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Making an impression: How the likes of PSG, the NHL and UFC are tackling social media in China

China is among the most appealing overseas markets for western sports properties, but succeeding in the country’s diverse social media landscape is about more than just being online.

20 October 2020 Sam Carp

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It is just over three years since Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, told a conference in London that the Middle Kingdom represents a “goldmine” to those in the business of sport, and few industry executives would argue that his assertion is any less true today.

Ask any major sports league or team for their target markets and you can safely assume that most will have China at the top of the list. Given that opportunities to run on the ground, physical activations such as preseason tours, one-off exhibition games or meet and greets are understandably limited, a flurry of sports properties from western society have been announcing their arrival on China’s social media scene in an attempt to create year-round engagement and build a community of Chinese fans.

Using social media as a marketing tool to reach new audiences is hardly a groundbreaking strategy, but it is a particularly pertinent one in a country that is more digitally engaged than most. According to a recent study by Kawo, a Chinese social media management tool for international brands, a mammoth 99.3 per cent of the country’s total internet user base of 904 million people is on a mobile device, with the average netizen spending two hours and 12 minutes each day using social media.

Being a social-first market, having this extensive amount of users and reach on these platforms, social just becomes a very natural place to start as a sports brand looking to launch in China.

For Justin Tan, the managing director at Shanghai-based sports digital agency and consultancy Mailman, those numbers mean that social media is the obvious “first port of call” for any sports property looking to build its brand presence in China.

“The reason is because China is by and large a social-first market,” he explains. “If you look at the numbers, it’s clear that social media, in terms of usage, in terms of user penetration, [is] extremely high. Being a social-first market, having this extensive amount of users and reach on these platforms, social just becomes a very natural place to start as a sports brand looking to launch in China.”

Yet reaching that social media audience isn’t as straightforward as it might be in Europe or North America. Due to China’s strict internet censorship rules, the country’s social media landscape is not dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which are banned in the country, but by homegrown services developed by local technology giants, including Tencent-owned WeChat, microblogging website Weibo, and Douyin, the ByteDance platform better known internationally as TikTok.

That element of the unknown might seem a little overwhelming to those unfamiliar with the Chinese market, but for Alex Duncan, the co-founder of Kawo, China’s leading social media players are not entirely incomparable with their western counterparts.

“These things are as complicated as you want to make them,” he says. “Ultimately, all marketing is today – as it has been for hundreds of years – is fundamentally about communicating with people, connecting with them and inspiring them with your message, and in that sense China is no different to the West.

“For sure the channels have different names, but the principles are fundamentally the same: you need to understand who your audience are, and then you need to ensure your message gets across to them in the place where they are, and in a way in which they are willing and able to receive it.”

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is one of the more ubiquitous sports properties on Chinese social media, and has amassed approximately nine million followers across its accounts on Weibo, WeChat and Douyin, while it is also active on Toutiao, Qutoutiao and Bilibili, a platform described as the ‘next generation YouTube in China’.

According to Kevin Chang, the UFC’s senior vice president for the Asia Pacific region, much of that success is down to being “culturally sensitive” and “culturally aware”, but also knowing what works best on each platform.  

“What we really aim to do is tailor that content and make it the right thing for the right moment,” Chang tells SportsPro. “Every platform is different. At the end of the day, what we post on Douyin is very short-form, often entertainment style with music, whereas what we post on Toutiao or Weibo would be longer, more serious, news-related, which again would be different from what we broadcast on TV or what we stream on OTT.

“So it’s determining what the context is, how to engage that fan in the way that is appropriate for them, then also taking into consideration format, localisation, all of those things. A lot of work goes into managing the accounts; it’s not just a matter of opening them, letting them go, and using content that we have from the US – it’s really customising it to meet our audience out there.” 

The UFC has approximately nine million followers across its Weibo, WeChat and Douyin accounts

‘Impossible to generalise about behaviours’

It is not uncommon for industry commentators to declare that engaging fans in China is nothing like engaging fans in other parts of the world. Duncan notes that a lot of people “underestimate the sensitivity” of the country and its “strong sense of nationalistic pride” – and, as SportsPro quickly finds out, developing an understanding of the Chinese culture can be a challenge.

When asked how the behaviour of social media users in China differs from that seen in other parts of the world, Duncan highlights that this correspondent has committed “one of the fundamental mistakes” that many people make when they talk about the country, which is to assume that there is a universally applicable golden rule for interacting with Chinese consumers.

“Although China is, in international terms, a single country, it is an incredibly diverse country,” he explains. “Despite 91 per cent of them being one ethnicity, over 70 per cent of them speaking standard Mandarin Chinese, actually within this country there are many different niches and populations. You have the major cities which are as modern – if not more modern – than any city on Earth, but then you have the rural areas which are far less developed.

“So China is a very diverse country, and it’s impossible to generalise about the behaviours. There are many people in major cities in China who have travelled abroad extensively, will be very familiar with the sports properties you are connecting with, will possibly have been to home games at their stadiums in their cities.

You have to really pay attention to these different types of consumer in whatever you’re doing and really build a deep understanding of them.

“But also, conversely, there will be people who have never left China, and have only seen and learned about these properties online through maybe social media or through other news channels. So you have to really pay attention to these different types of consumer in whatever you’re doing and really build a deep understanding of them.”

One sports property responding to that challenge is the National Hockey League (NHL), which has more than 1.6 million followers on its Weibo account, in addition to a further 149,000 on Douyin and 26,000 on WeChat. Rather than assume that everyone in China has had the same exposure to the sport, the North American ice hockey organisation has tried to create specific types of social media content that appeal to groups at different stages of their fan journey.

For example, the NHL partnered with Up Studios in 2019 to create an animated programme about ice hockey starring Boomi, a popular cartoon character in China, to introduce youngsters to the sport. For its more engaged, core audience, the league has a Chinese content series called Ice TV, which sees guests analyse the players and generates more than 123,000 views per episode.

“There is no one set of contents that will satisfy the Chinese audience,” asserts Daniel Kim, the NHL’s senior vice president of media distribution and strategy. “The Chinese audience is varied and diverse, just as hockey fans are all over the world. So our content strategy is to connect with all of those fans, whether they’re new to the game, whether they’re just curious about our sport or whether they’re diehard, and depending on the make up or the segmented audience that we’re talking about, we try to match the appropriate types of content to those groups.”

The NHL's Ice TV content series is targeted at the league's hardcore Chinese audience

‘East coast versus west coast, but ten times harder’

With so many factors to consider, the obvious question is how sports properties figure out where to start. Mailman works with a wide range of leagues and teams on their digital activity in China, and Tan says that the company typically spends as long as three to six months strategising with its clients before they even launch an account on any of the leading platforms.

That initial planning stage involves work on brand positioning and messaging, content strategy, media strategy, and getting resources in place – then, he says, it comes down to how much a brand is willing to invest in the market.

“We’ve had clients who have achieved really high growth in China because it’s a key market for them, and at the same time they’re willing to put in the work to connect with the audiences here,” Tan explains, before pointing to the Drone Racing League (DRL) as one organisation that has been able to build its audience quickly.

“Within a year they were able to grow from a new IP coming in, to more than a million fans on social media,” he continues. “That was really coming off, on one hand, a good, comprehensive planning process, whereby they know exactly what the message is and who they are reaching, and at the same time being able to invest in making great content for audiences here in China.”

The DRL has somewhat of a unique appeal in China, a country widely associated with tech innovation and gaming, and where 70 per cent of the world’s consumer drones are built. Since putting people on the ground a year ago, the New York-based organisation has become the most-followed drone brand in China – and that hasn’t happened by accident.

The DRL streams its races live on Weibo and Youku, but it has also produced original programming that specifically meets the demands of the league’s Chinese fans. Last year those followers indicated that they wanted to learn more about how to get into drone racing, which led to the league creating an introductory content series that averaged 300,000 views per episode. 

“When you think about east coast versus west coast, it’s that but ten times harder,” says DRL president Rachel Jacobson. “You need to be laser focused and precise, more [like] cutting with a scalpel, I would say, relative to how we would approach the market.

It’s a fast-moving market, it’s mobile-first, there are always new platforms emerging, so we need our fingers on the pulse.

“That’s exactly why while we will step out in traffic and do a number of things, this is a market where we have to have the sophistication of what we know works and doesn’t work, and then double down in those areas.

“It’s a fast-moving market, it’s mobile-first, there are always new platforms emerging, so we need our fingers on the pulse in terms of the new networks, the fan engagement technology, to ensure that we’re really meeting our fans where they are.”

Jacobson, who has plenty of experience of the China market from her 21-year stint at the National Basketball Association (NBA), says the DRL’s Chinese fanbase is also interested in the league’s pilots, but adds that the organisation has seen particular success from content shared around China’s festivals and holidays, which she notes performs “five to ten times better” in terms of engagement. 

“They love engaging with our original content around their holidays and cultural moments,” Jacobson states, “so things we can do with prize giveaways and once in a lifetime opportunities, we’ve really prioritised those opportunities in China relative to other markets where they don’t always drive as meaningful engagement.”

The DRL is the most followed drone brand on Weibo with more than 1.2 million followers

‘Less about making content at Chinese audiences’

While different approaches work for different sports, Tan says an overarching theme is that the Chinese audience wants to feel “as though they are part of the global fandom”.

“They don’t want to feel that they are any less of a fan than you have in Europe or North America,” he adds. “Overall, we tell our clients all the time that it’s less about you making content at Chinese audiences, and more about you co-creating content together with the fans here. So on the one hand creating content with Chinese fans in mind, and at the same time taking a different approach to how you make content.”

Co-creating content with influencers is a social media strategy that is becoming prevalent in the West, but it would appear that working with key opinion leaders (KOL) is even more effective in China. The aforementioned Kawo study states that 49 per cent of Chinese consumers depend on KOL recommendations, which Duncan says illustrates that people in China are “more likely” to follow what an influencer or an individual says, rather than what a brand or a company says.

To that end, the NHL recently launched a ‘fan leaders’ programme through which it is identifying Chinese ice hockey enthusiasts to serve as content creators and ambassadors for the league. In return, participants receive rewards such as an NHL jersey, tickets to future games in China, or free access to the NHL.TV streaming service for a year.

“When you look at the popularity of the league in other countries,” says Kim, “it generally surrounds the local stars that come from that country. Whether it’s [David] Pastrňák from the Czech Republic, for instance, or the numerous players that come from the Nordic countries that play in the NHL, the league’s popularity is driven around those players.

“Although we are hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy that with a Chinese player soon, that isn’t the case today, so rather what we wanted to do was try to create that connection with those people in China that love hockey and create that local connection and flavour that way. In the effort to find these diehard fans we’ve uncovered some people that are really crazy and loyal about our sport.”

Tan describes China as an “icon market”, which again speaks to the fact that Chinese fans are often more likely to follow their favourite athlete over a league or a team. That is certainly something that has worked to the advantage of the likes of French soccer champions Paris Saint-Germain, who have signed some of the sport’s biggest names – Neymar and Kylian Mbappe among them – since being taken over by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) in 2010.

Speaking to SportsPro, Sébastien Wasels, Asia Pacific managing director for PSG, reveals that one of the most impactful recruits was Wang Shuang, the Chinese midfielder who made 18 appearances for the club’s women’s side between 2018 and 2019.

“Back then all the content we created with her reached amazing engagement and views, even more than the content that we created with superstars like [Edinson] Cavani,” Wasels says. “So that’s one of the things specific to the Chinese market…and we really push that aspect because we know that’s what our Chinese fans are looking for: interaction and content with those superstars.

“They [the players] are very keen also to develop their fanbase in such an important market, so we develop much more content with those superstars for the Asian market and Chinese market than for the rest of the world, but it’s very positive because the players are also keen to extend their fanbase there.”

‘You can’t walk into this market looking to break even’

It has barely been a year since leading collectibles company Panini America launched on Chinese social media, encouraged by the strong growth and interest in its National Basketball Association (NBA) products in China, and with an aim of creating a trading card culture that already exists in markets like the US.

“It’s such a big country, the retail marketplace is really fragmented, they don’t have a Walmart or a Target that’s in every city,” begins Jason Howarth, Panini America’s vice president of marketing. “With that fragmentation, we felt like the first step for us would be to one, establish our presence on social media and really start to build up the culture of the category of trading cards, and highlight that with our players across sports.”

After that, Howarth says, Panini utilised platforms like Weibo and WeChat to build its brand and educate the Chinese audience about trading cards, knowing that the plan was to eventually announce its online retail presence in China. The company launched on Alibaba’s Tmall ecommerce platform in April through a live stream similar to a modern day version of a home shopping show, which generated a viewership of 250,000 and saw most of the featured products sell out within the first hour.

“I think the other thing that is interwoven into some of the social platforms in China that are maybe doing a better job than the US social platforms is selling and shopping,” Howarth considers. “On the Chinese side they’ve always been more geared towards trading cards for whatever reason. We had some insight going into the market, so we found that they were really intrigued by trading cards, they really loved the look of the cards, they loved the autographs on the cards, they really like the high-end stuff.

“They’re doing everything they can to get as much of that product as they possibly can, whether it’s buying the product online, through eBay or direct through our store now.”

Panini marked its launch on Tmall with a social media live stream  

While there are still only a handful of sports properties present on Tmall, it is likely that China’s ecommerce market, which generated an astonishing US$1.9 trillion in sales in 2019, will be one of a host of routes through which leagues and teams from the West will look to monetise their growing social media followings further down the line.

Some sports organisations, like the UFC and NHL, already derive some income from live events, but Tan says there are a mixture of B2B and B2C monetisation opportunities that exist through social specifically.

“In terms of the B2B approach, it’s typically content sales, advertising and, at the same time, activating for your sponsors,” he explains. “With regard to activating for your sponsors, it means when you have a sizeable audience and following here in China, you could create content which integrates your sponsors in it. So on one hand you’re engaging your audiences, but at the same time you’re providing media value to your sponsors.

“In terms of that B2C bit, ecommerce is very common in Chinese social media now – it’s almost akin to an integrated experience. You see some content that you like on social media, and you know what? There’s actually an opportunity for you to buy it off that content. I think it’s very evident on platforms like Douyin, whereby, in terms of their short-form video content, they do have some product links on it, and in terms of that ultra-long form content, that two, three-hour live stream, the content makers will be talking about products within that live stream.”

You really do have to build a brand in this market, and there are definitely organisations who are too commercially focused.

However, Tan cautions that sports properties shouldn’t expect to reap the monetisation benefits of the Chinese social media landscape unless they make a long-term investment. It is a sentiment echoed by Duncan, who also warns that there will be significant pitfalls for those that end up prioritising the commercial side over the audience they are trying to grow.

“You really do have to build a brand in this market, and there are definitely organisations who are too commercially focused,” he states. “They’re just looking at China as an opportunity to sell something, but people only buy things from brands that they have an emotional attachment to, certainly in the sports area.

“So you’ve first got to create that connection with the fans and minimise your commercial messages encouraging them to buy things, and that requires investment. You can’t just walk into this market looking to break even or make a profit, certainly as an IP like this.

“You really have to see it as a market you’re going to have to invest in over the longer term to really grow your brand here.”

This feature originally appeared in issue 111 of SportsPro magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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