Strategies and tips for engaging Chinese sports fans in the social media environment:
2.2.1 Time zone dead zone
A classic error is to post communications convenient to European or US audiences’ waking hours. Doing so is indicative of not working with a local partner and clearly tells Chinese audiences that the poster is disengaged.
The time difference can actually be made to work to foreign organisations’ advantages. European and US sports events take place at different times than local events, potentially giving room for both Chinese and foreign sports brands to grab mindshare.
2.2.2 Create a Chinese website
Most brands are advised to open accounts on the main Chinese social media platforms as a first step to penetrating China. A second step to consider is creating a China-specific website.
At the very least it is necessary to get a good Chinese translation of a home page, but ideally the content will be created for and adapted to the interests and needs of Chinese consumers. For football clubs in particular, a Chinese-language (Mandarin is most widely spoken) website has become an increasingly important means of communication, acting as the hub for all content and club activity in the region. “Do not just hit Google translate. You have to put effort into it,” says Young.
2.2.3 Chinese SEO
It is vital to have visibility on Chinese search engines like Baidu, which has a 70- to 80-per-cent share of the domestic market. You don’t ‘Google’ in China. You ‘Baidu’.
Since Baidu prioritises Chinese hosted websites, and penalises those outside China, the website should preferably have a ‘.cn’ domain. But, says Olivier Verot, founder of Gentlemen Marketing, a Shanghai-based firm that helps build brands with SEO that works on Baidu: “Few websites will get this extension because you have to have a company registered in China, and there are months of procedures to get your ‘.cn’. Very few foreign websites succeed in promoting themselves online in China because few companies have really understood how Baidu works.”
2.2.4 China’s own internet language
As in the West, the internet has spawned a new grammar in China. In addition to wordplay, Chinese netizens incorporate numbers and Roman letters that sound like Chinese. For example, ‘3q’ is used to express ‘thank you’, because ‘three’ in Chinese is pronounced ‘san’. There are also unique local jokes and phrases regularly used in online conversations. 屌丝 (‘diao si’), for example, is ambiguous, with meanings including ‘loser’, and ‘outcast’, and also one with a ruder connotation.
2.2.5 Sometimes English-language posts are more authentic
Sports brands and organisations should generally post in Mandarin. For individual athletes this matters less and they can get away with posting in English, although this attracts a slightly different fan base. In fact, posts from athletes in English can provide authenticity to the communication.
“A club or organisation is trying to do a different job,” says Thibaud Andre, research associate at Daxue Consulting. “It is trying to be informative and to build a deep connection.”
Lewis Hannam, founder of digital marketing firm Red Lantern Digital Media, says: “With an individual client like Wayne Rooney, we go with content in English since the content is applied directly from him and if it’s in Chinese it won’t look real.
“Whereas with an institution like Wimbledon we prefer to go with Mandarin because it has the biggest reach. Occasionally, however, we’ll drop a post-match comment in English because there is a significant English-speaking community in China.”
The Chinese government screens domestic social media networks. Censors can delete posts and close down accounts. Censorship is often timed in relation to a news event or public policy announcement, which also means that once the event or context has passed, a specific word may be unblocked.
A local digital media agency should be able to keep abreast of such changes. There are also freely available unofficial lists of key words that would lead to a post being blocked, such as this.
A block could arise as a result of using a phrase like red army’, vernacular for Manchester United or Liverpool football supporters that could be mistranslated. A respect for and understanding of these idiosyncrasies is important. Sports brands and organisations or their local partners should be alert to and have double and triple validation procedures in place to catch such errors.
2.2.7 Think local
Giving social media content a Chinese hook can help propel a brand from challenger to leader status. Any brand 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.
“Much of the content shared within the US can easily be popular in China – content related to celebrities, emotional stories, animals, parodies, ‘photoshopped’ images, and international news all rank popular within the great wall,” says China-based technology and social media agency Mailman Sport. “However it gets tricky as you dive deeper into the worlds of politics, television and sport.”
Some examples that have worked include:
Tottenham Hotspur’s prediction contest in December 2013. The English Premier League club elected three Chinese fans to predict its match results on Weibo during the month, rewarding points for correct predictions.
Premier League club Liverpool FC created a video message from team legend Robbie Fowler for its Shanghai supporters club, Deep Red, before it played a match against Manchester United supporter club Shanghai Reds. The match took place on the same day as the Liverpool v Manchester United fixture on September 13, 2015. Liverpool showed its supporters club the video before the event, then posted to Weibo.
“You have to track the Chinese calendar and react to events,” says Pete Lin of social media marketing agency We Are Social. “When the chemical explosions hit the city of Tianjin in August  we thought that a football team that cares about China should say something.”
On behalf of its client Juventus, the Italian football team, We Are Social tweeted condolences to the victims and prayers for the people of Tianjin. “The response to this single Tweet on Sina Weibo was amazing,” says Lin. “Everybody commented saying what such good guys and a great team Juventus was. The engagement was 100-200 times greater than on a normal game day. So you have to follow events that are happening in real-time.”
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