In 2014 I started learning (simplified) Chinese. I'd studied quite a bit to do with Chinese and perceptions of time during my psychology research and, coincidentally, also started using the popular Chinese social media network Weibo for my work (alongside using the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat). The University I worked for, like many organisations operating internationally, had correctly identified the need to have a presence on Weibo to get through the great Chinese firewall and, ultimately, increase conversions. But how do you get started as a brand or as a person? This is a complete guide!
Because this is a long piece, feel free to skip to the parts you want to know about:
Weibo (or Sina Weibo) is a microblogging site owned by the giant corporation Sina. Sina Weibo has 56.5 percent of the Chinese microblogging market based on active users as compared to competitors like WeChat (owned by Tencent) and Baidu.
You might be wondering why it exists when Facebook seems to be taking over the world with its 1.37 billion daily active users. The answer lies in the great firewall of China. Essentially, many if not most of the social network sites you may know are blocked in China, along with Google and a few other brands. While it's technically possible to get onto any site while in China, in the same way that many things on the internet are possible, officially nobody in China uses Facebook or Twitter. So long as the firewall remains, it's always going to be easier to reach people in China through Chinese social networks.
Weibo is pronounced "way-bwo" not "wee-bo" or "way-bo" because "Weibo" is pinyin -- Chinese characters that are written using English letters to represent the characters. Pinyin is not English, and so it's pronounced differently. In Chinese, this social network is called 微博, which is what "way-bwo" or "Weibo" represents.
To the casual social media user, Weibo might look familiar when you first take a look -- that makes sense since it's essentially a combination of Twitter, Facebook, and a few other popular social media sites in terms of function. A non-Chinese speaker might find it quite intimidating to look at on the web but once you understand the key features you'll be navigating with ease in no time.
In the years I've spent studying Chinese the main thing I've learned is that clicking on Google's translate feature is not always the best option because it's not great with nuances and Chinese is full of them -- at the very least translations should be eyes wearily -- but if you don't read simplified Chinese characters right now, go ahead and click onto it to get an idea of what's going on with the Weibo homepage.
You'll see something like the image below when you translate it to English.
If you're brave enough to register, and why not, here's where things get exciting. In the old days Weibo required a phone number to complete registration and for me, with a UK number, this was always hit or miss. Because of the time it took to get verification codes, and the fact they expire in a matter of minutes, it took me around two weeks to get registered on Weibo initially.
The exciting news is that Weibo has an international app for mobile, with Facebook integration. Although the Facebook plugin is still being tested, so you'll need to gamble with the phone number verification option for now, this seems to suggest in the near future you'll be able to sign in with your Facebook account.
Once you're in Weibo you'll notice you have a username that's a mixture of Chinese characters and numbers -- you can change that! Just go to settings and type in what you want.
Keep in mind there are around 340 million people using Weibo regularly so short usernames are scarcely available.
Having lost my account, and changed my phone number, for me this was a perfect opportunity to make a new account and start again on Weibo so here's my account. In the end I went for 27爱米下阿伯丁和加勒比 which means "27 Love Rice Under Aberdeen and Caribbean" which is honestly nonsense but I got frustrated and typed characters until I found a username that stuck. Ai Mi/爱米 is also a play on words of my name Amy or Aì měi/艾美 because like I said, I was frustrated that all the names were taken.
Keep in mind you can only do this a few times (five) until you're stuck for a long time with that name so pick something you're okay with keeping!
Taking a look at my account you can see that you can change your username by tapping the icon of the person and then heading into your profile by selecting your username. You'll find it the interface quite familiar to operate once you're in.
Don't get too excited by the one follower you've immediately and mysteriously accrued -- that's Sina Weibo following you automatically as it does all new users.
Once you're all set up with a username you can start following people, just select the icon that looks like a planet and search for a topic. Alternatively, if you don't want to search you can browse the trending topics.
I searched for Scotland (苏格兰) because I was curious to see what's being posted about my home country.
Following people is easy, just select the drop-down arrow on the right and choose "follow".
If you're a marketer reading this ready to cash in on the 500 million strong user-base, and wondering how to buy adverts, the best way to buy ads is through a Chinese agent. Unless you're a native Chinese speaker even if you understand the process of advertising you might need to do this anyway -- adverts work best when they written by a native speaker after all.
How to sign up to be an advertiser on Weibo
You can do advertise yourself but you're going to want to advertise through Fen Si Tong and to do this you'll need a verified account.
To get this submit a copy of your business license when you apply for an account with Weibo in order to secure that all important blue tick. After this you have to contact Weibo directly and ask them to create your advertising account.
Phew! You did all that? Great! Only in some places like North America you're not actually allowed to have an advertising account and you must use an authorised dealer.
In terms of what's on offer -- everything you'd expect to be able to place is available. Display banners, promoted search, you can even get certain influencers to post on a topic and suggest things to their followers for a price.
Weibo KOLs (key opinion leaders) are a valuable asset in advertising on Weibo. Chinese mega KOL Zhang Dayi has over 5.3 million followers on her Weibo account although smaller “micro-influencers” normally have between 10,000 and 20,000 followers each. Brands like Max-Factor have used KOLs to great success on Weibo. Don't jump into KOLs without reading around. There are certain rules for KOL posts, similar to Facebook advertising policies, that you should know about before jumping on the KOL band-wagon.
- Age: Curiously, almost 80% of Weibo users are between 17 and 33 years old and only 13% are older than 34 so Weibo is not about reaching older working professionals.
- Mobile-first: It's also worth noting that 91% of daily users do so through mobile devices. Weibo is therefore, first and foremost, made for mobile. Don't bother showing up to the party if you're not made for mobile either.
- Locations: A few years ago, it was only popular in 1st and 2nd tier cities (that is, cities with GDP between above $68 billion USD) but now Weibo seems to have a fairly broad reach into most cities.
- Browsing habits: Around 41% of Weibo and WeChat users go online just to browse Weibo, so a lot of users are primed and looking for new content all the time. A further 21% of those Weibo and WeChat uses are online just to browse WeChat moments -- Chinese social media is all about searching for content. As opposed to other platforms, Weibo is also mostly only used to follow celebrities, and news, hence why the KOLs mentioned above can be a crucial part of advertising.
- Be yourself (and be open about your level of Chinese): While not a lot of users post in english, there's something exotic about British and American speakers to Weibo users that means you're likely to gain followers without particularly trying as long as you're friendly. I tend to write in my bio that I'm learning Chinese (我在学汉语) so that people know they can message me in Chinese and while my answers will be short they will also mostly be in Chinese unless they want to practice their English.
- Be friendly: Like I said, a lot of users will be curious about you because you're (presumably) not from China and it helps if you make an effort to be friendly.