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ChinaFile: A Marketing Cesspool

Are you very excited about using social media to market your products?

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Are you very excited about using social media to market your products? Are you very keen to start a corporate Weibo account and just weibo away to marketing heaven?

Don’t go there. Don’t even think about going there. The much-touted new media marketing platform is slowly turning into a cesspool of fake fans, organized fan attacks by competing brands, and huge price tags on so-called KOLs (bloggers and other digital pundits for hire, known as “key opinion leaders”).

There are so many dirty tricks that it is not worth mentioning all of them. I will just tell you the most common ones employed by local companies and celebrities alike.

RELATED STORY: Click Here for Last Week's 'ChinaFile' Column >>

1. Pour Dirty Water (on a competitor): This means you pay a local company to send insanely rude and obnoxious comments on product postings by your competitors. The claims are wild, so if they don’t alarm consumers, they’ll definitely give your competitor’s digital marketing manager enough of a runaround.

2. Fake Posting: I was caught between two warring actresses two weeks ago. A fan sent me an eyes-only message with a photo of a posting by a film critic claiming I trashed a recent film by a leading actress. Lets call her A. This was totally untrue and I immediately posted a statement. Five minutes later, the agent for the other actress, let’s call her B, called me and said the eyes-only message was a ploy to generate attention for A’s film by getting me to post something about it. Of course, A’s agent immediately denied such allegations and said it’s because B is jealous that A’s film is doing way better at the box office. Oh my God! I thought, what a mess, and I really could not care less. In the end I did not go to see either film. However, it does tell me that Weibo is less about marketing and more about mud-slinging.

3. Opinions for Sale: I have no proof whatsoever, but I think KOLs are bought and sold all the time. Three weeks ago, I got another eyes-only message asking me, very politely, to forward (retweet) a message by various Chinese pop stars for charity. I didn’t do it. Then I got a second message, followed by a third and a fourth message. Finally, the sender pleaded that I must forward the message by the end of the day; otherwise the sender’s company would be in big trouble with the client. I still ignored it. The next day, my assistant got a call from a man claiming to be the boss of a social media marketing company offering 30,000 renminbi for me to forward a message. He told my assistant the offer is only valid for 24 hours. It took me a nanosecond to recognize it’s the same song, written by a very wealthy Chinese man, and backed by a popular local beverage.

I don’t mean to sound snobbish and full of myself, but honestly, the speed of which Weibo became commercialized is very scary. It was really a good thing; I enjoyed reading all the comments, there are a lot of smart people out there. But lately, it’s really worrisome as I realize it’s become a garbage dump, a zero-sum game played up by marketers — a cesspool where companies pay for vicious attacks on their competitors.

It’s really a shame how a good thing can quickly turn bad in China. So watch out.