Channelling China

How do you build and maintain a social media presence in a market that lacks YouTube, Facebook and Twitter? We assess the European football elite’s recent successes in China.

China's Internet Userbase is the biggest in the world, with its 600-million plus users twice the number of that in the United States.

However, while many of the world’s biggest football clubs are naturally drawn to this vast target market – which is approximately equivalent to the combined populations of Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany and Italy – they often fall down by not knowing how to talk to their Chinese fans through social media.

Tried and trusted techniques on Western-market platforms such as Twitter are of no use as they simply have no foothold in the Chinese market, where the likes of weibos – micro-blogging platforms – Sina and Tencent reign supreme.

According to Chinese social media specialist Mailman’s 2014 China Digital Red Card Report, Chinese sports fans are typically far more active on social media than other countries, and they also communicate through multiple accounts.

The report, which was collated using data between November 2013 and January 2014, looked at how the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid were getting on with their social media strategies in China, creating a ranking based on total followers, engagement, official presence and buzz.

Mailman CEO Andrew Collins gave SportBusiness International an exclusive look at the trends and key lessons to be learned for sports brands.

Size doesn’t matter – it’s how you talk that counts. English Premier League club Manchester City won a host of new fans in China following its title-winning success in 2012 – the first for 44 years. So much so that the club rocketed to the top of the total followers list with 9.57 million on its official Tencent and Sina accounts, considerably outperforming the likes of Barcelona (3.09 million), Chelsea (2.79 million) and rivals Manchester United (1.97 million).

However, as impressive as that is, City needs to walk before it can run on the terrain of Chinese social media. Despite gaining almost 10 million followers, the club appears to be unsure as to how to engage with them. After tracking each club’s social media activity over a 30-day period (December 18, 2013 to January 17, 2014), research company KAWO discovered that Manchester City had the widest gap between followers and engagement.

“Manchester City had rapid growth after winning the title, with a large group of fans jumping on the bandwagon of the success,” says Collins. “However, the club doesn’t tailor content to the market, which means posts go up on Chinese social media during the UK day, which obviously means a failure to communicate at key times.”

Multi-taskers dominate the market. With a growing number of social media platforms available China, any club looking to master the market needs to first get over the hurdle of logging an official presence on each. English clubs Liverpool and Manchester City and French side Paris Saint-Germain lead this space, each boasting a presence on five different social media platforms in China.

“It’s so important for a club to be on as many channels as possible, as in China you have to be where the fans are,” says Collins.
“If you are dragging your feet now by not being on Tencent or launching a Chinese website, you will be way behind the ball in 12 months’ time, as this part of the industry is growing so quickly. China is still really fragmented so the more channels you are on, the more successful you will be.”

Ignorance is not bliss. In the space of 12 months, Spanish giants Barcelona have gone from the tiki-taka kings of China’s social media market – criss-crossing their way around the country and dominating the social media followers in the country – to a defensive position that has seen them lose control of their Chinese fanbase.

The Catalans slipped from first in the 2013 Red Card rankings to seventh in 2014, a clear indication that on-the-pitch success is not enough to dominate Chinese social media, with Barcelona only having presence on one platform and a distinct lack of engagement with its fans.

“Barcelona are not even on [Tencent-owned messaging platform] WeChat, which just goes to show that it doesn’t really care about its social media following in the country,” says Collins. “It is even more bizarre when you consider that Lionel Messi has been hired as an ambassador for WeChat recently. Just look at what has happened in the last 12 months – WeChat didn’t even exist a year ago. What will the market look like a year from now?”

Twist and shout. Give social media content a Chinese twist can help propel a club from a challenger to a leader brand, and any team looking to communicate effectively with the Chinese market should be aware of the cultural nuances of the country, and tailor its offering to make fans feel special.

“An obvious example of this is knowing when the national holidays are and not launching competitions when everybody is likely to be concerned with something else,” says Collins.

German club Bayern Munich developed exclusive Chinese video content for fans on social media to promote an upcoming match with local team Guangzhou Evergrande, while Liverpool ran a feature inviting three fans to predict the club’s scores during its fixtures in December 2013, rewarding points for accuracy and encouraging direct interaction. Tottenham Hotspur also achieved cut-through with its

‘Year of the Horse’ campaign, which saw the release of a tailored video to celebrate Chinese new year with fans in the country.

“Local knowledge is vital here, and Tottenham Hotspur’s Year of the Horse campaign was a great example of how you can break through with a bit of ingenuity,” says Collins.


  • 618 million internet users
  • 55.8 per cent men, 44.2 per cent women
  • Average age of 25
  • 81 per cent of internet access from mobile
  • Sina: 600m users, popular in tier one and two Chinese cities (higher population, more economically stable and more metropolitan cities) and highest engagement among trendsetters
  • WeChat: 300m monthly active users
  • Tencent: 500m users, China’s second most prominent social platform and most popular in the country’s tier three and four cities

Note: Data correct as of February 20, 2014, and taken between November 2013 and January 2014

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