By Yann Lombard-Platet
For companies trying to make an impact with their brands in China, its no longer just having a big advertising budget but also understanding how consumers interact with online media.

One of our clients organized a focus group of around 10 people to understand how people live their lives on a daily basis, their routine and habits. One lady, a 20-something Hangzhounese, was asked about her daily routine. Of course for her, cosmetics and beauty care played a big part. However this lady mentioned Avene, in particular as a product she uses regularly. Avene is also a client of ours and it was interesting to hear what made her use or believe in this product. She said she spends a lot of time on the Internet and found the Avene website with the beauty tips very relevant to her. The Avene blog with people talking about their problems and how they found Avene to be a good solution to them also convinced her.

This was a perfect example for our Avene client to hear. We have been trying to convince Avene to leverage the new trends on the web in facilitating conversations around the brand, leaving the door open to positive comments as well as criticisms. The client was not convinced as they were worried that this will trigger a chain of bad comments. The audiences are no fools. People will not listen to anything if it is not substantiated or if it did not come from someone in whom they truly believe.

We let Avene know that we will not monitor the website or the conversations or try to censor bad comments. As a result, the whole exercise became believable as the audience got to see the good as well as the bad and no one entered into the discussion in an intrusive or aggressive manner trying to influence their opinions. The legitimacy of the blog came from these conversations and therefore the credibility of Avene's claims was reinforced by different opinions. We let the people make their own choices, their own decisions. This was indeed going against the popular belief that by just claiming or saying something, people will believe. This is no longer true.

I always compare advertising with propaganda. It's like I have a lot of money and I bombard my audience with many messages and beautiful images, making them dream. The American and European markets are now demonstrating that this is definitely not enough and that people will not just take what you say for granted.
The Internet is bringing us back to the big picture. We are moving from propaganda to people having opinions and anyone who has an influential opinion can now reach more people than he had been able to in the past. Through the Internet, people have the avenue to share their views. It has become very important now to be aware of the opinions that are on the Internet, to understand what the people have in mind and what they really think of your brand and to use this knowledge to change the way you communicate.

One great example is Microsoft. A few years ago Microsoft had a terrible image worldwide and everybody saw the company as a monster, a company trying to conquer the world and impose on everybody their technology and their views. What Microsoft did to change that around was very smart. They made themselves transparent to the world by asking some of their senior and junior staff to openly write about what is happening within Microsoft. Why they were there, why they like being there or what they didn't like about Microsoft. This showed two things. First, Microsoft listened. They heard the bad opinions expressed in the traditional media as well as on the internet. Second, Microsoft reacted. They reacted smartly and positively by turning this ‘monster' into a group of human beings talking about the good and bad aspects of working for Microsoft, letting the people into their world. This really changed Microsoft's image. They listened and reacted but did not make an advertising campaign out of it. They did not change their advertising strategy; it is still power centric and still shows how good their products are. What has changed is that they have started a conversation and open themselves to the people, to be more human.

Unfortunately in China, it's more complicated than that. In China, crisis that started offline are easy for the client to control as media relationships are such that if you want to stop somebody from talking about you, you just give him a call base on a strong relationship or come to an arrangement. There were two major crises that happened to a beverage and a mass consumer brand. At that time both companies forgot the online component. Once the stories leaked out on the TV and newspapers, someone picked it up and started discussing it online.

We monitored the conversations for one of the brands and the client briefed us to intervene and to pose as normal internet users to say that what was being said was not true. Basically they wanted us to impose a view on the audience. We refused. We believe that this would be easily picked up and the crises would worsen online and could even revive the crisis offline. We advised the client to do the contrary to their reflex action and came up with the strategy of having specific contents on specific websites within 24 hours. The strategy was to allow us the right to have a say on that particular situation after we had listened. The audience now had a choice, to listen or not to listen to us. We managed to divide the bad opinions by 10 or 12 times in less than a week, simply by going to the audience in a very transparent, courageous and open way, saying, "We are hearing you, we are hearing what you have to say about us but this is what we have to say about ourselves." With this, the online crisis stopped in a week.

Just listen. I have always been educated that way. Open your ears, spend the time to listen to what the person has to say thereby giving yourself the opportunity to really understand that person and to address his or her concerns. A lot of brands grown in the traditional marketing ways, have forgotten this and I saw that when I worked for a FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Group) company for more than 10 years. At that time everybody was telling us we should do an advertising campaign based on some consumer research or focus group. I often see marketers in our company and clients companies trying to find in the figures of the analysis what they want to hear, what they want to see, to justify the ideas they had already presented. No doubt it is easier to read the information in a consumer research report than to actually go online to some blogs or BBS and see what people are saying about your brand. .

If you could be a fly in the corner of a room with the best representatives of the audience talking about your brand you would learn more than by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for consumer research. This is what the internet allows. It's not a voyeuristic attitude, it is something that is open to us and the people who are expressing their opinions have chosen to publish them publicly.

When people choose to share their opinions, they usually choose a specific blog to express themselves and this blog becomes a kind of community. They need to be left free to discuss. They don't need you to come in to intrude and give them a hard sell pitch on the brand. Just imagine, a group of people had gathered and are talking about something really bad about a brand. One of the brand representatives passes by and joins in, they will accept that he listens but will not accept him moving into their space and starts to argue or fight with them. In a lot of cases this kind of defence has triggered online crisis and for some had spilled over to offline as well.

The latest buzzword "online social networking" is nothing new. It's the same dynamics as the local grocer in a small village that created his competitive advantage by listening to what his customers like or didn't like about his shop or his competitor's shop. He would simply change the window display or his merchandise and the people would pick up on this and knew he had listened. He did not need to shout. In Europe if you want to know what's happening in a village, you need only to spend one hour in a cafe. In China, it's the market or the local grocer; you could even talk to the fruit seller!

The Internet is like a global village, bringing back the voice, bringing back social networking in a community. This is what is happening online now but more on specific things. It's like entering a café that talks about mobile phones, the café those talks about beauty. The Internet has made it easier, more relevant, more entertaining and more informative as a way to enter a community. In a country the size of China, it's extraordinary; you can reach an audience between the ages of 16 to even 40, all with the efficiency of a village life community.

Advertisers don't always listen. Online social networking is a chance for them to listen, to change a little bit of their communication strategy, the way they introduce their products just by saying, "This is our new product, we want to hear from you, we want to listen to you." That's all, instead of trying to justify the existing product to the existing message and convincing people to think something else. It's a proven model that word of mouth has always been the most successful marketing tool and it's becoming possible again

So marketers have to understand this. I don't think the dynamics have ever changed, the channel, the tools to leverage this communication are changing but the same rules apply, privacy, relevancy, and just LISTEN.

About the author:
Yann Lombard-Platet is Nurun's President, Asia. Yann was previously CEO of the Shanghai-based interactive marketing agency he co-founded in 1998. During his years as head of China Interactive, Yann engaged in many leading interactive marketing campaigns for international clients established in China, such as L'Oréal, Fiat, Pepsi, Standard Chartered Bank, Citibank and Siemens.

Nurun China (formerly China Interactive), based in Shanghai, is one of the leading interactive marketing agency in China with over 60 staff, providing global and local blue-chip clients with services ranging from integrated marketing communication strategies to Web development and e-marketing. Founded in 1998, it was a pioneer in its field and became the most established web agency in Shanghai. Website: www.chinainteractive.com.

Nurun China is part of the global Nurun Inc. with offices in Canada, US, France, Italy, Spain, and now China. Nurun Inc., founded in 1985 is the world's second independent Interactive Agency with 11 offices in 6 countries. It is also well established as No.1 in Canada, No. 2 in Europe and in the top 15 in the US, with over 750 employees worldwide. Nurun is 58% owned by the Canadian media giant, Quebecor Media and is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). Website: www.nurun.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Another example of understanding the market and listening to him, is Koolanoo Gruop.
    Koolanoo Group is a China Internet and new media leader.The company owns the No. 1 teenage destination online in China, which represents the majority of the 220 million online community in China. Koolanoo Group owns 360Quan.com China's Leading Social Network for Teens. After only 1 year of operation 360Quan.com is in amazing position to lead this market, and most of it is because of a right approach towards the market.

  2. Good write up. Just to share with you our own experience of doing our own social network website in China (ecpod.com) … When we were starting out, we did a survey with some chinese companies to see how they handle online interaction of their customers and supplies. To be honest, none of them really care too much about it :(

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