I’M A ZOMBIE FAN. So much so, that back in my early 20s I wrote, directed and stared in my own movie – ‘The Dead Will Rise’. Pig brains and a VHS video camera were the only expense, and while the movie did run up to 45 minutes and receive an A+ for my co-producer’s high school project, it never saw the big screen. It never received an AFI, BAFTA or Oscar award, but it did instill a passion for the genre.
Now I’ve learnt about another type of zombie. This time not on celluloid, but online. These zombies, or 僵尸粉, are more sinister because they are beginning to invade our real lives.
Internet Zombies are fake Weibo accounts, the Chinese Twitter, used to boost egos and brand credibility. For as little as 5 RMB a Weibo account can gain 1,000 ‘fans’. For 120 RMB, 5,000 fans, equipped with personalities – followers, a history of posting, a profile photo and personal description – can adorn a user’s account.
Deceit or simply a cry for cry for attention?
One Beijing based recruitment firm, a recent start-up, has jumped from a few hundred fans in 2011 to boasting over 31,000 fans in March of 2012. In comparison, the founder’s previous company, Antal International, which has been in the market since 1993 has only 1,400 fans.
Of course a crowd draws a crowd, and this is probably the strategy for this start-up, who are in the recruitment business after all, where volume is important and a looking ‘new’ wins no awards. Innocent ego tripping, you might say. But when established brands hire the services of marketing and PR agencies in China, to help boost their brand’s awareness, not ego, internet zombies are useless, and may be detrimental to the brand.
Take the case of a Norwegian Salmon company, which was pleasantly surprised when their contracted PR company was able to attract over 100,000 fans to its corporate Weibo account. Clearly, Chinese netizens who had ‘fanned’ the Norwegian Salmon company were passionate about their fish, and so it made sense to run a competition to further engage their fan base. This time, when they were surprised, it wasn’t pleasantly. Only 4 fans responded – a pathetic 0.004% response rate, and evidence that most of the fans had been bought.
Domestic companies are also not immune to such deception.
Haomen Jipin Abalone Restaurant in Shuozhou, in Shanxi province, announced a promotion in cooperation with chinamil.com.cn, a website sponsored by the PLA Daily. In an advertisement posted on the company’s Weibo account in late September, the restaurant asked for fans to “Tell us your feelings about seeing the launch of the spacecraft Tiangong-1.” Whoever forwarded the message the most, the advertisement declared, would win an iPad or iPhone. The contest would end by October.
Subsequent inquiries indicate spam software was employed to run up the numbers, so much so that by October 7th, the last day of the competition, the initial posting had been reposted or forwarded on Sina Weibo 13 million times. This was a Chinese record. Unfortunately it wasn’t marketing genius – it was simply a façade. Sina Weibo reported that only 3,000 participants in the online promotion were subscribers with real profiles. And the message was actually posted and reposted only 9,000 times, not 13 million. The suspect accounts have since been banned.
All this deceit has damaged both the reputation and usefulness of microblogging as a marketing tool in China. In a country where loop holes are quickly exploited, it is also a reminder that without checks and balances between departments and suppliers zombies might infiltrate your best ethical barriers and run amok with your brand.