Companies trying to attract customers through the Chinese social media are now getting some help to reach their target audiences. The U.S.-based Nielsen rating agency has reached a partnership agreement with China's Twitter-like social media service, Sina Weibo, to gauge marketing effectiveness on the platform, which has more than 200 million users.
Del Levin, vice president of Shanghai-based Nielsen China, told VOA that the partnership with Sina Weibo aims to help advertisers understand the accuracy of their campaigns and how they are reaching people who are interested in their products.
"Car companies, for example, will be able to not only see the age and gender of the people who saw their on-line ads, but also the percentage of those people who are 'car enthusiasts,'" he said. This is possible because Weibo groups users together with similar interests by assigning tags to them.
The digital ad ratings, as Nielsen describes it, could be particularly useful for foreign companies trying to connect with China's massive social media audience. Recent research indicates that expenditures on digital advertising covering a range of Internet outlets have surpassed the amount spent on traditional media, like print publications and television in China.
The agreement comes one year after Nielsen teamed up with Tencent, which runs the widely popular WeChat platform, which has more than 600 million active users.
Optimized ad targeting as goal
At present, marketers have no means to measure whether their advertising is effectively delivered to the audiences they seek. Marketers are demanding more than traditional demographics, and are increasingly segmenting consumers based on their online behavior, Levin said.
"By combining the massive consumer data held by Tencent and Weibo, Nielsen will provide an unmatched view of standard audience demographics and behavioral preferences," he said.
There could, however, be some serious issues about the quality of data available on the social media. Profiling users by age and income groups may be difficult because a majority of Chinese social media users have registered without their real names, although the government has been insisting on it.
"This new arrangement will be an extremely important tool for social media marketing. But there are some questions about the validity of the data that will be gleaned from the social media," said Lin Chen, professor of digital marketing at China Europe International Business School.
"We don't know what they have in the black box. Are they talking about active users of Sina Weibo, or about the actual downloads, and postings?" Lin said.
Researchers may need to look at amplification, friend-of-friends linkages, to determine the effectiveness of users, she said.
Social media vs. search engine ads
Jacob Cooke, head of the Beijing-based consulting firm Web Presence in China, has a different take on the situation. He said advertisers may not be very excited by the new development because Chinese social media has been found to be a lot less effective, compared to search engines like Baidu and Sina.
"In China, social media traffic is incredibly overrated. The way social media websites channelize their traffic is not as efficient as search engines do," he said adding, "So, I think advertising on search engines still provides a much higher rate of return than doing that on the Chinese social media."
The new collaboration agreement comes at a time when the government is closely looking at advertising policies and practices in China's Internet and social media businesses. The recent death of a young man who used the Baidu search engine to look up treatment for a rare type of cancer has stirred up a furious debate online and triggered an investigation into the Internet company.
Analysts said the government investigation will force Internet companies to reformulate their advertising policies, and become more transparent.