Brands active in Chinese social media live with the knowledge that the government can, without warning, impose limits that send users fleeing and render any platform less useful.
Last week's announcement of restrictions on instant-messaging tools initially sparked fears of a crackdown like the earlier one that hit Sina Weibo, especially as it followed closely after the government confirmed that it had blocked Line and Kakao. Now that cooler heads had a chance to assess recent news, it seems clear this is not one of those situations.
"I don't see much of an impact for brands," Ed McElvain, APAC media strategy director for Lowe Profero, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Brands just aren't engaging in the kind of conversation that anyone at a government level would really want to stop."
Leo Chu, regional head of digital for Wieden+Kennedy, agreed, saying that even though it's not yet clear how the new rules will be enforced, brands are used to operating within safe boundaries. "There's always censorship in China, and I think most brands are smart enough to stay away from controversial topics," he said. "They know how to toe the line here."
Wang Fan, social media 'sage' at Carat China, said the new restrictions won’t have much impact in the short term and will benefit the entire ecosystem in the long run, as the policy aims for a "better industry management of operations".
Said Ananth Devarajan, director of interaction at Mindshare China, "The new regulation is more targeted at grassroot type accounts that might publish news articles that not-so-well-educated users can mistake as official opinions."
If anything, brands might take solace in the fact that China is showing commitment to giving its internet companies an advantage. "You have to remember that the 'Great Firewall' really serves two purposes," McElvain said. The government is concerned not only with controlling the flow of information, but also protecting internal companies, letting them "thrive, free from outside threats" such as Amazon and Google.
"The reason they cracked down on Weibo is that the platform is so open," he continued. "It was proven that it could spread information very, very quickly. A message could go viral and spread to people who don't know each other."
WeChat, by contrast, is mainly a communication platform "where I know you, and you're hearing from me because I know you. It doesn't have the same sort of viral power."
In fact, McElvain added, this raises one of the issues brands face with WeChat: Although it's great for engaging with existing customers, it's not currently suited to attracting new ones. Getting people to follow a brand on WeChat requires heavy lifting with outside media such as QR codes at POS locations and OOH media buys, he said.
"Acquisition of followers is the biggest challenge for brands [with WeChat]," he said. "But that's also the saving grace that keeps it from having anyone in the government worry about it."
Tencent prides itself on the user-orientation of WeChat and therefore has been careful about monetising the platform, Chu said. The platform would benefit from adding a feature similar to Twitter's Promoted Accounts, which analyses the accounts users follow and shows them paid listings of other accounts they might consider following, McElvain said.
Tencent declined to comment for this story.