[This post is written by our guest editor, Marc Violo, who has been exploring emerging markets and their adoption of e-commerce, social and mobile Internet technology in the past decade. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he has immersed himself in a handful of digital projects with one of the leading Chinese tech companies and is scratching his head on the board of other local start-ups. Contact him via email or LinkedIn.]

2011 has been recognized as the year of microblogging in China with Sina leading as the prophet of a religion growing strong there. By simply combining disciples of the two shepherding platforms, Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo, believers in the holy power of Weibo-ing have exceeded 350 million in just over two years. With more than a third of Weibo users connecting to this divine community through their smartphones, this phenomenon represents the fastest growing and most connected community in China up till now.

As marketers, advertisers, entrepreneurs and influencers, we all ask ourselves how can we efficiently use this social phenomenon to our advantage? But with Weibo having been around for the past two years, anyone involved in social media ought to know its basics. Therefore, the question we should all be asking is: how can we leverage this platform in a way which will differentiate us from the traditional, under-stimulating, non-creatively branded campaigns we’ve seen before?

In this new socially connected era, the time has come to suggest recipes and use the ingredients necessary to cook up an innovative branded campaign for the hottest online community of Weibo thriving in a country rich with 1.3 billion potential users.

Let’s begin with the basics, and take a look at the infographic below. It sums up all the features a brand or company can harness to captivate, engage and grow a targeted community on Sina’s microblog.

Let’s divide these features into 5 categories, which marketers should evaluate depending on their needs and what best fits their existing brand image:

  • Content drivers (purple)
  • Interactive applications (red)
  • Graphic and visual stimulus (blue)
  • Engagement enhancers (orange)
  • Data and tracking systems(green)

Weibo is a two-way communication channel between brands and their consumers. The success of a campaign lies in direct interaction and engagement with followers. Campaign managers should start by identifying what mix of features will help them best utilize their Weibo account, might it be growing brand awareness, offering a live CRM tool to customers, or conducting consumer research.

Many consider Weibo and social media to a larger extent, a simple and inexpensive way to create brand awareness and they tend to only focus on the number of fans or followers as an indicator of how efficient their social media campaign is. They aren’t completely wrong but are missing the big picture: the engagement, the vitality and the emotional response triggered by their campaign. The success of a brand on Weibo can be assessed through the viral aspect of each of its associated features: the number of app users, retweets, mentions, positive user-generated content, etc.

Take VANCL for example, an affordable clothing brand that only operates online. They are the second most retweeted user on Sina’s micro blog (source: Labbrand), because they have created an integrated Weibo strategy which brilliantly mixes a third-party developed app inviting users to create their own VANCL ad, frequent involvement in followers’ conversation and engaging user polls.  IKEA has also effectively used a mix of Weibo functions to differentiate its brand and communicates with its audience by frequently releasing branded video content and retweeting followers’ posts with relevant IKEA products.

Most cases of companies dealing with branding strategies on Weibo, miss out on the potential of using more engaging features and focus solely on content. Content is definitely a large chunk of the mix and a clever content strategy has brought brands such as Starbucks, Adidas Original and particularly, Durex, that has used humorous yet topical posts, to be amongst the most popular branded Weibo accounts(source: CIC). But using the more innovative features of Weibo will attract followers’ attention, differentiating your brand from others. Partnering with Sina, Nike has smartly used Weibo’s medal reward system. Understanding the increasing desire of Chinese consumers to differentiate themselves, Nike offered a branded Nike medal to followers retweeting product and event information. Sina has even created a dedicated page to introduce medals to users. Why not take advantage of it by incorporating gamification concepts in your Weibo account strategy?

Building a community of influential users will take time, but once these can be identified, don’t miss out on the opportunity to leverage and incentivize them. By making them Weibo brand ambassadors or 品牌外交官, it will only strengthen their motivation to promote your brand and in turn, invite others to follow.

Like Lancôme, the most influential brand online in 2011 (source: L2) you can choose to focus on content to differentiate yourself, by creating a personality for your account, being consistent with your posts, and most importantly, providing free access to valuable information by positioning yourself as the expert in your field. Lancome has become the reference point when it comes to beauty and skincare products. Using the advanced Weibo poll feature or tracking topics in search filters hot topics section, and the Board of fame, these will all give you a head start to engage users on what they actually care about.

Brands sometimes choose to involve celebrities as brand or event sponsors, which is a proven effective strategy as celebrities play a dominant role in driving Chinese social media.  If you do so, take the time to analyze the Hall of celebrities and understand what type of celebrity your target audience is interested in.  CIC recently observed that self-made stars such as Wuyi (武艺), the second runner up of a TV singing competition, had the most followed and highest buzz-generating account on Weibo, promoting the attractive notions that anything is possible and anyone can make it. Most recent example, NBA player Jeremy Lin, has seen his Weibo account grow exponentially from a couple thousands at the end of last year to over 2.2 million today, after an outstanding initial sporting performance.

When over 5,000 verified companies are competing for attention on Weibo, the use of innovation, campaign creativity and consistency within an account’s strategy are musts to make it worth investing in Weibo. From the conception to the evolving development of a micro blogging brand strategy, it is essential to think of not only how to make the best use of the real-time dual-communication it offers, but also, how to leverage an increasingly sophisticated and integrated social platform to establish your brand as a reference on China’s social grid.