Weibo, now an official word in Chinese and English, is the social-networking site launched by the Chinese portal Sina.com in 2009. I remember less than a year after the launch, I took a meeting with a Chinese college student — let’s just call him FX. He found me on Weibo. At the time, I had half a million fans. He wanted to meet to talk about the commercialization of Weibo. He sent me a private letter on Weibo claiming to have studied in France. When he arrived in my office, I realized he had lied through his teeth to get the meeting, but he had an interesting idea.
“I have more than 10 Weibo accounts,” he told me. “I am the one behind Fashion Woman, Cold Jokes, Designing Ideas, Street Photos, etc.” These are all fairly well-known Weibo accounts, well maintained with a mixture of up-to-date information and complete bull. FX said the Weibos he maintained had a cumulative fan base of more than two million. He had a business proposition for me: join his Weibo group with my half million fans and get advertisers to pay us to post advertisements.
I was amazed at this baby-faced boy who was barely 21 but had already come up with the scheme of how people are commercializing Weibo today.
Fast-forward to today. I have 5.5 million followers and my private mail is flooded with soliciting messages from p.r. companies. All they want is one posting or one forward. Nothing different from what FX proposed to me three-and-a-half years ago.
Weibo started out as a successful social-networking platform, but now its commercial viability is a pool of muddy waters. In order to understand it, let me introduce some terms particular to the commercialization of Weibo:
• Water Army: Western brands have Weibo accounts. For some, the number of fans on the site is part of their performance criteria. So there are local public relations companies who generate fans for branded Weibo. These p.r. companies create lots of Weibo accounts to become fans of their clients. These accounts are called Water Army. So if your local marketing team started a social-networking campaign, make sure it was not spent on getting a Water Army to flood your accounts just to generate numbers.
• Corpses: Corpses are fake accounts generated as part of a Water Army. Usually it’s not a real person, it’s just an account. You can tell because it does not have a head shot, it hardly ever makes any posts and aside from a few brands, it does not follow anyone else.
• The Zombies: Zombies are a step above Corpses, as fake accounts that look real. They have head shots, make comments and even follow interesting people, like their creators.
• 50 Cents Party: Weibo is a hotbed of social opinion in China, particularly opinions that are critical of the ruling Communist Party. It is widely known that the Communist Party has been paying 50 cents a post to ask college students to get on the Internet and attack people who criticize the party. People who launch attacks are known as the 50 Cents Party.
A Water Army of corpses costs about 1,000 renminbi for 10,000 fans. Zombies cost between 3,000 and 5,000 renminbi for 10,000 fans. Rumor has it the 50 Cents Party has upped its rates as well, to around 1.5 renminbi per post.
Navigating in the muddy waters of the Chinese social-networking world is not easy. Many brands have paid good money to launch campaigns, and although the numbers look wonderful, the truth is that the corporate Weibo account is followed by a Water Army of Corpses.
So if you are thinking about launching a social-networking campaign in China, be careful. There are lots of Corpses and Zombies out there.