With more than 500 million users, China's biggest social network has become a valuable marketing tool for Kiwi businesses, reports Yining Ding

With Facebook and Twitter banned, half a billion Chinese citizens who want to keep up with the news - or just share recipes - turn to a home-grown social networking site, Weibo.com.

New Zealand companies and government agencies are going there too, as they chase a slice of the fast-growing Chinese market.

A rough count shows the number of Kiwi companies and government organisations with verified Weibo accounts runs into the hundreds at least. Among them are well-known local names such as Air New Zealand, Fonterra, Massey University and honey-products maker Comvita.

Weibo has encouraged individuals and institutions to open accounts and reach out to consumers through marketing pages.


Chinese web users typically check the latest news updates from home and abroad on Weibo, and repost them with their own comments and thoughts. They also share details of promotional campaigns offered by firms such as airlines, and post about their daily lives, recipes, places to eat and travel destinations.

In some ways Weibo - Chinese for "microblog" - combines the functions of Twitter and Facebook. Almost all major Chinese news outlets have pages on the website with breaking news and in-depth stories for readers, while individual users can also post personal photos and status updates to selected friends.

The potential audience is huge: Weibo has more than 500 million registered users and on average 61.4 million people used the site every day, as at the end of December.

That audience has attracted tens of thousands of institutional and corporate users to open their official "fan page" to promote their products and service.

NZ firms are among them, eager to cater to the fast-growing Chinese market by selling dairy products, wine and tour packages.

The Chinese tourism market alone is worth $670 million a year to New Zealand, a figure that is expected to double over the next five years according to the Tourism Industry Association. In terms of visitor numbers, it is already New Zealand's second largest travel market.

Air New Zealand China has more than 143,000 followers on Weibo, and posts updates two or three times a day - sometimes on promotional campaigns for its flights, sometimes on specific New Zealand tourism attractions.

Last month it joined Tourism NZ to launch a tailor-made virtual game featuring the latest Hobbit movie, called Take a Flight through Middle-earth. Players who collect all the game's virtual coins can take part in a lucky draw with a top prize that includes two return tickets to New Zealand and tours of the Hobbiton movie set, Wellington and Queenstown.

Those who get fewer coins can enter to win a plane model with a Hobbit-themed paint job.

The promotion wasn't just about cheap flights and a lucky draw. It was also a way of helping Chinese web users learn about Maori culture. Posts on Air New Zealand's Weibo account also offered basic knowledge about the airline's koru logo, and its role as a traditional Maori symbol.

In 2011 Tourism NZ commissioned Chinese TV and movie actor Yao Chen as an ambassador to promote the "100% Pure New Zealand" brand. At the time Yao had more than 40 million followers on her Weibo account, the most popular on the site.

Tourism NZ now has a steadily growing fan base of 245,000 on its Weibo account, which it opened in November 2009.

"Opinion leaders proved to be a good way to attract social buzz," says David Craig, Tourism NZ general manager, Asia. "By using Weibo, we are able to closely reach the key target market of free and independent travellers, and encourage them to travel more widely and try more things within New Zealand."

This year the tourism body launched its latest international media programme, inviting famous Chinese songwriter, music producer and talk show host Gao Xiaosong to feature key Kiwi tourist attractions in his weekly online talk show Morning Call.

Within two days, a single post from Tourism NZ introducing the campaign attracted 2.16 million viewers.

Tourism NZ has also had many thousands of reposts during a recent campaign encouraging travellers to upload their pictures taken during trips to New Zealand using a hashtag #NZ Fan Photo# to win small New Zealand-made gifts such as honey.

Tourism NZ says that since August 2012, one of the staff in its Shanghai office has dedicated half their working time to managing the social media platform.

Daily tasks include searching for new content such as images of New Zealand, or New Zealand travel-related posts from Weibo users, as well as reviewing comments and messages on the tourism body's Weibo page.

"The biggest change for business owners to know is, consumers themselves have now become marketers in the social networking age," says Simon Young, founder and chief executive of social media marketing agency syEngage in Auckland.

"It's important to to keep in mind the demand from your potential consumers as you'll probably hear back from them a lot, so it in turn helps you improve the marketing campaign in some way."

Young's agency recently started updating Massey University's official Weibo account. As well as posting news updates from the university, the Weibo account includes information on things such as what it's like to live on the Auckland campus, career planning and industry trends, as it tries to make the official account not just an outlet for news releases but also an information source that is helpful to its audience.

As an example of how to use social media, Young points to a campaign in which winemaker Villa Maria had a photographer take pictures of a cat visiting its vineyard, then posted the pictures on Weibo.

It turned out to be an extremely popular campaign, helping the audience develop an awareness of New Zealand wine and its differences from Europe.

"Although there are already big New Zealand names on Chinese social networks, the overall industry is still in the early stage and requires more education," says Young.

His company helped Ule.com, an online shopping website that sells New Zealand products to Chinese consumers, to pioneer its use of Weibo as a promotional channel in 2012.

"We tried to build it into a culture centre and try to include as much information about New Zealand as possible, such as interesting facts and which part of New Zealand the product is coming from, and at the same time we discovered the importance of Weibo as a customer service channel."

Marketers might need to dig deeper and try to establish a relationship between their brands and the open-minded and innovative spirit of New Zealand, on top of the pure and clean image which is already a successful selling point, he adds.

Fonterra, New Zealand's largest dairy exporter, also has a Weibo account, with nearly 30,000 followers. Most of its postings are about the nutritional value of dairy products, and sometimes also corporate news releases.

Honey maker Comvita got one of its postings, about a newly launched clover honey, reposted more than 22,000 times on Weibo. It encouraged users to repost the item to their followers and 20 lucky participants will be able to win a 98 yuan ($18) container of the honey.

Other Kiwi firms on Weibo include wine exporters, kiwifruit marketer Zespri, Chinese food and beverage importers and distributors, as well as dozens of food bloggers who post their reviews of New Zealand wine, dairy and other food products.

Oravida, the dairy exporter which has caused Justice Minister Judith Collins so much embarrassment, also has a Weibo presence, but a much less active one than many, with fewer than 500 followers and about 200 postings.

The New Zealand embassy in China also used Weibo last month as a way of keeping Chinese readers posted on Prime Minister John Key's visit to their country.

Yining Ding is a business reporter with the Shanghai Daily, currently working at the Herald.