:: Sam Flemming is the co-founder and CEO of CIC (blog), the first and leading Internet Word of Mouth (IWOM) research and consulting firm in China. His company is at the forefront of exploring Chinese digital culture and helping companies and brands understand how Chinese Internet Word of Mouth is impacting and can be used to inform marketing communications, customer relationships, and research and development.
56minus1: Why is IWOM relevant for companies / brands in China? We all know about the crisis side of things online in China, with nationalistic “fenqing,” etc., but what kind of opportunities does the world of Chinese IWOM present companies / brands in China?
Sam Flemming: Ultimately, we see IWOM as INTELLIGENCE that enables brands to understand and take part in the way IWOM is redefining the relationship between institutions (like brands) and consumers. This is the theme of our recently released white paper series, see part 4 here; I also wrote about this here. IWOM is an essential part (among many) of the marketing communications mix: it’s part of crisis / reputation monitoring, marketing effectiveness measurement, market research, marketing (i.e. online community marketing), competitive intelligence, and creative inspiration. IWOM is, in essence, reshaping each of these different marketing communications disciplines.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you and your team see companies / brands / agencies making online in China regarding IWOM (or digital marketing / PR / interactive work)? Why are they mistakes?
Sam Flemming: One big mistake is thinking they can control IWOM by posting fake messages or getting negative messages deleted (see great example here; the whole Sanlu Milk powder case is also worthy of mention). IWOM is made up of the hundreds of millions of voices of the Internet community and to assume that as a single institution the brand can control IWOM is a fantasy at best.
Without naming names or pointing fingers, tell us a little bit about the darker side of the Chinese Internet (i.e. astroturfing, portals’ manipulation of scandalous brand crises for page views, its overly commercial nature, sketchy forum administers working with astroturfers, privacy issues, etc.)
Sam Flemming: Here’s my quick take on some of the “hot button” issues:
- The biggest difference of IWOM in the West and in China is that Chinese IWOM is hosted on very commercial platforms like portals, whereas in the US, for example, blogs are not. When platforms are commercial, the incentives for the platforms to do most anything to drive page views, including courting controversy, is very strong.
- Astroturfing is relatively cheap due to lower labor costs in China and it offers a very tangible solution for agencies or managers to appear to “do” something “web 2.0″ even if it doesn’t have much effect (other than alienating and harming the community). You and I both shared thoughts on this here.
- Some forum administrators will work with astroturfing agencies to post messages for a fee, this is true; this actually points to the larger trend that IWOM platforms are commercial and need to generate revenue for the value that they provide (i.e. connecting brands to consumers). Charging brands to connect / participate “in the conversation” within a community that takes time / effort / money to build and maintain is not inherently wrong, especially when it can provide distinct value. Why shouldn’t Twitter charge brands for commercial accounts when companies like Dell have reportedly generated US$1 million in 1.5 years (in the West, not in China). However, such processes / policies should be transparent, and they most often not in China.
- Monitoring and removal of content is largely done by the commercial IWOM platforms themselves; it is in their best interest to not have content that is offensive or breaks any law.
56minus1: What are some of the smartest / most-effective campaigns you and your team see companies / brands / agencies executing online in China regarding IWOM (or digital marketing / PR / interactive)? Why are they smart / effective?
Sam Flemming: I outline our view of “IWOM centered marketing” here where I talk about how Johnson Baby has done great things with its Mom Ambassador program and how Intel used a simple but powerful approach to generate buzz within the Intel (aka “I-fan”) community.
56minus1: Can u share a few examples of CIC clients using CIC insights to inform their digital marketing / PR / interactive strategies or campaigns?
Sam Flemming: I can’t get into too many specifics, but our insights about sports communities regularly feed into the creative for Nike digital and media. We track campaign effectiveness of several other clients by tracking various elements of IWOM buzz (see here for example measurements) and combine these findings with other digital and market research agencies to put together comprehensive reports that provide a detailed understanding of campaign performance from all important angles. We also work with R&D departments to assist in their product development and with PR departments for reputation monitoring. You can see plenty of case studies of how brands use IWOM intelligence to help drive their communications in our recent “The Internet is THE Community” white papers, especially part one and part four.
56minus1: Who “gets” IWOM and the “digital imperative” best in China? PR firms, advertising agencies, interactive / digital agencies, etc.? Or, are they all hopeless? Who gets its the least (or is the most hopeless)? Why? What brands really get it?
Sam Flemming: Digital agencies seem to do better, in general, since they are more familiar with the overall digital environment. PR and advertising still view social media as a last minute add on. These are generalizations, and there are always exceptions. Of course the agencies and clients who get IWOM the best are the ones who work with companies like us. ;-)
56minus1: What are three (or more if you have more) IWOM (or digital marketing / PR / interactive) trends in China to keep a look for in the near future?
- SNS audiences prove finicky: SNS will continue to grow, but the key challenge will be for the SNS players to garner loyalty. Xiaonei was 2007 / 2008. Kaixin is 2008 / 2009. What’s next? I am not sure there is much loyalty with Chinese netizens.
- Development of vertical SNS: I predicted last year that vertical SNS like Babytree would become more popular. I still think this will happen as there are already so many BBS verticals with powerful communities (i.e. Xcar and HoopChina), that it seems like a no brainer for existing BBS communities to leverage SNS functions or new SNS verticals to develop within popular topic areas.
- Refinement of communications strategies based on different roles of blogs, BBS, and SNS: Blogs are driven by self expression (i.e. content driven by “me’”), BBS are driven by information / topics (i.e. content driven by “topics”), and SNS are driven by netizen relationships. Like any good conversationalist or community member, brands need to shape their communication approach based on understanding the motivations and purpose of each communication space. This was a topic that came out in our IWOM summit meetings with 17 of our clients late last year. I also wrote about it in detail here.
56minus1: What’s special or unique about Chinese netizens and local Internet culture? Interesting examples?
Sam Flemming: I would say the sheer force of the Internet as a primary and mainstream media which both influences and serves as a channel for consumers, especially in top tier cities, is unmatched by any other market, at least in the West (Korea could make some claims here). We continually document examples in our white papers (see especially our IWOM watch half year reviews like this one and special IWOM watch on the Sichuan earthquake here) and on our blogs www.seeisee.com/sam (English) and www.seeisee.com (Chinese). Another unique element is that, as I mentioned above, the hottest social media platforms are largely commercial which can lend to a different dynamic than the West (i.e. there may be a certain tendency to highlight controversy).
56minus1: Does CIC have plans to move from a research / consulting firm to an agency that executes digital / interactive campaigns? Considering CIC’s insight and understanding of the space in China, seems like a logical step. Why haven’t you done it already?
Sam Flemming: We believe it important to serve as 3rd party, credible, and objective partner in providing research and consulting to our clients. If we execute, then we lose that unique positioning. We don’t think the market needs more agencies; we think agencies need to better learn to appreciate how IWOM can inform their strategy and execution.
56minus1: Talk about your business. When did the company start? How have you grown over the years? Practices? Products? Offices, staff numbers, company culture, plans for the future, hiring, etc.
Sam Flemming: Founded in 2004, CIC has always focused exclusively on IWOM research and consulting. We have developed our own proprietary text mining technology for the unique Chinese social media landscape and have a dedicated team of analysts who understand IWOM, communications and vertical industries in China (esp. auto, mobile phone, consumer electronics, cosmetics, baby, sports, and beverage). I do think we have a unique company culture as an independent agency which is “out of the box” as part of its very DNA.
56minus1: Thanks Sam.