Time for Bottom-Up Social Media Marketing

Sanlitun Village
Dining with the Grouch
1230 hrs.

Before I took off on my prolonged LA/SF/Seattle roadtrip in June, I had the honor of joining a panel discussion on social media with Sam Flemming, Donna Li, and Lakeer Chen, moderated by Wunderman‘s Paul Blake at Wunderman’s Digital Day at Microsoft.

There were some excellent questions from Paul and the audience of Microsofties, who I have to say were incredibly engaged. Near the end, one of the senior Microsoft people asked a critical question: what traps face companies trying to use social media in marketing in China?

RenRen Is Not The Moral Equivalent of Facebook

We could have held a full-day seminar on that topic alone, so I stuck to the one answer that has been the biggest trap for social media so far: localization.

Despite rhetoric about globalization, and despite the comfort with many companies to give operational independence to local subsidiaries, a discouraging number of companies – primarily multinationals – still create global social media plans in New York or London, and when they get ready to implement those plans in China they simply “localize” them.

By doing so, what they do in most cases is say, in effect, is “well, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, so let’s cross out ‘Facebook’ and put down ‘Renren’ and let’s drop ‘Twitter’ and put ‘Sina Weibo’ instead.” 

Social Media Are Not Global

If this approach doesn’t strike you immediately as intrinsically flawed, let me explain:

First is the matter of usage. How and why Chinese people use social networking services adn social media sites, and how their usage of those sites affects the way they perceive companies, brands and products, and thus how they influence buying decisions is different in China than in the west. This is as it should be. Social media, unlike traditional media, are as much products of culture as they are of technology. For evidence, one only need to compare the user base and usage of Twitter with Plurk, MySpace with Facebook, or Facebook with Friendster.

My favorite example (hat-tip to Sam) is that if you wanted to find online influencers in China, you would not necessarily look at blogs. You would more likely want to be looking at popular online forums that covered topics relevant to your company.

Even then, you would want to remember that while in the west we like to consult experts, in China the marked preference remains consulting trusted relatives, friends, colleagues, and classmates first. They may get information on a product from experts, but that final decision will be determined by friends and family much more so than the opinion of some stranger who happens to be an informed monomaniac.

I suspect that over time this will change to an extent, but it underscores a subtle reason why simple localization of social media plans will not work.

Second, there are different types of social media that are more important here than they are in the west. Social gaming, for example, is a much wider phenomenon here, and you’d miss that if you were just localizing a global plan. Ditto with the BBSs mentioned above. And how would you fit QQ into a neat little U.S.-centric niche? You couldn’t. QQ is much more than just chat, but you really wouldn’t understand how unless you actually used it.

Cool Today, Lame Tomorrow

Third, as fast as change is in the west, it is arguably faster here. A year ago, Renren was brand new, and microblogging was stillborn. Today, Renren is an important force in China (though it is not Facebook – not yet anyway,) microblogging has exploded, and the emergence of Android and the iPhone are finally making mobile social media into viable channels.

None of these changes could possibly have been incorporated into plans prepared a year ago (or even in December) by marketers working thousands of miles and a huge cultural divide away. There is just as little likelihood that said planners will understand before the end of this year which social media will be important for them a year from now.

Bottom Up, Not Top Down

The solution comes in two parts. First, companies and their agencies must allow social media marketing efforts to be driven and created in each market, and THEN integrated (to the greatest extent possible) into a unified global effort. This will not go down easily with either headquarters or agencies, who are jealous of their role in driving the global effort, and often are paid to do so. They can still “lead” the global effort, but the job will be more of guidance and integration than imposing their will on local organizations.

Second, whatever plans are made need to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The plans need to be changeable at the discretion of local teams (at least every quarter) to ensure that new opportunities will not be missed, and that social media that are out of favor can be dropped at will. It is far too early in the development of the media to be betting on partnerships with sites and services that extend for longer than 3-6 months.

China is merely an extreme example of how social media is anchored in local culture. What goes for China goes as readily for any Asian markets, Latin America, and in a more subtle way, Europe.

It all goes back to what my dear, departed mentor J. Corbett Donohue once told me. “There is no such thing as global marketing. You may brand globally, but you market locally.”

Social media proves that fundamental truth.