It’s now close to six years since Twitter was blocked in China. Although Twitter executives are not expecting the social network to rise from the dead, they’re pushing hard to get it to take off in China – sort of. Headed by Twitter’s Aliza Knox, the social media titan wants to get Chinese tech companies to embrace Twitter as they increasingly expand overseas.
That’s why Knox is in Shanghai this week. “People are saying, ‘Aren’t you banned in China?’” Knox tells Tech in Asia. She’s meeting China’s techies at the inaugural CES Asia in Shanghai and finding that nobody’s forgotten Twitter and its little birdie icon – despite most people being unable to access it. She says it’s a “good talking point to us” as Twitter makes a high-profile debut at the event. “We care a lot about this market,” Knox says of China. “It’s an important one for us.”
Knox, who’s Twitter’s managing director of online sales for APAC is usually based out of Singapore. She is one of several Twitter execs attending CES Asia 2015 to talk to Chinese tech industry players about getting onto Twitter – and paying for promoted tweets.
No office, no problems
Knox says that Twitter has “no plan” for a mainland China office. The company opened an office in Hong Kong in March to serve both Hong Kong advertisers and mainland Chinese companies. Twitter now has a number of mainland Chinese advertisers on board, from established brands like Huawei to startups like Meitu, which make prettifying photo apps.
Twitter can “help to build a brand” in new markets, says Knox, as well as offer performance ad tools like Twitter Cards that feature things like download buttons, embedded videos, or lead generation. The Twitter ad team says the Chinese tech companies making use of this are mainly involved in ecommerce – like Alibaba – or gaming, or making utility apps. That’s a good reflection of how Chinese tech companies on the whole are branching out into new markets.
It’s not just the US and European markets they’re targeting. Twitter sees huge interest in reaching consumers in Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan. That, too, reflects how Chinese tech companies are taking aim at nearby emerging markets to reach the next billion customers, such as Baidu’s expansion to Brazil and Indonesia (as well as Thailand and Egypt) in the past couple of years, and Xiaomi’s gradual expansion across South and Southeast Asia.
Without a base in Beijing or Shanghai, the Hong Kong office sounds like it has become an ad hoc China HQ from which it lures Chinese firms to its ad network – and away from the clutches of Facebook, which is reportedly mulling a dedicated sales office in Beijing.
Knox says the purpose of the Hong Kong team is partly to serve the mainland market and is therefore staffed with mandarin Chinese speakers (Hong Kongers usually speak Cantonese). The result is that the “vast majority” of the ad revenue generated by the Hong Kong office, Knox says, is derived from mainland Chinese brands.
However, the setup is best suited to mainland Chinese companies that have bases outside of China, thereby allowing them to easily book and pay for Twitter’s ad service – and access Twitter itself without having to use a proxy or VPN. Smaller Chinese startups that want to make use of this – or social media marketing in general – will face issues without an office outside of the Great Firewall.
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