All-purpose mobile app WeChat is the Chinese answer to WhatsApp. Launched three years ago by Tencent, it combines services such as text messaging, voice and video calling, mobile payment, branded accounts, shopping, and games. Verified WeChat accounts with over 100,000 followers are eligible to place advertisements. Currently, WeChat is the leading Chinese social media platform, with 1.1 billion registered accounts and 846 million monthly active users.

Then there is Weibo, which means “microblogging” in Chinese. Several companies offer “weibo” services, but the leader of the pack is Sina Weibo, which is a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. With registered and monthly active users numbering 600 million and 313 million, respectively, Sina Weibo is favored for its fast-loading video content and live streaming.

In the past year especially, Chinese publishers are turning to WeChat- and Weibo-enabled social media marketing sites and online communities to create a new bookselling channel. In essence, these publishers are adopting, in a very big way, the so-called third platform, where social media, mobile and cloud computing, and analytics come together.

Such social media sites are getting a lot of attention from venture capitalists. Parenting platform Niangao Mama (whose name means sticky-rice-cake mom), for instance, is so popular with users that it received a CNY 60 million ($8.7 million) investment in January. The platform has a broad network of maternity and childcare communities, 100,000-plus articles, and an e-commerce site with monthly transactions totaling CNY 80 million.

Growing Sales and Social Influence

At Children’s Fun Publishing, social media marketing has proven to be very effective in promoting and selling higher-priced titles. One commemorative Disney book set, Happy Tour in Disney, published to mark the opening of the Shanghai Disney Resort in June 2016, was marketed at CNY 298 ($43.40), and 2,989 sets were sold within the first eight minutes, 6,564 within an hour with the help of social media. Another customized product, Caillou Graded English Readers, was promoted through publishing-services-company Ivy Dad Education Technology’s platform at CNY 156, and first-day sales hit 3,500 sets. The Chinese Classic Stories set created by Shanghai Animation Studio sold more than 5,000 sets in 24 hours.

Examples of successful social-media-based sales are aplenty at 21st Century Publishing Group as well. In July 2016, about 14,000 sets of its 12-volume Bear Baby EQ picture book series were sold within a three-day period with the help of social media. Two months later, a half-day sales promotion of a new three-volume edition of Unique Magic Stickers netted 10,000 sets sold, aided by social media. Then in October, 10,000 sets of the six-volume A Different Carmela: Young Reader’s edition were sold within a day.

Through social media, word of mouth hits an entirely new level, observes Ao Ran, general manager of Children’s Fun Publishing Company. “Since online communities operate on peer influence, a good product review will help to move hundreds of sets or copies—or hurt sales if the review is unfavorable,” he says. “There is no denying that such communities are great for kick-starting conversations around a particular book, author, topic, or event and for providing invaluable feedback. Sales potentials aside, I find that online communities can serve as barometers of market needs.”

Social media and online communities exert considerable influence over their “followers” or “friends,” observes Zhang Qiulin, president of 21st Century Publishing Group. “That is something that bricks-and-mortar operations are not able to achieve,” he says. “Furthermore, such social platforms tend to focus on working mothers and young parents, who are eager to ensure that their children have the best books available. These parents may not have the time to visit physical bookstores, or know what to look for at an online retailer. But through their communities they are communicating with their peer groups who share the same interests and concerns about their own children, and are exchanging information about relevant reading materials.”

Identifying opinion leaders is therefore essential to a successful social media marketing strategy, says editor-in-chief Bai Bing of Jieli Publishing House. “For this reason, we provide detailed synopses of selected titles targeted at specific followers or groups, who will then, hopefully, spread their opinions to influence others within their communities,” he notes. “Since this is a direct-to-market channel, careful crafting of the message is crucial, or else the campaign will fall flat.”

Voted the most popular WeChat official account in the Chinese publishing industry in 2016, Jieli’s social media presence is the envy of many. With more than 10,000 followers and 12 reading-promotions groups, its online events can easily attract somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people. The company also works with more than 300 chat-group organizers. “In the past two years we have collaborated with e-commerce company Yourbay Growth Club,” Bai says. “For our Barbapapa-series promotion, for instance, we organized 500 storytelling sessions through Yourbay’s picture book reading clubs. Our agreement with Yourbay is such that we also have access to its chat groups to promote selected titles or share more information on upcoming events and books.”

Over at Beijing Dandelion, editor-in-chief Sally Yan has more than 100 groups and 7,000 friends on her own WeChat account. “Potential sales through such messaging apps and online social circles have brought new energy to my company,” she says, “and I’m sure that applies to the industry as a whole.”

Yan and her team interact directly with online social communities organized around groups of people, topics, and interests such as children’s librarians, picture books, parenting, primary schoolers, and working mothers. “We have a continuous marketing program planned for each community, offering exclusive editions, limited-time offers, and special deals, for instance,” she says. “There is a lot of experimentation in our social media marketing activities, which only kicked off in 2015.”

Maintaining the “Old” Channels

But the third-platform activities detailed above do not negate the importance of online retailers such as Amazon China, Dangdang, and JD, which still account for a huge portion of sales for Chinese publishers. But in a vast country with only one major bookstore chain (Xinhua Bookstores), Chinese publishers’ search for new promotional and distribution channels is to be expected. Many publishers though maintain close collaborations with major online retailers and continue to support traditional bookstores.

Nearly half of 21st Century Publishing Group’s book sales, for instance, come from online channels. “Retailers such as Amazon, Dangdang, and JD accounted for about 40% of our online book sales last year,” Zhang says, adding that another 40% came through the online platform T-Mall.

At Jieli Publishing House, even though its social media marketing activities kick-started only in March 2015, these are now bringing in 15% of its total book sales. Another 47% of its sales come from online retailers, while the rest come from bricks-and-mortar operations, primarily Xinhua Bookstores.

For Beijing Dandelion, its 2016 sales through online channels exceeded CNY 20 million ($2.9 million), with 90% coming from Dangdang alone, and the rest from social media platforms. Yan’s marketing team is focused on two major distribution channels: online retailer Dangdang and social media communities.

As for engaging in social media marketing and interacting with online communities, Yan finds that it can be exhausting and distracting: “While social media offers plenty of advantages in terms of spreading the news about upcoming titles and holding sales promotions, social media strategies need careful planning. Half of my time will be spent on social media if I am not careful. And that would be terrible—I wouldn’t have enough time to acquire new titles or unearth old gems.”