Chinese media outlets in Vancouver are scrambling to run public accounts on WeChat, China’s hugely popular mobile social-media network with 800 million users, to reach the region’s growing Mandarin-speaking population.
“WeChat is a great platform for us to build brand awareness and maintain a competitive advantage. It has a large number of users that can become our potential audience,” said Michael Mai, chief editor of the local news website Lahoo.
Traditional newspapers turn to WeChat
Most of Metro Vancouver’s 200,000 immigrants from mainland China now use WeChat to engage with friends and acquire news updates. Local Chinese newspapers see posting daily feeds on WeChat public accounts to attract subscribers as a strategy to catch up with the digital era.
“Many people don’t read newspapers now. We need to make good use of social media to enhance competitiveness,” said Robert Zhang, publisher of the Mandarin newspaper West Canada Weekly . “World Journal, a well-respected Chinese newspaper in Vancouver, stopped publishing last year. It was a warning sign. We need to make a change.”
West Canada Weekly went through a tough period of transition after registering the public account, as WeChat users have different preferences compared to newspaper readers.
“Initially it was difficult for us to find the right topics and writing styles. Later we found out that public-account subscribers don’t like hard news. They prefer to read stories about new immigrants and information relevant to everyday life. We also worked on the layout of articles to enhance readability on mobile phones,” said Zhang.
Employees at West Canada Weekly used to solely focus on the print version of the once-a-week Mandarin newspaper. They now contribute a large amount of their time to collecting materials and providing daily news stories for their 30,000 WeChat subscribers.
New immigrants become loyal WeChat users
Jie Zheng is one of the subscribers. She moved to Vancouver from Tianjin in 2010. She uses WeChat every day to communicate with her parents and friends and to acquire news updates by subscribing to public accounts like West Canada Weekly.
“WeChat greatly helped me to integrate into the city. I just need to open WeChat to go through various accounts, and then find news stories and local events that interest me. I participated in several events and made some friends,” said Zheng.
Zheng understands why WeChat is the new focus of the local Chinese media.
“WeChat is so popular among mainlanders. It is like a combination of WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, PayPal, Uber and many more. I could even use WeChat to hail a cab, shop online, pay for goods at physical stores and transfer money to friends in China.”
Local news websites benefit from WeChat
To win over loyal users of WeChat like Zheng, local Chinese websites, as well as newspapers, also work hard to run public accounts.
Lahoo was one of the first Chinese news websites in Vancouver to realize the business opportunity of WeChat. In 2013, Lahoo registered a public account and started to distribute local news and living tips for Chinese immigrants.
There weren’t many competitors in the market at that time, and the number of subscribers grew rapidly.
Lahoo’s subscriber count has reached 60,000 and the traffic flow is generating income.
“We needed to persuade advertisers to advertise on our WeChat account before but now they ask specifically to promote on WeChat,” said Mai.
Some media outlets are not as successful
Inspired by the success of news outlets like Lahoo, many other local Chinese media also tried to post news stories on public accounts but were not as successful.
In January 2017, Singtao Daily, one of the largest Chinese newspapers in Vancouver founded by Hong Kong immigrants, stopped updating its WeChat public account after having tried to integrate the system with its news coverage since December 2015. The paper’s posts were written in traditional Chinese, not the simplified Chinese characters that are preferred by the predominant mainland Chinese users on WeChat. That made it less attractive to Mandarin speakers.
Even for Mandarin media, it is not easy to break through the noise and make themselves heard as the market is becoming increasingly competitive. Global Chinese Press, a Mandarin newspaper, has been updating daily news stories through WeChat for over a year, but is only getting several hundred clicks every day.
How to run a successful WeChat public account
“Early entry into the market is crucial. There was no fierce competition before 2015. After that, dozens of similar news accounts began to pop up. Attracting subscribers became difficult,” said Edward Han, marketing manager of BCbay, a news website running two successful WeChat accounts.
Han says the key factor for a well-liked public account is the content.
“The content is king. The stories need to be carefully picked to attract Chinese immigrants. Our subscribers prefer stories of other immigrants and articles closely related to their daily life. Articles that arouse audience’s emotions also can be become popular. When all the accounts are covering the same hot issues, you need to have a unique perspective to stand out.”
BCbay published an article about the 2016 wildfire that led to a large evacuation in Alberta. The article focused on a different angle, talking about how orderly and civilized Canadians behaved during the evacuation. Many Chinese subscribers were greatly touched by the story. They forwarded the article to their contacts on the WeChat Moments page (which is akin to a Facebook feed). The article finally got over 100,000 views.
Stories about immigrants’ daily lives tend to get more views, as people like to share them with friends. The most read article posted by BCbay in January was about drugs that were banned in Canada, but were still on the market in China.
Zhang thinks traditional newspapers still have an advantage in the digital era.
“Many new media outlets don’t even have a journalist. Some just translate news from English media and write in an exaggerated way to attract audiences. Traditional newspapers have exclusive and in-depth stories. That’s the key for keeping a good reputation.”
Shun Er, the manager of the foodie website Thechihuo, with 20,000 WeChat subscribers, thinks media should use different writing styles to attract different audiences.
“Our target audience is young people. So we hired university students to write articles with a humorous and relaxed style, making a good use of multimedia elements and emojis.”
Censorship by the Chinese government
Like other internet services in China, WeChat is under strict scrutiny by the Chinese government. Media outlets in Vancouver who seek to reach mainland users must use a Chinese business licence to register WeChat official accounts. That allows the Chinese government to censor content.
In 2015, when a series of explosions killed 173 people and injured hundreds in Tianjin, BCbay put up a post explaining how Americans had successfully avoided a similar disaster. The article went viral and got over one million views but was deleted two days later by WeChat because Beijing prohibited unofficial sources from writing anything about the explosion at that time.
Despite censorship, local Chinese media still think WeChat is a great way to promote their brands in Vancouver.
“There’s no other way that can help us reach new Chinese immigrants effectively. We are working on several accounts to target different audiences. Other news organizations are doing the same,” said Mai.