I believe many brands are missing a big opportunity in the age of Chinese social media. They are not connecting with their customers by providing value first via educational and entertaining content that builds communities. Influencers are filling that gap.
Providing value first is deep-seated in Chinese culture and one of the foundations of guanxi. As advertising goes digital, brands are failing to give prospective customers a virtual gift and therefore losing the chance to build relationships of mutual benefit. But influencers are.
Not all is lost.
Brands can still provide value first because the range of human interests are limitless. Brands can always find people in social environments congregating around niche interests, and every interest vertical will have a few experts or entertainers. They lead by creating written, visual, or audio content for the community’s pleasure. It does not make sense for any single brand to try and serve the limitless range of interests their customers might have, but it does make sense to support the people that do.
Forget how you — a company — want to present your brand. Re-strategise by asking how you want people, real individuals with names, to introduce your brand to their circles of influence.
I implore brands not to miss this incredible opportunity to communicate with people the way they want to be communicated with. It’s not about being on top of people’s minds or being mentioned by an influencer, but about building relationships founded on reciprocity.
The following article is a wonderful example of a business that thought outside the customer relationship building box by creating their own influencer.
Forward by Elijah Whaley CMO @PARKLU
Bridget Dennison is an adventure tour-guide based in New Zealand. She was born in Taipei and moved to Auckland in 2014 for high school. She left for the California-Mexico border last in April 2017 to begin hiking the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. She reached Manning Park in British Columbia four months later.
Eric Chen is the project manager at Zanadu, a leading Chinese travel agency, and lifestyle media channel. He oversaw the marketing campaign which utilised Bridget’s trek to encourage more people to pursue adventure travel. He coached Bridget, edited her videos, and published them on Chinese social media. They garnered roughly 10 million views across more than 10 platforms.
Bridget: It was exactly my last day at work at my old job as a guide. I took Zanadu and their founder onto the glacier, they happened to be doing a tour that day. We were just talking and I told him I was leaving. He asked what I’m doing and why I’m quitting. After all, guiding tours on glaciers is a fun job.
I had saved up enough money and I was gonna go travel, go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Then he told me I should film it. “There’s this whole thing that’s very popular in China right now,” he said. “And you should film it.” Why not, I thought. So that’s what I did. It’s funny how things work out.
Eric: The Zanadu team was so surprised to find a guide who could speak Chinese. During the glacier tour, Bridget was very professional, had a great personality, and great communication skills.
They discussed that maybe they could do something together in the future. Bridget shared the idea of the Pacific Crest Trail with us. We thought that was pretty cool — that kind of content is exactly what we need. So we started talking about how to do it together. I took charge of communicating with Bridget, editing the videos, and finding the distribution channels to promote the content.
Bridget: I’d never used Chinese social media before. I didn’t know about the whole live-videos thing everyone’s doing now. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a wanghong. I didn’t even know about Weibo or Weixin, Kaixin, or Mafengwo. No idea.
After moving to New Zealand I got totally disconnected from the Chinese world. I was so focused on learning English and studying, I basically disconnected myself from Chinese media and Chinese everything.
Eric: We were worried about her experience. Actually, the shooting skills were the biggest challenge for her. If you re-watch the videos, the first two episodes are not that good. She’s quite smart and learned quite quickly. Soon she understood what she needed to shoot, and how to tell the story via video. After three episodes, she figured things out and everything ran perfectly.
Bridget: “Just film it with your iPhone,” they said. “And talk about how you feel.”
That was basically all the instruction.
I’d never filmed anything like that before, so at first, it was really weird. What am I going to say to the camera, everyone’s gonna be looking at me. I was awkward in the beginning, but over time — it’s been four, five months now — it just gets more natural. Zanadu said my filming got better every time I sent videos.
Eric: The most attractive thing is not whether you’re crying or smiling, it’s authenticity. What attracted us to Bridget the most is that she’s so natural. If she’s in a bad mood, she’ll cry. If she feels happy, she’ll smile. Those kinds of things made the videos feel real.
In the world of travel content, lots of things are not so real. Even if a host isn’t enjoying their experience, they still have to say everything’s great.“Wow! You guys have to come here.” But in Bridget’s case, everything was so real— the crying, the smiling. People enjoy this, to see the real thing. The real thing attracts people, and people started caring about Bridget.
Bridget: I am the worst person at faking it — when shit was bad, I would just record. There’s this one video after my boyfriend and I broke up. I was just bawling my eyes out… And I filmed that. And they made a video out of that.
There were really tough times in the High Sierras. Everything just got to me. I was so sunburned. I looked horrible. I was just crying, and saying how much pain I was in. And still, I posted everything, really. The good and the bad.
And I only got reception in town, which was once a week or so. When I’d get to town, that’s when I’d send them footage. There were stretches without any towns, no reception, and just tiny places with no cell-phone service. There was this one time I couldn’t send anything for about a month and they were running out of things to post. But that’s how it worked.
Eric: The Pacific Crest Trail is quite a hardcore project. The story is outdoors. It’s all about hiking, and nature, and that kind of stuff. But we didn’t focus on this. We didn’t focus on the “outdoor” topic. We used a different perspective to understand one person’s story.
For us, travelling has different levels. The first is to explore the world.
These are the normal tourists. You visit Paris, London, see different sights, and spend a week visiting 10 different cities. We call those kinds of things first-level.
The second level is “enjoying well”. If you’ve already been to many cities and countries, what now? What’s the next thing that draws you around the world? It’s about your passions. For example, I’m a photographer. I love to shoot street photography. So the culture of a city attracts me.
The second-level traveller totally understands what they’re going to do and what they want by travelling. There are different “catalogues”. For example, outdoors-focused, scuba-diving, culture and history, and so on. Bridget’s story is a very good example for outdoor-lovers.
She doesn’t want to win a game, get any reward, or shoot pictures. She just wants to enjoy the journey. We want to know what’s behind this drive. What kind of journey can we share to second-level travelers to encourage more people to enjoy themselves? That’s the strategy. In the end, we got what we wanted.
Bridget: I was totally surprised by how many people followed me. It turned out better than I expected. Now, it’s totally mind-blowing to think there are 30,000 people following me on Weibo. I never, ever expected that. When I was hiking I got limited reception. I got reception once a week for a couple of hours. When Eric would update me on what’s going on, he’d be like, “Now you have this many fans following you.” I didn’t see it grow every day, so every week it was sort of a surprise.
Eric: The results were actually pretty good. We got 38 videos from the whole trip and around 10 million views across all platforms. Youku, Weibo, Tencent, Eyepetizer — all those video platforms.
We learned that the most attractive thing in travel video content is storytelling, and it’s not about how expensive’s the hotel you stay at. It’s not even about any particular destination. A lot of travel content has just pictures or footage, but not a story.
That’s not attractive for us. For the next step, we will focus on travel stories, to find the travellers who have the most attractive story ideas for travel content.
Bridget: It’s just so much fun because what I do really blows people’s minds.
They’re like, “What?! You’re only 18 and you just did what?”
It’s so out of the norm for the average Chinese person. And it’s fun to see all the comments from fans.
“Trail Angels” are people who help hikers on the trail. That includes opening their homes to hikers for the night, providing showers, and cooking dinners.
I think I want to work towards being an influencer. And you know, it’s not like you just get famous overnight, and get money in your pocket. And I don’t think it’s the money that attracts me. Money is pretty good — if I get money I go travelling. It’s just to share my story, to inspire people.
This article was originally published in theINSIDER 500 KOL Catalogue.