by Michael O'Neill
November 29th, 2012

How many times have you read an article that refers to Sina Weibo as China’s answer to Twitter? It is the understandable default description for the Chinese micro-blogging site. Understandable in that Weibo does share a number of Twitter’s more obvious characteristics – notably its overall look and the use of limited-character posts. But this only part of the Weibo story, and recent changes introduced to the site over the past month highlight just how limited this comparison is.

Over Twitter HQ  developers are looking at ways to make the platform more flexible, but many of these functions are already old hat to Weibo users. Indeed, many of the recent improvements in what they are calling Weibo V5 are taking this versatility to another level way beyond Twitter’s current ambitions.

Superficial interface changes include the addition of a cover picture (similar to Facebook’s timeline picture), a new icon that shows the user’s current mood on their timeline, improved music search capability, a new ‘face-time’ video and a clearer navigation panel.

Brand and community managers may also want to pay special attention to improvements to the Weibo Group function (think Circles on Googgle+). The first now allows users to post to specified groups (friends, colleagues, business contacts, etc.) rather than their full fans list, which opens the door for more targeted (and, if needed, private) exchanges. The second is a choice of message feeds, now listed either in chronological order or by ‘smart order’ — a preference activated by the user that ranks by the poster’s popularity on Weibo or by specified group interests.

But the changes on Weibo that really catches the eye from a brand PR perspective are the enhancements made to the platform’s Charity function.

Users now have two options: to make a charity appeal (for instance, for financial assistance) or to give to a charity. The latter option is divided into three sections. The first is appeals by individuals or organisations. This could be rural school looking for learning materials or an appeal for financial aid to pay for a child’s medical bills. The second is a ‘micro-auction’ where celebrities (and potentially brands or ‘enterprises’ as they are known on Weibo) auction goods for a specified charity — say, a movie star auctioning a red-carpet dress, or an auto manufacturer auction a special edition vehicle. The final section contains corporate charity drives, whereby companies donate a small amount to their chosen charities for each re-post they receive. Early adopters of this service include MaxMara, Durex and China Unicom.

While the Charity page, as well as all the other enhancements, is still in a beta stage of development, the possibilities for CSR are clear — for a relatively small investment companies get to contribute to good causes while at the same time positioning themselves at the top of a large number of Weibo feeds. Whether through an auction or a charity drive, companies are able to create engagement with consumers without any overt branding push, while consumers in turn will share this interaction with their own Weibo friends. Given the vast audience — 400 million registered users according to Sina’s own measurements — Weibo V5 (which in Chinese is a play on the phrase “very powerful”) is a channel CSR-focused brands in China should be giving serious consideration.

 

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