The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - BY SUN JIAHUI ( )

Ad­ver­tise­ments used to be easy to spot—a TV com­mer­cial, prod­uct place­ment in a block­buster—but the new Wild West of the ad world is in the palm of ev­ery­one's hand. Social media is the new fron­tier for both con­tent pro­duc­ers and ad com­pa­nies try­ing to make a buck, and reg­u­la­tion is look­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

The key to ad­ver­tis­ing is not being no­ticed, and new media has pro­vided a whole new dark for­est for the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try in China, one that is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to reg­u­late. Not get­ting fooled by ads used to be easy—but now they’re hid­ing in search re­sults and ly­ing in wait in your fa­vorite Wechat ac­counts. Wang Xiaolei runs the Wechat ac­count “du­jiny­ong6” (六神磊磊读金庸), a suc­cess­ful ex­am­ple of social media ad­ver­tis­ing. Wang writes about the nov­els of Chi­nese wuxia writer Jin Yong and re­views an­cient poetry from his Wechat ac­count. In the early days of new media, this sort of ac­count wouldn’t have been worth much, but for ad­ver­tis­ers to­day Wang’s Wechat ac­count isn’t that dif­fer­ent from a prime­time TV show; his ar­ti­cles, af­ter all, rou­tinely hit more than 100,000 views, and those views are worth money.

How social media turns per­son­al­i­ties into prof it 当个性的广播成了价值不菲的广告资源, 面对花样翻新的网络营销手段,规范才刚刚开始

Ac­cord­ing to ire­search, a mar­ket re­search and con­sult­ing com­pany, in 2015, China spent 66 per­cent of its ad­ver­tis­ing RMB on on­line and mo­bile tech­nol­ogy ser­vices, with only 24 per­cent go­ing to tra­di­tional media. In the new media era, any­one with enough in­flu­ence can be a bill­board that can reach mil­lions. Those with mil­lions of fol­low­ers on Weibo or Wechat can make se­ri­ous money just by post­ing ads, and the more pop­u­lar they are, the higher rates they can charge.

Un­like most social media ac­counts try­ing to rake in ad rev­enue, which try to hide their ads in their con­tent, Wang’s ad­ver­tis­ing is straight­for­ward. He just puts the ads at the end of his ar­ti­cles. Some­times they’re rel­e­vant to his topic, some­times not.

“I hate those ad­ver­to­ri­als, be­cause they hide their in­ten­tion to ad­ver­tise. When you ad­ver­tise some­thing, you need to let oth­ers know that it’s an ad. You can tor­ture your read­ers with your ar­ti­cles, but you can’t fool them,” Wang told TWOC. Like many, Wang be­gan his Wechat ac­count for fun back in 2013. A year later, ad­ver­tis­ers came knock­ing. To­day, his ac­count is mak­ing him con­sid­er­able sums of money. When asked, he was cagey but said, “If your con­tent is good enough, you are in­ter­est­ing enough, and work hard enough, it’s very pos­si­ble for you to earn one mil­lion [RMB] a year.”

“You can’t let the ads af­fect your con­tent. You need to guar­an­tee that if you cut out the ads, your ar­ti­cles are [still] ac­cept­able. That’s my bot­tom line,” says Wang. “My read­ers al­ways say they love read­ing my ads. But I un­der­stand that no­body re­ally does. Peo­ple say so be­cause they are mak­ing al­lowances. But you can’t write ads ev­ery day. If some­day no ad­ver­tis­ers come to me, it won’t af­fect my writ­­ever, some peo­ple just can’t stop them­selves when they see an op­por­tu­nity to make money.”

“You can tell who is writ­ing se­ri­ously and who is just writ­ing for money,” a fan of Wang, sur­named Li, says. “Ac­tu­ally I have un­fol­lowed a lot of ac­counts be­cause of their an­noy­ing ads. But it’s not be­cause they pub­lish too many ads; it’s be­cause those ads have made their con­tent bor­ing.”

But Wang isn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the social media ac­count ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try. Most social media ac­counts pay more at­ten­tion to the traf­fic than the qual­ity. It was re­cently found that many Wechat ac­counts with page views of more than 100,000 saw their views fall to only a few hun­dred af­ter Ten­cent’s back­ground in­ter­face up­dated to can­cel bots mak­ing fake traf­fic. On Septem­ber 29,, a site owned by Ten­cent, pub­lished ar­ti­cles dis­clos­ing this “fake traf­fic” phe­nom­e­non with a screen­shot show­ing an ac­count with page views that dropped from over 20,000 to around 600 that day. The web­site fur­ther named eight Wechat ac­counts with the big­gest drops.

This kind of page view fraud is very com­mon and won’t dis­ap­pear any­time soon. Ad­ver­tis­ers believe in sta­tis­tics, so social media ac­counts need out­stand­ing fig­ures, in­clud­ing page views or “like” num­bers, to at­tract the big bucks. When they can’t earn it, they buy it. For them, it’s a nec­es­sary in­vest­ment. “It’s


a lit­tle ironic,” says a se­nior staff mem­ber in an on­line mar­ket­ing agency pre­fer­ring to be re­ferred to as Song. “In this case it is the ad­ver­tis­ers who are fooled.”

Both ad­ver­tis­ers and social media mar­keters are find­ing that they need to pay more at­ten­tion to how their ads hit the eyes and ears of the pub­lic, be­cause last year the long arm of the law started to reach into the realm of new media ad­ver­tis­ing. In July, 2015, China’s State Ad­min­is­tra­tion for In­dus­try and Com­merce (SAIC) amended the PRC Ad­ver­tis­ing Law to cover in­ter­net ad­ver­tis­ing. Pre­vi­ously, ad­ver­tis­ing laws did not ap­ply to new media. The new reg­u­la­tions went into ef­fect last Septem­ber but were largely un­en­forced. This year, the SAIC up­dated new pro­vi­sional mea­sures for on­line ad­ver­tis­ing, which in­clude the stip­u­la­tion that all in­ter­net ad­ver­tise­ments need to be la­beled with the Chi­nese word “广告” (ad­ver­tise­ment), and not other words where ad­ver­tise­ment is only im­plied.

The event that trig­gered deep­en­ing re­stric­tions for on­line ad­ver­tis­ing was a tragic one: the death of a col­lege stu­dent named Wei Zexi. Wei had a rare form of cancer, and af­ter search­ing on Baidu, he was led to try du­bi­ous and ex­pen­sive cancer treat­ments. The hos­pi­tal he went to claimed a high suc­cess rate in their ad, and they were fea­tured promi­nently in the search re­sults. But Wei didn’t get any better and found that the al­leged “most ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy in co­op­er­a­tion with Stan­ford Univer­sity” was a lie. In April this year, Wei died. After­ward, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion ex­posed that the hos­pi­tal had sub­con­tracted Wei’s con­tro­ver­sial treat­ment to the Pu­tian Med­i­cal Group, an or­ga­nized group of en­trepreneurs orig­i­nally from the city of Pu­tian, Fu­jian Prov­ince who set up private hos­pi­tals all over China. It also ap­peared that Baidu had close ties with this med­i­cal group, with a party of­fi­cial from Pu­tian stat­ing that these hos­pi­tals may have made up 12 bil­lion RMB of the 26 bil­lion RMB Baidu re­ported in ad rev­enue in 2013.

Wei’s tragedy sparked a con­sid­er­able out­cry among the Chi­nese pub­lic that threw the con­cept of “paid listings” into the lime­light, with many demanding the search en­gine’s paid listings for med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties be banned. Ac­cord­ing to an ad hoc on­line poll con­ducted by, which at­tracted more than 17,000 re­sponses, over 50 per­cent of the par­tic­i­pants thought “the in­ac­tion of med­i­cal reg­u­la­tors” was the main rea­son for Wei’s death, while more than 35 per­cent blamed Baidu’s sys­tem of search en­gine op­ti­miza­tion.

China’s new reg­u­la­tions in this area have deeply im­pacted some of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent in­ter­net gi­ants. Among all the seg­ments of China’s on­line ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try, “search-en­gine ad­ver­tis­ing” makes up the largest, with a 32.6 per­cent mar­ket share. Baidu is prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple, al­low­ing pay­ing clients give big bucks so that they can show up at the top of the search re­sults, with just a lit­tle la­bel read­ing “pro­moted by Baidu” next to the ad. Be­fore the reg­u­la­tion came around, ap­prox­i­mately 96 per­cent of Baidu’s rev­enue in 2016 was to come from in­ter­net ad­ver­tise­ments. E-com­merce giant Alibaba was ex­pected to rely on ads for 59 per­cent of its es­ti­mated in­come in 2016, and Sina Weibo, the Twit­ter-like social media plat­form, was go­ing to ob­tain 87 per­cent of its rev­enue from ads, ac­cord­ing to data from Credit Suisse.


Wang was quick to add the “广告” sticker to his wuxia ar­ti­cles to get in line with the new reg­u­la­tions. “We should let read­ers know that they are ads. It’s not good for the ac­counts to abuse their rep­u­ta­tion,” says Wang.

Other social media ac­counts, how­ever, have not been so scrupu­lous and are nearly im­pos­si­ble to reg­u­late. A social media ac­count is very far in­deed from a search giant like Baidu, so Song doesn’t believe the new reg­u­la­tions will change things on the social media front. “Some­times a woman can just post a video of her makeup ap­pli­ca­tion, in the name of shar­ing some makeup skills, and those prod­ucts she uses and dis­plays on her desk are prod­uct place­ments for which she is paid,” Song ex­plains. “In this case, the on­line celebrity won’t la­bel her ar­ti­cle as an ad­ver­tise­ment, even af­ter the new reg­u­la­tion. That per­son can al­ways in­sist that they were just shar­ing per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences.”

This type of stealth mar­ket­ing is the bread and but­ter of the social media ad­ver­tis­ing sphere. For ex­am­ple, you may find a post pub­lished by an on­line celebrity on his or her Weibo, shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences on los­ing weight. In the ar­ti­cle the writer will sug­gest a low-calo­rie diet, ex­er­cise rou­tines, and just hap­pens to ca­su­ally men­tion a “slim­ming tea” brand you should try. In these cases, the au­thor­i­ties are forced to won­der, how do you reg­u­late a rec­om­men­da­tion?

The reg­u­la­tions aim to draw a clear line be­tween on­line ads and non-ad in­for­ma­tion to fight against mis­lead­ing and ma­li­cious ads, but Song still has reser­va­tions about how ef­fec­tive these new guide­lines will be. “Of course it will make a dif­fer­ence to reg­u­late the paid searches; both the ad­ver­tis­ers and the search en­gine will be more care­ful. But, you know, search en­gine op­ti­miza­tion is a com­pre­hen­sive cam­paign and paid listings are not the only method,” says Song.

The most com­mon search en­gine op­ti­miza­tion route takes a lit­tle longer than sim­ply dol­ing out money to a search en­gine. “If you want a cer­tain cos­metic brand to have a good spot on the search re­sult page when you search ‘cos­metic prod­ucts’, you can pub­lish ar­ti­cles on news web­sites, on­line fo­rums, and social media, with the brand name and the key words like ‘cos­metic’ in­serted in the ti­tle,” says Song, de­scrib­ing the old but ef­fec­tive method of bump­ing a prod­uct up the search en­gine al­go­rithm chain. Reg­u­lat­ing this sort of ad­ver­tis­ing blitzkrieg, which has been around since the in­ter­net it­self, is dif­fi­cult.

In an age where ev­ery social media per­son­al­ity is a po­ten­tial ad plat­form, there are plat­forms like Wei­ and Chuan­, where ad­ver­tis­ers and social media ac­counts can find their per­fect match. Po­ten­tial ad­ver­tis­ers can check out the num­ber of fol­low­ers, av­er­age views, and busi­ness scope of an ac­count. Ac­count hold­ers, mean­while, can search for ad­ver­tis­ers that might be seek­ing to hock items in which they are in­ter­ested. On these plat­forms, social media pro­files be­come more than just a record of one’s life and in­ter­ests; they are goods on dis­play.

“On­line ad­ver­tis­ing is a ma­ture in­dus­try,” Song says. “These social media ac­counts are a pre­cious re­source.”


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