When it comes to social media and digital marketing, China is at a very interesting place. 2012 was the year that the smartphone overtook the PC as the main Internet device, making the country a fertile ground for an explosion of mobile advertising. At the same time, the almost mythical Great Firewall persists and the ubiquitous Twitter and Facebook are nowhere to be seen. Laura Swinton caught up with AKQA ECD Johan Vakidis in a very snowy Shanghai to help sort out the Weibos from the WeChat and find out what 2013 holds.
LBB> How do you see the state of play with social and digital marketing in China right now?
JV> I’ve been here for 13 years and I’ve been in the digital marketing sphere ever since I got here, more or less. Over the past eight or nine years I’ve seen very slow growth. People in the other parts of the world may think that Asia and China are really connected, but mobile only started to get really interesting for me over the past year and a half or so. 2012 was the year of mobile for me, that’s when we really started producing in response to client demand. Social media, on the other hand, has been pretty active for the past three years, especially with the explosion of Weibo. We have our own networks for everything.
It’s been extremely interesting, from a social perspective, to watch these social networks explode; they only have a very short lifespan. People are always looking for something new. Weibo is probably the top source of news for the consumer right now, but it’s starting to fade. I would think it’s fair to say that Chinese people are more receptive to product placement and branded content and are more likely to follow brands. The problem is that it’s become so hectic that right now when people look at their Weibo feed, all they’re seeing is updates from brands. I don’t think all brands are very clever about how they post things. Some brands are posting updates every hour which is pollution in a sense and the Chinese consumer has started to realise this. It has brought us to a bit of a shift.
WeChat has been an interesting response. WeChat has attracted many younger users from the world of Weibo. They offer an interesting communication tool. Essentially WeChat is TalkBox combined with free messenger services, traditional instant messengers with emoticons and a QR reader. It has opened things up for us. In China you’ll see everyone using their phone as a walkie-talkie with WeChat rather than making phone calls.
Brands have been really reserved towards WeChat. What’s been interesting for me is that what the commercial campaigns or communication programmes have been done using WeChat has been really innovative. I would say this is unique to China. We did such a campaign for Nike that was super successful. When we show clients the case study they want to know more, and that they they’ve found it really difficult to do something similar. And there’s a reason for that; I think WeChat has not defined what they want to be and how commercial they want to be - but I think it’s going to be a huge playing field for 2013. It might sound a bit narrow to say that 2013 is going to focus on that but it is the buzzword right now. It’s the platform that people want to get into.
LBB> In terms of Internet restrictions, do they pose a great obstacle for brands or are they less of an issue from an advertising perspective?
JV> The restrictions are still there, they haven’t changed. The Great Firewall of China is almighty. I think the consumer has changed as they’re more open to use VPNs [virtual private networks] to try to by-pass it. In terms of what we do here for this market, I don’t think it affects us. We have the ultimate local internet. Forged from China for China. Nobody will do a Facebook campaign or a Twitter piece for China. That’s just not going to work. From a broad perspective, I think there are a lot of things that people do not see because of the restrictions, but I don’t see a big impact on what marketers would be doing from a digital or social perspective. There’s no big frustration.
LBB> We’ve seen reports recently in western media outlets about a proposed ‘unbanning’ of games consoles in the PRC. Is this an accurate reflection of what’s happening? China has a massive base of PC gamers – do you see consoles as providing new opportunities for brands?
JV> I thought that was really interesting as a question. To be honest the notion of ‘banned’ consoles is not something people talk about here. Consoles are widely available and widely popular. Chinese kids are extremely good gamers. AKQA works on Xbox in other parts of the world, so we have a lot of experience of that. But they won’t do a local campaign specifically for China; they won’t spend money on it because it’s not officially been launched here.
Whether or not in-game advertising will be a big opportunity in China in the year to come, I don’t know. From a specific console perspective, that’s not the realm of what clients want to do and where we are. But there’s loads of in-game advertising from a PC point of view. There are a lot of brands trying to hook into games like World of Warcraft. But as for consoles like Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii or Xbox, they’re widely popular but not something clients are looking at in the market right now. I would say in the short term no. And that’s not to do with the banning or unbanning of consoles, it’s just a different media mix – which is a little unfortunate because I think there are huge opportunities. But as for the local Chinese market – it’s not something I see in the near future.
LBB> In terms of connectivity in China as whole, is that an issue? Are your audiences are more urban or can you reach rural areas reasonably well?
JV> It fluctuates quite a bit between territories in China. I don’t think connectivity is an issue. The whole country is extremely connected right now – everyone has an Internet browser on a phone. When you get to second, third, fourth, fifth tier, mobile Internet usage is extremely big, simply because people skipped the laptop stage. That’s the reality – they went straight to the phone. So that’s not an issue.
We’ve exceed 600 million internet users in China and most are mobile internet users.
LBB> You mentioned earlier that 2012 was the year where mobile took off – how do you think mobile advertising is likely to evolve in China?
JV> Last year it was all extremely practical, from my understanding. It wasn’t an explosion of apps. Rather clients were asking us to create something around the brand that’s going to connect with people on their devices. I get a lot of worries from clients who don’t know whether they should do an app or something that’s platform-agnostic and leverages mobile internet. They definitely want a custom experience that works as well as it does within the browser, personalised for that device, using the device’s features. That’s definitely happening in 2013 and it’s exciting to me.
I think that 2013 will see an emergence of multi-screen interactions, which is cool. If you were to walk in the streets of Shanghai today you would notice an equal number of digital displays and OOH ads. I predict a lot more interaction between what you seen on a digital display and what you see on your phone screen – or even between what you see on a subway print ad and your phone.
LBB> Do you see the app situation changing?
JV> I personally love apps, beautiful apps, but I think it’s a matter of a suitable solution. Clients are aware that apps are cool, but they’re also aware that there are millions and trillions of apps out there. It’s always a challenge to let them know that there are channels to get them out there. That can be a barrier. Currently, clients prefer something that works on the mobile web browser rather than a downloadable app. They are worried about the reach they would get through an app and honestly speaking, the investment is higher.
LBB> Are there any particular projects that you’ve been involved in the last year that have really excited you?
JV> There are two projects that we’ve done for Nike. One used WeChat and has received quite a lot of coverage in the press because it was something of a first. The level of connection we got was unprecedented. To give you a background, every year Nike runs an event called ‘FoS’ – Festival of Sport. It’s four days of sports madness in a venue full of different ‘sports stations’. They also invite a lot of sports stars to come over and, for kids, the event is stunning.
The brief to us was pretty simple. It was the second year of the FoS and they wanted us to ‘digitize’ the event. We started talking to WeChat. The crux of the experience was that kids who came along to the event could use the built in QR reader to add Nike as a friend. We had a team on the ground during the event who would answer any question in real time. The kids would go to different stations, check in and could use that to track our most engaged consumers within the event. We gave them badges, which was really effective; the kids liked to collect these digital goodies, swap them with their friends. We ‘heroed’ the kids on field screens at the event. The content was also streamed to screens at retail spaces and in subway stations. Kids who were really supportive and active were ‘heroed’ and they got the chance to win prizes, like a private session with LeBron James. That worked out really well. The most interesting element was the team on the ground that answered every question the kids sent in. Considering there were 50000-80000 kids a day, that was pretty intense.
The 'Winning Against the Elements' project is brand new; it’s an innovative way of making the connection between Nike + and Weibo really work. We found a way to create a real life game which was activated by a hashtag in Nike+ that went through Weibo’s API. It was extremely successful for us and I think that next year most of our running campaigns will have that mechanic behind it.
LBB> What do you think are going to be the big stories for advertising in China in 2013?
JV> I think social is everything and that’s not going to change. As I’ve said I think the whole idea of dual or multi-screening will become bigger. Mobile will definitely become a key platform.
We’ve been asked to do some work that’s a bit twisted –a TVC that extends to the mobile experience which is challenging. Most campaigns right now are centred on adding a brand as a friend on WeChat or following them on social, or using a QR from a taxi cab to have an extended experience. I think working in a multi-screen will be the next thing.
We’re currently working with one of our clients on low audio frequency stuff. It’s not necessarily a trend, it’s an experiment. The idea is that if you have a particular app on your phone, it will pick up a low frequency emitted by a TVC or subway spot and that will trigger an experience on your phone. It’s fairly easy. The only barrier is that you need to have a touch point – people need to download the app first. The good thing is that, if you were in a shopping mall, a brand would be able to know not only that you’re in the mall but where you are in the mall, using that low frequency emission.
But if I had to sum it up, I think next year we’ll see an explosion of mobile and multi-screen interactions. Social is already there, social is everywhere.