Sam FlemmingMillions of dollars spent to build a brand in China can evaporate when bad rumors are posted online. Sam Flemming is the founder of CIC data, a company devoted to searching, filing, and reporting on the trends happening online. He helps companies track millions of online messages in blogs, forums, and news articles.

Sam previously worked as Corporate Communications and Business Development Director for Shanghai Huateng and Chinapay.com. He lived in Japan before coming to China permanently since 1998.

When was CIC data started and what brought about its beginning?

We started in 2003 doing e-commerce pricing research on foreign language websites for an American client using human researchers.

In 2004, we began to look at Chinese BBS and blog conversations at the request of a client who wanted to know what consumers were talking about regarding their products. We quickly realized that this social media was a data source rich in consumer conversations and word of mouth: consumers talking to other consumers about companies, products and services.

With monthly data sets of messages ranging in the millions for some industries, we decided to develop our own tools to automate the processes of data collection and data mining. We have also built up a team of social media analysts to help clients understand what these conversations are saying, what they mean as well as the implications for the client.

How is the company funded and are you seeking additional funding?

Currently we are self-funded. We are now seeking first round/angel investment to accelerate our already fast growth–we are close to closing this round.

How many staff do you have and what types of duties do they cover?

We have 18 full time staff, including both a technical/research team and team of social media analysts. We are heavily recruiting through all channels, including local university and MBA programs as well as overseas/returnee Chinese students and professionals.

Why is it difficult to quantify the number of blogs in China and what are your estimates on the total today?

The big reason is that there just so many new blogs coming online everyday. We simply know there are a lot and that they impact our clients' business. We will leave the detail counting to other companies who specialize in those types of statistics. Also, for the record, we monitor and analyze not only blogs, but also BBS and forums.

For blogging business models, how advanced or behind is China compared with the West?

Blogku Media will be an interesting one to watch to see how they adapt this western model to China. Unlike the west, there aren't a comparatively large number of "A-List" bloggers that have potential to generate a lot of income through advertising, at least not yet–with definite exceptions like Keso and celebrity bloggers like XuJingLei.

For now, we believe that there are more interesting conversations and larger volume of conversations on BBS, than blogs, especially for our clients.

What type of general trends do you see in how marketers can use blogs and BBS in China?

Host bloggers: IKEA does this, giving a place for their fans/advocates to write about the brand in an authentic, conversational way. Nike is doing this as well with their Just Do It China campaign.

Sponsor bloggers or blog networks: Changhong did this recently with dianziren.com.

Engage bloggers: treat influential bloggers like members of the press; keep them in the loop regarding new products releases, betas, samples, press conferences etc. For example, we are helping a client build up a list of 100 "influential" antivirus software bloggers/BBS posters from our database of 30,000 posters and 300,000 posts.

Listen and learn: track blogger and BBS conversations to better understand consumers. Monitoring blogs and BBS is like media monitoring… but it is so much more. This media is written by your customers, not by professional writers, so it is also very much like market research. This is our business focus.

How do you think the Chinese government generally perceives blogging?

We don't really have much of an opinion on this. All of our clients are commercial and we track commercial/consumer conversations which don't really raise any red flags of any sort.

What type of software do you use for analyses and where was it created?

We have developed our own Natural Language Processing text mining tools specifically for the Chinese language. Tools developed for English or other languages by similar companies just won't work well for Chinese.

Our typical relationship is a one year retainer with monthly, customized reports. Simply put we tell clients how much talk there is, what is being said, whether the talk is good or bad (sentiment) and most importantly, our analysts help clients understand what the talk means and what they can do in response.

We have clients in a number of industries, including software, mobile phone, beverage, sports apparel and many others. One example: for a mobile phone client, we collect well over half a million BBS messages monthly about the mobile phone industry written by over 100,000 individuals. Every message is categorized according to 18 brands, 1700+ models, 10 categories, 150 subcategories represented by around 5000 key terms.

What are some challenges to doing this type of weblog analysis business in China?

Clients want all the conversations that are talking about them, they want fast updates, and of course they want the data mining to be accurate. The sheer amount of conversations out there on tens of thousands of different forums makes it a challenge to collect so much data very quickly.

Also, data mining conversational data of any time, especially Chinese, is a challenge. For Chinese, here are no "off the shelf" tools that can do a good job of analyzing Chinese language conversations, especially with some of the crazy, creative language used on Chinese BBS (for example, Super Girl phenomena has created a whole new vocabulary).

For anybody else looking to open a technology-related business in China, what sort of advice would you have for them?

Focus on recruitment and people. There is significant competition for a limited pool of experienced, educated professionals.

What are some of your favorite blogs?

I read the usual suspects of English blogs like Danwei, Virtual China and ESWN. For Chinese language blogs, we love the BlogKu Media sites, especially Postshow. Qihoo and Teein provide a sort of daily zeitgeist of online culture.

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