Every day half a million people sign into their social media accounts and see posts like this touting something in Virginia Beach:
“Would you like to wine and dine while golfing? Do you have little golf experience and are too shy to play in front of people that you don’t know?
The audience isn’t in Hampton Roads.
“Are traditional golf scoring terms too difficult for you to understand? Newly-opened Topgolf will completely fulfill your “dream golf” experience.
Or Richmond. Or Northern Virginia.
“Food and drinks will be delivered right to your table, scores will be sent directly to your bay screen, and you can even enjoy all kinds of games on big screens!
Not even Ohio.
“Invite your friends now for a “golf party.” Address: 5444 Greenwhich Road (Virginia Beach, Va).
Those views, the city hopes, are coming from the other side of the world, in a land of 1.4 billion people, millions of whom have money to burn on American trips.
The posts began almost two years ago. Each highlights a Virginia Beach businesses, amenity or attraction on the Chinese microblogging website Weibo.
At first, a Chinese company helped run the city’s Weibo page, which was commissioned by the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
That company translated questions from the Chinese audience into English and sent those questions to the CVB, which provided replies. The company then translated the answers back to Mandarin and posted them. The set-up was not ideal, said Ron Kuhlman, the CVB’s vice president of tourism marketing and sales.
He wanted a budget-friendly way to market the city in China, a country that exports 100 million tourists a year, many of whom are increasingly choosing the United States and its East Coast for vacations.
Then Kuhlman met Emma Guo.
Guo had made her living in Beijing marketing U.S. destinations to fellow Chinese before she moved to Virginia Beach in 2013 with her American husband. A year later she came across a job post on LinkedIn for someone who could market Virginia Beach and other cities to people in China.
Among the responsibilities: Running Virginia Beach’s new Weibo account.
“That was my first (job) interview,” Guo said. “And I got it.”
Weibo is so popular in China that Kuhlman said it’s like a combination of Facebook and Twitter “on steroids.” The two American social networks are banned there.
But to use Weibo, one must be able to read Mandarin. To use it as a marketing tool, one must be able to understand Chinese culture and the market one is pushing. And to interact with the users, one must be online during Chinese daylight hours — nighttime in America.
In other words, to market an American city properly on Weibo, you have to be like Guo.
She often shares visitors’ posts, comments and photos around town, or posts her own mini-blogs about aspects of the city she knows will stand out in China but are not unique or appealing enough to Americans to make the Virginia Beach tourism bureau’s Facebook page.
Guo also reimagines the posts that do. Take the Topgolf opening. Americans saw a two-sentence update on the bureau’s Facebook page; the Chinese Weibo follower saw six sentences. Guo said her pitch focused on how the sport is considered exotic and luxurious in the world’s most populous country.
The posts are working, Kuhlman said.
Virginia Beach has 567,000 followers on Weibo. That’s more than double the combined audience plugged into the city’s Twitter account (35,000) and its two primary Facebook pages (200,000 likes for Visit Virginia Beach; 20,000 for the government page).
Guo often sees folks from her homeland post on Weibo about the Beach. Earlier this year, she saw a post about a seafood buffet someone had eaten in the city. Another Weibo user in China asked where it was, hoping to grab a plate.
Guo provided the restaurant’s address.
Another time the CVB ran a promotional contest on the website with an iPad for a prize. The winner visited Virginia Beach, met Guo there, and a post about the trip went up on Weibo, she said.
“It’s like dominoes,” Kuhlman said, adding he now regularly sees photos on Weibo of sunrises and sunsets taken in Virginia Beach. “Once you put them in there, they just start bouncing off of each other and the audience just gets larger and larger and larger and larger.”
The biggest challenge is capturing enough posts to share, he said.
The CVB recently recruited some help in tipping those domino blocks. Late last year it hired a Shanghai firm to promote Virginia Beach in China with $50,000 budget. And soon it will expand its social media efforts to WeChat, a Chinese “micro-messaging” service.
It’s also planning another Weibo contest to attract more followers, according to Tiffany Russell, a CVB spokeswoman.
Kuhlman said he expects the number of Chinese tourists who visit the United States to double before the decade is over, making them an important market to tap.
He hopes they visit Virginia Beach when they come.
And post about it on Weibo, too.
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