While mobile messaging app WeChat is the fastest growing social media platform in China, when it comes to following movers and shakers in China, Sina Weibo remains the place to be (though this could change). With over 500 million registered users (over 45 million of which are active), the network remains a hotbed for discussions about the cultural zeitgeist.
Now, with China making up the world’s biggest overseas market for entertainment like the NBA and Hollywood movies, some public figures are setting up Sina Weibo accounts as a means to cement their online presence in the country. Sometimes these accounts will receive attention from international media when first established, but TiA was curious to see how these accounts were actually managed on a day-to-day basis. After all, maintaining a cross-cultural social media presence is no easy feat. While trying to drive engagement, one must factor in language barriers, cultural differences, and social media etiquette.
Below you’ll find a few celebrity Sina Weibo accounts that make for interesting case studies in cross-cultural social media in China.
Avril Lavigne’s Weibo account is one of many managed by Fanstang, a California-based marketing firm specializing in Chinese social media strategies for international celebrities. Clients include Robert Downey Jr., Paris Hilton, Jason Mraz, and countless others. The company recently announced that it reached 50 million followers across its various accounts.
Fanstang accounts tend to stick to a formula and Lavigne’s account follows it to the T. For the most part, all posts are taken directly from the singer’s Twitter account (it’s not 100% clear of Lavigne or a PR rep is behind it), and original English is pasted along with a Chinese translation. Content is copied and pasted word-for-word, which means that sometimes texts gets cut off with ellipses.
Fanstang plants its name and URL at the top of each of its accounts, so it’s transparent in telling users that it’s acting as a third-party go-between. But the occasional China-related post pops up, ensuring domestic followers that Lavigne counts them among her fans.
Tom Cruise’s Weibo lacks the cookie-cutter format of most Fanstang celebrity Weibo pages, but it’s nevertheless managed by a PR team, likely the same team that manages his Twitter page. Surprisingly, Cruise has more followers on Weibo than on Twitter – 5.4 million followers on the former, 4.2 million followers on the latter.
The respectable following belies the actual level of engagement, however. Despite updates on a near-daily basis, most posts clock in at about 30 reposts. Rife with contests, promotions, and superfluous hashtags, the account’s a dog. Posts entirely in English, but it doesn’t take fluency in a foreign language to know when you’re being pandered to, and that’s exactly what Cruise’s social media accounts (both Twitter and Weibo) do.
Granted, Cruise’s team likely maintains accounts on other even more country specific social networks, so it’s unrealistic to expect intimate engagement on any platform in particular.
Emma Watson‘s posted her first message on Weibo in July 2011, just in time for the domestic premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.
Unlike the aforementioned accounts, Watson appears to send out her posts personally. With the exception of one tweet in which the actress is referred to in the third person, all of them pass the smell test when it comes to authenticity.
Most of Waston’s post are brief plugs for her upcoming films, advertisements and fashion shoots. With this in mind, despite the sincerity, it’s easy to sense a distance between Watson and her audience, especially given the language barrier.
It’s possible that the average Chinese user might get a kick out of following the real Emma Watson on Twitter, but apparently the marketing tactic didn’t stick. Watson’s account has been inactive since December 2011, and the most recent message appears to have been posted by a bot.
Mike Tyson posted his first public message on Weibo last August, and it took him all of two posts before he got a taste of Weibo’s less harmonious side. When he asked his followers “Who’s the best fighter in China?” users flocked to hit the reply button and type in “chengguan,” referring to the despised local public security bureaus that routinely attack street vendors and pedestrians for minor infractions. The gaffe attracted the attention of international media and Tyson’s post was quickly removed.
Amateur fumbles aside, Tyson’s Weibo is a winner. With child-like enthusiasm, he repeatedly expresses his appreciation of China, whether it be for its fast-growing economy or tradition in the martial arts. One post is peppered with a Chinese translation, and in another he @mentions Chinese olympic swimmer Sun Yang along with Hua Shao, former host of the American Idol-esque The Voice of China.
But Tyson really racks up points when he gives a shout out to Qihoo CEO Zhou Hongyi, another public figure not known for playing nice. If Tyson’s posts are any indication, the fighter appears to have an obsession with fighting off colds (something that Chinese people tend to share as well). And in a September post, as he bids farewell after an extended, possibly germ-laden stay in the Middle Kingdom, he writes, “It’s a real pity I didn’t get to meet [Zhou Hongyi], I hear that he is also a master at avoiding viruses.” Zhou’s company is, of course, best known for its anti-virus software. Whichever PR rep whispered that line into Tyson’s ear as he tapped away on his smartphone deserves a raise.
It’s this sort of enthusiasm, coupled with Tyson’s wide-eyed grin, that can win over social media users of any nationality. Even with rudimentary English, it’s quite easy to detect Tyson’s sincerity as he reaches out to fans that live halfway across the world. If he keeps it up, Tyson should have steady bookings on Chinese talk shows for the next year or two.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson‘s first Weibo post appeared in February 2012, just in time for the domestic release of The Avengers. The actor’s stint on Weibo begins politely enough, with a bold pronouncement that the famous Samuel L. is now on the world’s largest social network, just in time for Chinese New Year.
But Jackson’s Weibo account quickly derails into insanity. Making liberal use of the word “motherf***er” and variations thereof, the majority of Jackson’s posts feature shoutouts to lesser-known celebrities. In one post from late February 2012, Jackson expresses his excitement over a Bernie Mac special airing on Comedy Central that night. In another post, he laments the passing of stage actor Dick Anthony Williams. And in another, he celebrates documentary filmmaker TJ Martin’s Oscar win for the film “Undefeated.” These references, all of which feature Jackson’s characteristic attitude, are almost certainly well-outside of the cultural sphere of the average Weibo user (and perhaps the average American Facebook user as well!)
Granted, Jackson did complete a series of video fan Q&A posts, though even in those fifteen-second clips Jackson maintains his abrasiveness, which is easily lost in translation. Jackson’s Weibo might be a good example of how not to conduct cross-cultural social media campaigns – authenticity is good, but alienation is very, very bad.
Rather than hiring PR firms to handle content and translations or testing the waters by writing posts themselves, the members of Radiohead took a decidedly different route with their Weibo page – they did away with words entirely. Save for the first post, each entry consists of a single disturbing, arboreal sketch likely drawn by friend-of-the-band Stanley Donwood.
Like those of its famous peers, Radiohead’s Weibo petered out relatively quickly – the last post appeared in January of 2012, about five months after the band’s first one. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but that might not be enough to regularly upkeep a profile page on a foreign-language social network.
It might be a stretch to consider the fourth-youngest son of former president George H.W. Bush a celebrity, but Neil Bush’s Sina Weibo account nevertheless makes for an interesting case study.
Bush amassed over 134,000 followers on the network, way more than than his 482 on Twitter (though neither figure is anything to brag about). But what’s more startling is that Bush is far more active on Weibo than on Twitter. Since his first post in September 2011, Bush has been posting paintings, pictures, and inspirational quotes in English and Chinese on a near-daily basis. His Twitter account, on the other hand, hasn’t kept his attention as consistently.
Bush’s posts get reposted usually about 15-30 times per post, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise – surname’s aside, he’s an ordinary guy. But one can’t help but wonder why this oil magnate posts Georgia O’Keefe paintings on a Chinese social network more than he updates his own Twitter account. Gigaom speculated that Bush’s entry on Weibo had to do with his large business network in China. Indeed, a Weibo account could make for good cocktail party banter, but that doesn’t fully explain his account’s longevity. Perhaps he simply enjoys reaching out to followers from the exotic Middle Kingdom.
Crossing virtual borders
All of these profiles highlight the difficulties of conducting social media cross-culturally. It’s difficult enough for a busy public figure to maintain authenticity and sincerity on English-language social media. Language barriers and cross-cultural awkwardness only add to the challenge. Despite this, as Tyson’s account demonstrates, just being oneself and showing a little admiration for a distant land can go a long way.
It’s difficult to imagine a Western celebrity taking Chinese social media by storm the way Lady Gaga did on Twitter. But the occasional Ni Hao along with pictures from a Shanghai press event might be all that’s necessary to connect with foreign fans and satisfy PR agents.
(Editing by Paul Bischoff)
(Top image credit: sdnatasha/Flickr)