A very ‘Chinese’ social media marketing trend?

3 China online campaigns that lower barriers to self-expression to increase engagement and viral spread

“Can you give us something like the Vancl campaign?”

This has often been asked of China marketers since the run-away success of Vanclize in the summer of 2010. The campaign, from online clothing retailer Vancl, allowed (or even encouraged?) potential consumers to take an already popular ad, Photoshop their own version, and share it online.

Handing self-expression over to the Chinese social media user, along with control of the brand message, is now commonplace among brands trying to engage with consumers in China. The premise is simple: consumers, having invested time in producing something, will try their best to show all their friends, spreading the brand’s message in the process. Either that, or there are offered incentive to do so in the form of a competition.

In China (there is some precedent in the West, for example ScionSpeaks), brands are now taking this further and making it easier for consumers to create something with browser-based applications, thereby lowering the barriers of entry and making it even easier to share.

Kappa’s Rabbbit DIY

This activity, based on an independent mini-site and linked to a Douban page, calls on users to share their very own DIY rabbit ad, which they can create with a specially-designed Flash application. Incentives include the chance to win an iPhone or iPad. Winners are decided by public vote.

Chow Tai Fook’s I Have a Dream

This fully Douban-based activity from jewelry brand Chou Tai-fook takes self-expression even further, giving consumers free rein to create whatever they like – with no branding – using a Flash application. The brand communication comes in when a notice that the person has taken part in a Chou Tai-fook campaign appear in the news feeds of the participant’s friends. Winners are chosen either by a combination of votes/judges, or by a random draw from all participants.

LensCrafters’s New Year Campaign

This recently-concluded campaign makes it easy to create and share your own cartoon strip, by just filling the blanks. Again, this is a contest. Winners — chosen by Douban from a list of the most voted — receive a free pair of frames.

Nescafé ’s Inspiration Campaign

Although Douban is a great choice, since it attracts creative/artsy types, other platforms are hosting this kind of campaign.

This RenRen-based mini-site targeted students with a variety of activities, giving them the chance to win various prizes and one of 100,000 goodie bags. Participants can – among other things – share their own song, which they “compose” with a keyboard-controlled piano, and cartoon strips, which they “draw” by filling in blank text fields.

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I like these campaigns because they allow participants to “own” a piece of the action: by giving an opportunity for low-barrier-to-entry creation and providing attainable incentives, they are making their messages very tempting to share and in doing so have guaranteed a degree of virality.

Another interesting factor at play is the balance between grassroots participation and influencer engagement: anybody can take part and, with a decent creation, has the chance of winning. However, the campaigns are smart because they encourage people with more online influence to activate their social graphs to vote for their work — i.e., people with more friends take part because they have more chance of winning. By gaining their participation the message is spread further by people with the most influence.

If the people behind these campaigns had been asked for “another Vanclize”, then they have succeeded to an extent. However, these activities aren’t cheap – it requires a lot of work to create these games and the platforms in all cases will require money for hosting the campaign. The online execution of Vancl was cheap: it didn’t need a contest or a fancy Flash application. Instead, it succeeded in part because it used a piece of intellectual property that already had high levels of mindshare: the Vancl ad that so many people copied was already popular. Despite being amateurish Photoshopped copies, people instantly recognized the ads as belonging to Vancl’s campaign.

Update: Since writing this (and not uploading it!) a couple of weeks ago several more similar campaigns have got underway. For example, Nanyang Commercial Bank and Harman.