China’s unfavorable climate for Western social media has prompted some of the world’s strongest players to find novel ways of reaching Chinese consumers and companies. Facebook, which has been reaching across the Great Wall from Hong Kong since 2011, is competing with Google for Chinese advertising spend via direct contacts, regular visits and, just recently, getting Mark Zuckerberg on the board of a major Chinese university.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Twitter has taken its own first step into the market fight — with the opening of a small office with a single employee on Tuesday.
— Peter Greenberger (@pgreenberger) March 11, 2015
Will Twitter’s “one man, one China” plan be enough to satisfy its hunger for Chinese advertising revenue?
The Multilingual Long Game
Twitter has long understood that its bet on an advertising-driven model could not rest on the U.S. market alone. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of its 284 million monthly users tweet from foreign shores, the result of the company’s hard work to create tools that further cultivate its “we are the world” image.
The company began translating the platform in 2009 with French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish in focus. In 2010, the country began tracking and displaying trending tweets per city and country. It followed these two efforts with the 2011 launch of its Translation Center, an innovative translation crowdsourcing initiative matched by a completely revamped platform that, based on feedback from translators, sought to improve the translation experience. The initiative boasts 350,000 volunteers worldwide and 33 languages today, including 13 Asian languages.
The company’s commitment to a multilingual experience is also evident in its integration of Microsoft’s Bing Translator. Twitter first tested on-the-fly tweet translation via the platform’s users early in 2012 and then rolled it out worldwide for desktop and mobile Twitter users in January of this year, supporting 40 languages.
Twitter’s foothold in Hong Kong is not its only new venture into the Asian marketplace. The company first announced its intentions to expand in the region in 2012 by hiring Shailesh Rao to be the vice president for Asia Pacific, recruiting him from a prominant position at Google for the job. Last November, Twitter announced its plans to open a Jakarta office, alongside the Hong Kong plan, and did so last week. Moreover, Twitter has been otherwise serving up tools for Chinese companies. According to Bloomberg Business, Twitter tools like Crashlytics and MoPub are already being used by major Chinese brands like Baidu and Alibaba.
With 1.3 billion residents, China’s appeal to social networking companies is easy to understand. However, domestic microblogging competitors like WeChat and Sina Weibo thoroughly dominate that space. For newly hired Mr. Greenberger, the far more critical task will be drawing Chinese eyes (and advertising dollars) westward. There’s also plenty of evidence that now is the right time. According to the Financial Times, Chinese outbound mergers and acquisitions grew from $50 billion in 324 investments in 2010 to $72 billion in 404 deals in 2014.
“The opportunity is huge,” said Greenberger. “We know there’s demand.”
Despite new user growth at just 1.4 percent each quarter, Twitter boasted of $1.4 billion in sales in 2014 — the result of an aggressive monetization strategy that has been built on new and targeted advertising opportunities. The company has also raised its visibility on other platforms, brokering deals with Google to show tweets in search results as well as deals with Clipboard and Yahoo Japan to display promoted tweets (Twitter ads).
Whether such Western investment in Twitter will persuade Chinese companies to do the same remains to be seen. But there’s a lone Twitter advertising executive in Hong Kong who is now pledged to make it happen, one tweet at a time.