China perspectives: building a social media strategy

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Helen Tian considers what international publishers should consider when building a marketing strategy in this region 

The growing number of submissions from Chinese authors to English language journals has led to an increase in international STM publishers seeking to establish, or deepen, an existing footprint in China in recent years.

Like the rest of the world, social media strategy in China is a long-term commitment and it takes time to build followers. Content and reputation has to be managed correctly from the outset, and be continually monitored to ensure publishers keep abreast of any changes required to thrive in this ever-evolving market.

China has a unique social media eco-system and these home-grown channels of communication and influence provide Western publishers with both tremendous opportunities and challenges when brand building in this territory. Publishers should pay attention to the social media apps Weibo and WeChat. WeChat is extensively used in the STM community, including Chinese academics based outside of China, as a scholarly communication platform. Typically, academics will share and comment on journal articles and also share comments on individual publishers. Released in 2011, WeChat (meaning micro-message) has grown quickly and achieved dominance with over one billion users. 

Market research and local knowledge

Creating an online brand presence in any territory comes with potential risks; a badly orchestrated attempt to enter a market can mean your online reputation is hard to salvage later. The biggest danger can be a lack of market understanding which quickly alienates the target audience. A ‘one size fits all’ approach when establishing a presence on social media in China rarely works. As part of their initial research publishers need to identify their target audience and decide on whether they wish to adopt a journal or publisher-level brand strategy.

For a Western publisher, managing any non-native language social media remotely can be challenging. 

Local intelligence in China provides insight into the publisher’s target audience, their current standing within the academic community and their competitors’ profiles.  This enables the publisher to shape their online content accordingly to match their target market.  

In addition to researching brand reputation on WeChat and Weibo, research should also be carried out on search engines like Baidu and across the online channels utilised by the academic community, for example blogs like 

Social media should be part of a larger marketing campaign

A publisher will be most effective when their social media activity is part of wider online and offline marketing campaigns which are focused on driving new followers to their WeChat account. 

Academic conferences are ideal for boosting WeChat followers. Here individuals scan the publisher’s QR code, displayed on a poster or literature, directly into their personal WeChat account using their mobile phone. 

Use of paid media can help drive WeChat followers. For instance, sponsored blogs can drive academics towards your WeChat account. Advertising on WeChat is popular, two paid options include; WeChat Moments which are the equivalent of Facebook ads that appear on a timeline, and WeChat banner ads that appear at the bottom of an article on another third-party WeChat account. 

Select the right online channel – WeChat

WeChat is so ingrained in Chinese society and business that a lack of presence on WeChat is akin to not having a website in other regions.

WeChat’s dominance offers an immense opportunity to drive submissions of high-quality content to journals, aid editor and peer reviewer recruitment and increase citations and downloads. Arguably, most valuable is the ability for publishers to directly engage with their audience by delivering tailored messages and content direct to their mobile phones and using the app to gain valuable feedback from them. There are two types of official accounts: subscription, and service; the key differential is the number of messages that can be posted per month.

WeChat’s dominance has resulted in a move away from the more traditional methods of correspondence like email. 

“In China … email never reached the ubiquity it has in other countries. Most Chinese … if they have an email address, seldom use it. Chat, instead, remains the preferred method of communication…”. (Josh Horwitz, Quartz)1

Publishers can create deeper engagement via sub-groups (up to 500 followers) with common interests within their WeChat account. Within these groups followers can communicate, and share posts and the latest news. For example, within a larger physics group, an optics and lasers group would be a sub-group.  

What type of content works best?

Publishers are advised to keep their content original; followers expect new, easily digestible bite-size content and will potentially unfollow if content lacks quality or is unstructured. WeChat is a busy space - everyone competes for attention. Using ‘original content’ articles can keep followers engaged, making content more likely to be read and reposted. These are articles verified for uniqueness by WeChat and display a label below their title. 

It is advisable that content is translated and localised. Translating content from Twitter or Facebook is not sufficient as it is not optimised for WeChat and you may lose followers. Additionally, content has to be checked to ensure it does not contain keyword or content violations. 

Utilising the functionality of WeChat

WeChat provides comments sections with each article, where followers can post feedback. The function provides an invaluable opportunity for publishers to engage directly with their followers, but there is a resource requirement. It is advisable to respond in Chinese within 48 hours or the account will quickly be perceived as inactive. Crucially, it allows publishers to monitor any negative comments and develop a proactive messaging strategy.  

Launched in early 2017, WeChat’s Mini Programs function is gaining popularity. Mini Programs are contained within the WeChat environment, allowing the WeChat account owner to provide followers with advanced features. The right time to introduce a Mini Program into your WeChat development plan depends on your content. For instance, a Mini Program providing author education videos creates an enhanced user experience which would not be available through a standard WeChat offering. 

As WeChat’s usage rules and functionality are frequently updated, diligence is required to keep abreast of any changes and to minimise the risk of your account being rendered unusable by changes to the platform.2

Although WeChat upgraded its Index tool this year (similar to Google Trends) to provide more useful information on trends related to keywords, it still has limited reporting functionality compared to Twitter or Facebook analytics. WeChat is API-enabled, allowing developers to extract data and import into 3rd party systems. 

Exported data can then be enhanced and connected with all the publisher’s cross-channel communications into larger report structures. Recognising WeChat’s role in the sharing of scholarly communication, Altimetric awarded a research grant in 2018 to explore the impact and role of WeChat in scholarly communication and its potential as an Altimetric source.3

Opinions matter – WeChat KOLS

Like influencers on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, a key approach to drive followers to your content is to develop a network of key opinion leaders (KOLs). KOLs are influential within Chinese academia within a publisher’s field who pick up their content and then share through reposts on their personal WeChat account. KOLs can also be pushed to create WeChat sub-groups. They need to be regularly reviewed, managed and nurtured both online and offline by publishers as their support cannot always be depended upon and they can regularly be approached by other publishers. 

KOL endorsement can be difficult to attain until a brand has reached a certain recognition level. Academics are very aware of journal Impact Factors, and journals with a higher Impact Factor will obviously receive a better reception within this market.  

Managing reputation

Blacklists name publishers and journals that have been deemed low-quality, or predatory, and as a consequence undesirable to potential authors. These are unofficial lists which are not easily transparent, and not necessarily government sanctioned, often existing at local institutional level. Blacklisting can occur for a number of reasons and it is vital to pick up on any early warning signs by constantly monitoring market feedback. Additionally, building a network of institutional contacts allows engagement with the institution to remove the publisher or journal from their blacklist.

In summary, a social media strategy in China can appear daunting, but publishers should approach it with the same risk/reward considerations employed for their global social media strategy. China does have particular nuisances where local in-market knowledge is invaluable and can considerably help a publisher’s learning curve. 

Helen Tian is general manager, China and East Asia, at The Charlesworth Group