Making a splash on social media across the Asia-Pacific region means investing in platforms beyond the US-centric players like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. To really harness the might of social media, the smart operators are engaging the grunt of giants like Weibo - China's version of Twitter - and other big local players.
Digital agency We Are Social reported in Jan 2016 that around a third of the world's population now use some form of social media. Facebook is the world's biggest social platform, with 1.5 billion users. Instagram boasts 400 million and Twitter 320 million users. But in China, social is dominated by QZone and WeChat (each with 650 million users), QQ (860 million users, but many are duplicates) and Weibo (over 500 million users).
Meet 25-year old Brisbane beauty blogger Brigitte Liu, from Guangzhou - the Pearl River port northwest of Hong Kong. Big on Weibo and the video channel Youku, Liu touts her beauty tips to over 60,000 social media followers.
Liu's advice on running an APAC social-media campaign is pragmatic.
First, she says, whatever platform you pick, focus on activity and engagement. “Update the platform with new and fresh topics and engage with followers."
Second, ensure your content is useful and positive.
“No one likes empty content, and negativity is never good for the image of yourself or a brand," says Liu, who holds a University of Queensland master's degree in business and marketing.
Third, embrace the latest trend or events - whether it's festivals, the latest movie, a hot topic or celebrity news, she says.
Whether you are on Weibo, Yukou, WeChat or a Western-centric platform like Facebook, your strategy should broadly be the same, Liu says - but she adds one rider: make sure you are using the latest cool phrases and keeping your language very current.
The language of China's social media sphere keeps evolving, with a new term emerging every month or so, she says, citing the Jackie Chan shampoo commercial coinage "duang", meaning “shiny and cool".
“And I often have to use Baidu - 'Chinese-Google' - it to understand what it means, even though I'm young and Chinese, haha! Using online language definitely helps with the engagement and it makes you seem a lot more like a real person," she says.
Liu's LinkedIn profile lists singing as a top skill, alongside make-up artistry and speaking Mandarin. But the former bar-singer doesn't spruik her own vocals in her feel-good, chatty video clips - she says she doesn't want to show off.
Liu says that each platform has different strengths - WeChat, for example, is more personal, because only common friends can see comments.
But Weibo is her favourite - mostly because Weibo users are much more engaged. Weibo also excites more business buzz and opportunity, Liu says, citing its spectacular popularity - with half a million-odd monthly active users, or more than the entire US population.
Kaitlyn Elliott, who is head of influencer marketing at the Sydney-based agency Hello Social, says choosing a the platform comes down to matching what your core market uses.
“Whether this is WeChat, QQ or Weibo, each platform is unique and so is its audience," Elliott says, referring to three of China's mightiest.
While the messaging service QQ attracts the region's largest social media user base, with well over 800,000 active monthly users, Weibo lures the most companies, organisations, dignitaries and stars, according to the social analysis hub linkfluence.com.
Explore how each platform on your radar works, Elliott says.
For example, WeChat, which boasts 1.1 billion accounts, works in a distinctively hands-on way, presenting checkerboard-like Quick Response (QR) codes that a business can include on products and packaging. Prospects curious about your business can then scan your brand code and follow you.
Elliot says that by hiring a Chinese linguist to translate key messages and posts, you can help businesses connect with clients more deeply.
“There are a number of agencies and services out there, and a real person can help you make sure you communicate with the right tone, humour and grammar," Elliott says, adding that you are then better-placed to build a content strategy that will engage your Chinese audience.
For many companies, though, the holy grail is 'going viral'; they want to know how they can join the select few that capture the attention of hundreds of thousands of social media users.
“The answer," Elliot says, “is using micro-influencers at scale."
She defines micro-influencers as social media users who boast between 1,000 and 15,000 followers. Some are real-world celebrities – models, reality TV stars and so on - while others are ordinary people whose messages resonate with an online audience.
"What they have in common is their ability to motivate and persuade consumers to take action."
Engage around a hundred of these canny types every month, and get them to weave your brand message authentically through their social feed, she suggests.
That number may increase month-on-month or in peak promotional periods, she adds, explaining that the effort puts your brand message before a host of highly targeted audiences. Plus, she says, it establishes your brand as an industry authority, paving the way for viral success.
Epic APAC audience
Outside China, the rise and rise of APAC's social media landscape looks set to continue.
A 2015 south-east Asia social media survey by digital research source eMarketer found that, after China, Indonesia has the region's highest gross social-media penetration, with 72 million people (or 77 per cent of internet users) visiting a social network at least once a month.
High social media penetration rates also applied in the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia - and the destination for Southeast Asia's growing social network usage is a familiar one.
Facebook has been the key growth driver for this forecast, with at least two-thirds of internet users in each of the countries regularly logging on to the platform this year.
But while Facebook is currently the biggest platform in Southeast Asia, Kaitlyn Elliott warns against overlooking other familiar blockbusters. Twitter is also important, she says, adding that targeting the region through Western platforms can help you stay ahead of the game.
Some advise that when marketing in Southeast Asia, it's wise to adapt a tone that's in step with cultural norms - and that advice is backed by plenty of research.
For example, cultural researchers Yong Park and Bryan Kim published a 2008 study that found that Koreans deploy a communication strategy called “noon-chi," which roughly translates as being able to read others' minds. They suggest that Japanese people have a similar psychic strategy called "sasshi".
In both cultures, the ability to deduce meaning is valued, according to the study authors, who state that traditional Asian communication norms “devalue" openness and expressiveness.
“In Japanese culture, a person who speaks much is considered 'light' and a reticent person is trusted more than a person who is gregarious. In addition, Chinese people may limit disclosure of personal information, especially within public settings, in fear that their face may be threatened," Park and Kim write persuasively.
But while this take is applicable to real-world business dealings, it seems that a preference for reticence may not hold true in the online space.
Simon Young, the chief executive of the China-geared branding agency SyEngage, contests that when it comes to social media and brand interaction, users in the Asia-Pacific have pretty straightforward aims: “Get service or be entertained."
Directness and promptness are expected from all online channels, Young says.
He adds that, just as important, is understanding your audience and knowing what they discuss - and tapping in to that conversation. “Make a meaningful connection with your product or service, if you can," he says.
He suggests using the power of a “social listening platform" such as Synthesio or Oracle Social, which offers quantitative and qualitative views of demographics – a sense of the social conversation's “who and where".
Combine the intelligence gained through listening platforms with “digital anthropology": scrutinise the interaction that unfolds across your social media channels. Observe who is commenting and what they say, Young says.
Remember the censor
The channels you establish should be Asia-specific, he says, citing China, whose social media landscape is dramatically different from the rest of the world's - to the point that Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and even the New York Times are all technically inaccessible there.
As a result, local Chinese alternatives have arisen over the past eight years. Young says that to reach a Chinese audience, the two mega-hubs WeChat and Weibo are a must.
And don't bet your marketing budget on a one-off viral hit - stay on the case, he advises.
“Owning your own channel, feeding it with relevant and helpful content, and cultivating relationships with key opinion leaders is far more important than getting millions of views on a video," Young says, echoing Elliott's point about influencers. Young adds that leading input creates much more authentic and interesting content than you could alone.
He says the best-known opinion leader is the cute and rude Shanghai sensation Papi Jiang, who has lured almost US $2 million in venture capital. Watching her footage helps even those who don't know a word of Chinese, soon grasp why the graduate from China's Central Academy of Drama is so popular.
Regarding how you approach a one-off like Jiang, Young says that hotshots have agencies and rate-cards.
For a top influencer, a client might pay $80,000 - $100,000 for a single piece of content, he says.
“Is it worth it?" he asks. His answer is that it depends on the client's expectations.
“If it's a single moment of exposure, it's probably worth it. If it's brand association, it depends how well the KOL [Key Opinion Leader] and the brand is matched. If it's sales: well, maybe that will work, but that also depends on the product, the offer, the positioning versus the competition, etcetera."
Opinion leaders with fewer followers – and hopefully no rate-cards - can be reached through a private message on their social media platform, he adds.
“Keep trying," he says, warning that virality is unpredictable. His agency doubled one client's Weibo following with an animated parrot GIF - but unfortunately that channel soon lost followers when disappointed subscribers realised the rest of the channel was devoid of animated parrots, he says.
The last wise words on making the most of social media in Asia come from Brigitte Liu, who says the worst social media mistake you can make is to spark a controversy. “It can activate a lot of haters," she says.
True, sometimes it can be a beneficial slip-up, letting you filter your audience and make your promotion more targeted, she says.
“But personally, I just don't prefer any negativity. Probably it's because I like to bring my followers positive energy - that's also why they follow me."