 3 billion.
So, how exactly can you utilise Weibo’s massive audience for marketing?
The platform is a great way to increase brand awareness in the Chinese market. This is true especially for educational institutions and companies in the B2C sector.
The above data shows that over 60% of all Chinese Internet users browse the platform at least once a day. Therefore, Weibo is a perfect place to keep users up-to-date with brands (and schools) and engaged with the current (and new) content.
As for B2B marketing strategies, we tend to prioritise other platforms such as WeChat and Zhihu. However, you should remember that business decision-makers also spend their free time checking their news on Weibo. (As long as they’re Internet-savvy and familiar with ‘younger’ platforms.)
Foreign brands, such as you and your competitors, may want to concentrate on certain channels. But keep in mind that your Chinese competitors will probably cover all available social platforms, including Weibo.
It is also essential to understand Chinese users' ‘trust journey’. Whether it is through a shared post or a social ad, Weibo may be the place where users first come into contact with your brand. In this case, they’re more likely to trust you if they see regular updates. And, if the posts are beautiful, fun, and/or informative enough, they may follow and stay with you longer.
However, it is also very possible that your potential customers will see your information on other platforms or through word-of-mouth recommendations. If it’s a bigger purchase or a decision such as choosing a school, they’re likely to do thorough research before trusting you enough to close the deal.
The research may include performing organic searches on Baidu, which will probably guide them to some of your online articles, Zhihu posts, etc. However, most users will also do a quick search on Weibo to see what other people say about your brand.
So, it is worth having a regularly updated Weibo account no matter what your sector is. This is because
users trust accounts that are verified by the platform, hence they’ll trust your company more;
you create a place for customers to leave their feedback and you can respond to it;
you get a chance for a direct conversation with your potential and existing customers;
it provides people with easy access to your latest company updates;
you gain valuable insights from users;
you have a better chance of posting the content you want as Weibo is not as restrictive as other Chinese platforms; and,
you get to target potential customers with very precise advertising options (more on that later).
Hopefully, by now, I have convinced you why it is so important to incorporate Weibo into your broader China-marketing strategy. Your next step will be to set up an account. I covered the account types, setup, and verification process in a simple guide here.
From the marketer’s perspective, it is important to understand how users use the platform and interact with others.
Compared with Facebook, Weibo users rarely go by their real names on the platform (WeChat is where they share updates with real-life friends and family). They post updates on their life or interests anonymously, but it doesn’t make them any less likely to share posts from others. In fact, I have even seen people sharing Weibo screenshots on WeChat because of Weibo’s superior update speed (just like Twitter).
It’s also quite common for people to see a trending topic on other platforms and then jump to Weibo to get more of the latest information and check the comments.
I casually polled fourteen of our team members on their Weibo habits. The results: most of them (over 70%) said that they check Weibo for trending topics, searches, local and global news.
Moreover, they also check the comments section to see other opinions on the given topic.
The habit of discussing everything in Weibo’s comments section has long been a thing. It’s become a tool for ‘social listening’ not only in China but also outside of it. There is even a dedicated site that explains what’s trending on Weibo to a curious non-native audience. The platform also took advantage of that and added an ad placement in between the comments.
It’s not uncommon to see Weibo posts that have more comments compared to the number of likes and shares. Moreover, there’s also an option of ‘fast share’ that allows users to share an update with their friends within seconds.
Apart from news, Weibo users also check updates published by their favourite accounts and brands.
The most obvious answer on how to start a new account rolling is to invest in social advertising. There are some great options which I will cover later.
But first, there's an overall organic strategy to consider as well. I asked our social team to share some tips and tricks, and here’s what they said.
P.S. Their advice is mostly applied in our strategy for educational institutions, but can be adapted to anyone really.
Do thorough research to learn what your competitors post.
Make a simple brand style guide for both Western and Chinese socials. Are you going to keep a similar writing style, or will you try something new? Make sure to keep your target audience in mind. Do you want to stick to company updates and news, or lean towards a fun/entertaining or even cute style?
Will you write content for your Weibo account from scratch? Or, is there some English-language content you could localise? We also suggest reusing bits and pieces of Chinese content you create for other Chinese platforms.
Review the graphic and video content you have available. Weibo is not a good place for very ‘official’ videos. Make sure you are still able to catch your audience’s attention and entertain them.
Be consistent with the style you choose. It’s good to try out a few, but make sure your followers can rely on your overall style. Weibo users are fast to unfollow accounts they don’t identify with, so if your posts could be easily reposted to a Baike (wiki) page, you may need to rethink your strategy. Choose a more talkative style instead.
Create a consistent posting schedule. Evening posts are often more successful, but the best approach is to A/B test different times of the day.
It’s common to publish at least three original posts per day on Weibo. Our team suggests keeping it to one per day. Ten posts/month is an absolute minimum.
It’s fine to repost common content such as company/university information or the details of your product/programme. Just don’t be too repetitive. Our team said it’s fine to reuse content every three months.
Apart from original updates, make sure to repost content posted by others. It’s easier if people already talk about you and tag your account, but you should also actively search for posts to interact with.
Weibo relies on ‘hot’ topics and searches (also known as hashtags). So, keep track of the trends and leverage them to your advantage. That’s the easiest way to gain more exposure. BUT do it naturally. If the topic doesn’t fit, then let it go; there will be another one.
Do not forget to share your Weibo account on other platforms to drive users across channels. Add it to your website as well! But, sharing Weibo’s logo on other Chinese platforms will result in you being blocked. On some platforms (such as Douyin), you can’t even mention Weibo (or 微博). When referring to the platform, use ‘Wb’ instead.
We like organising ‘online activities’ to increase exposure, and we often encourage users to like and comment on our posts to get a chance to win a prize (such as a school’s mascot, a Starbucks card, or a brand’s product). We also boost these posts with social ads. The aim is to increase the number of interactions. Note: DO NOT ask people directly in the post to share or follow your account.
If you’re physically present in China, take advantage of the localisation feature on Weibo as many users browse local posts (本地) daily.
Weibo posts look slightly different from the posts you’re used to seeing on Facebook and Twitter. The maximum length of textual update is 5,000 characters, but anything above 140 will be folded, so better to keep it short and sweet.
These posts often start with the update’s topic in square brackets and/or a hashtag. The latter can be a branded tag or a trending topic (or both). While creating the post, it’s quite handy to use the hashtag search tool provided in the creator function. It’ll give you a good overview of what’s trending. You can also browse the topics by category (education, food, travel, etc.), and search using keywords (such as 留学 ‘study abroad’). It’ll help you find the most relevant hashtags for your post.
Do not stick to text only. It’s important to use a variety of visual content in your updates, and the platform gives you quite a few options. You can also increase interaction by adding a poll, for example.
Visually, it’s a good idea to post pictures in groups of three. Actually, a very popular format is a photo grid of nine pictures. This may be nine different pictures arranged together in an appealing way or one picture broken down into nine pieces to draw more attention. You can also incorporate characters in the grid that could stress the CTA you used in the post. For instance, in the first picture below, the characters say ‘Share the post to join the contest’ (words you couldn’t otherwise include in the post).
Uploading a video is also a good option. Weibo allows both short videos (similar to Douyin) and longer ones. Once you add a video to your post, it will be automatically added to Weibo’s video platform and can be browsed (and discovered) by users.
You can manage things such as updates and interactions directly on Weibo or integrate your account with an external CMS (content management system). The second option is particularly handy if you want to manage many platforms in one place.
Our team likes to use Yimei Zhushou (易媒助手), which allows us to manage multiple platforms in one place, but it doesn’t provide us with data analysis. For that, we go back to Weibo’s back-end.
You can also integrate Weibo with international CMS providers (such as Hootsuite) with an additional plug-in (more here).
As a marketer trying to reach a broader audience on an overly crowded platform, there are some challenges that you need to consider. The issue of reach is not limited to just Western platforms, and China-marketers encounter the same difficulties reaching their desired audience with their content in China. It may be due to ‘zombie’ followers, the platform’s algorithms, or the fact you are just starting out as a brand in China.
An answer to that is social advertising. You may use it to boost your regular posts to the target audience and plan targeted advertising campaigns with a well-crafted call-to-action (CTA).
Weibo offers a few different options:
News Feed ads (粉丝头条)
Fan Connect ads (粉丝通)
Brand Share (品牌速递)
And there’s, of course, an option of working with influencers to increase your brand awareness.
News Feed ads are basically boosting your existing Weibo posts. If you see an unsatisfactory number of views or interactions, you can pay to show the post to a broader audience. The targeting options are more limited compared to Fan Connect, but there are no additional requirements, such as setting up an advertising account or verification, so it’s an easy and fast way to get more exposure.
What I also like about Newsfeed ads is that you don’t need an exorbitant budget. With 80–100 CNY (15 USD) you can reach 10K+ users. The more you advertise, the more discount coupons you get as well.
You can also
choose various options and test them with a small amount of money;
target followers of your competitors, similar accounts, or influencers;
target users based on their interests, sex, and location; and
there’s also an option to target trending keywords.
Your posts will show up on the first spot of the user's news feed and will be marked as ‘promoted’ (推广) or ‘trending’ (热门).
Fan Connect ads are more complex compared to News Feed ads, and they have very advanced options when it comes to bidding and targeting. I’d say that this model will be familiar to search engine marketers.
You can create campaigns and set up target audiences based on
stage of life
We usually bid on followers of influencers who fit our target audience and then further expand or narrow it down using the above-mentioned options.
The most popular advertising model for Fan Connect is CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions). Once you run campaigns for some time and accumulate enough data, you can switch to oCPM (Optimised CPM). This way, you set up your maximum budget and the system will automatically adjust the bid.
To advertise with Fan Connect, you’ll need an account verified with a business licence (both a China and overseas licence would work). Next, you need to charge your advertising account with a minimum of 3,000 USD (you can spend it over a period of time).
Your ads will show up in the third and ninth spot in the user’s news feed. Remember: each ad is individually verified by the platform so it’s important to submit it ahead of time.
Fan Connect gives you a great variety of ad creative options. It can be a CTA driving users to your website, a video, a card, a photo grid, etc.
News Feed and Fan Connect ads are the most commonly used advertising models, and they’re also the most cost-effective. However, we must not forget the most interactive and, therefore, the most pricey option often used by bigger brands.
Brand Share is a more advanced version of Fan Connect, and these ads are prioritised over the regular Fan Connect ads in users’ feeds.
As an example, Brand Share allows companies to include ads in the comments section of popular articles. It’s also possible to get creative with them and include text, emoticons, pictures, GIFs, etc. The ad will be pinned on top of the comments section and should encourage users to get creative and reply.
Otherwise, it can also be a big banner ad in the comments section.
Brand Share also allows the companies to include an interactive CTA on top of regular posts and pictures. It could be a GIF of their favourite idol or a brand slogan, etc.
Is Weibo available in English?
Once you install the app, some features will be available in English. However, the more advanced features, analytics, and most of the user-generated content are in Chinese.
Google Play only offers the international version of Weibo. Where can I get the Chinese one?
You can download the app from the official website here (open it with your mobile phone).
How can I register without a Chinese phone number?
It may be quite problematic to register a personal account without a mainland Chinese phone number. If you have a WeChat account already, you can download a mobile app and register using your WeChat credentials.
In terms of advertising, is Weibo better than Douyin?
First things first, Weibo allows foreign companies to set up and verify accounts and, therefore, advertise on the platform. Douyin still doesn’t.
What is the difference between Weibo China and International?
If you’re located outside of China, the desktop website will automatically switch you to the international version of the platform. Unfortunately, this does not have all the features of the original Chinese version. I suggest using a mobile app instead if you wish to access the regular Weibo.
If there are some questions that you’re interested in, then please, feel free to leave them in the comments!