Weibo's Abilities Neglected by International Universities
Weibo is back in style and boasts a record number of users. Especially popular among internationally-minded millennials, Weibo represents a powerful tool for foreign institutions to stay relevant and visible in Mainland China.
While Wechat is especially effective at reaching friends, followers, and contacts, Weibo broadcasts information publicly, making it an effective mass marketing tool.
Many universities outside of China used to maintain official Weibo accounts and actively engaged with a Chinese audience until the launch of WeChat. By 2014, a great number of these accounts have stopped operating, resulting in “zombie accounts” as the social media center of gravity centered around WeChat.
Weibo was founded by Sina Corporation in 2009 and has grown to become China’s dominant microblogging platform. According to the BBC, Weibo’s usership has grown to surpass that of Twitter in 2017 and has enshrined itself as a facet in the daily digital experience of 340 million Chinese people, most of them under 25, seeking to keep up with the world around them through pictures, videos, and short-form posts.
But what about WeChat?
Just as the Western social media landscape has a small number of major players, social media in China is dominated by two different platforms: Weibo and WeChat. Weibo posts are broadcasted to the general public so that pictures, video, 360-degree media, and memes can gain traction and go viral. The mass disseminability of Weibo makes the platform a powerful marketing tool. WeChat, on the other hand, is a social network super app with a plethora of alternative functions--imagine ordering a good or service through Facebook with an integrated payment system used nationwide. Fundamentally, WeChat is about depth: sharing medium-form stories and media within a user’s confirmed social network of contacts and friends. WeChat is a closed network: you can only disseminate content to your followers and hope that they share it, whereas Weibo fosters breadth by allowing a user to share short-form content to a wider audience.
So what going on with Weibo?
Many schools, especially in the UK, jumped onto the Weibo bandwagon early on. By 2015, many institutions let their accounts lie dormant during Wechat’s meteoric rise and Weibo’s relative decline, set off by new government rules muzzling celebrities and other key opinion leaders as well as Sina’s own internal mismanagement. However, Weibo is back after replicating some aspects of Instagram Stories and regaining much of its user base. Now, the Chinese internet is back on Weibo, and that means that Chinese users will be looking for these accounts once more! Having a dormant account (or none at all!) is only to the detriment of these schools as they are missing out on the latent potential for mass marketing and increasing their brand awareness with the over 200 million users under 30 and 31 million teenagers. For universities and boarding schools trying to attract Chinese students, Weibo can be one of the most powerful tools within the Chinese digital realm.
Breakdown of microblog users of Weibo in China as of December 2016, by age group
Weibo is also a “team player”. Maintaining an active and localized Weibo has the power to not only increase an institution’s brand recognition and reach with Chinese audiences directly, but it also works with other social media platforms. For institutions with a new or established presence on WeChat, Weibo can also drive traffic to a Wechat account so that users can view longer-form content and get information about upcoming events and deadlines. Weibo posts can be cross-posted on a WeChat account and that the post is viewable on their WeChat Moments (think Facebook timeline) or be sent directly to specific contacts or group chats. This can prove to be an especially powerful combination: WeChat keeps your dedicated followers like alumni, current students, and your partners in China updated, while Weibo can grow your following and direct people to your WeChat. For this reason, Weibo is a strong fit for schools interested in “armchair recruitment”, since it allows you can gain a following with or without being present in China.
Screenshots from Loughborough University’s Weibo.
From frequent posts to interesting content, Loughborough amassed a notable following.
Screenshots from Samford University
This school’s last post was from over five years ago and unlocalized resulting in low growth and has turned into a “Zombie Account.”
As China becomes evermore international, the desire for international education will only intensify; simultaneously, as their younger generations become increasingly digital, the need for foreign universities to maintain an ongoing digital presence on social media will only become more evident.
It’s time for foreign institutions to think about how they show up in the world’s fourth-biggest social media platform. If you have a “zombie account”, it’s time to resurrect your account! If you don’t have an account, it’s time to crack the book on China’s most effective mass-marketing social media platform. You’ll need to be constantly posting interesting photos, videos, short-form text, and 360 media, at least once per week and ideally in Chinese. While the workload is substantial, so is the untapped opportunity. Decide which approach is best suited for your institution and your team, whether that be entrusting the work to student interns or partnering with a professional organization that can establish and manage your Chinese media. If you work with an organization, make sure that you know whether they “do their own work”, or if your all-important social media posts are being outsourced to a local agent. Above all, make sure your staff or your partner knows the Chinese market, can tell your institution’s story, and understands the content and design preferences of your target audience!
Ultimately, your Weibo is a reflection of your institution and your community: show the world that it’s vibrant and worth coming to! We would be happy to help your institution achieve Chinese eloquence and fluency on Weibo. Feel free to contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org