The past few years have seen social media, propelled by the all-purpose WeChat app and the Weibo microblogging service, become an indispensable promotional and sales channel in the Chinese publishing industry. Critics point to challenges facing publishers who depend on social media marketing. Advocates, meanwhile, view the current dip in effectiveness of social media marketing as evidence of a period of adjustment common to any new channel.

For Liu Hong, cofounder of Beijing Baby Cube, while sales volumes through social media may be lower than during the peak periods of 2015 and 2016, sales remain higher through social media than through traditional channels. Liu, of course, knows the ins and outs of social media marketing better than anyone in the industry, having used it to grow Baby Cube from a reading club to a full-fledged publishing company. “Readers have become accustomed to social media as a platform for marketing and buying books. It is now just another channel that functions like the physical bookstore or online retailer,” Liu says.

Xu Haifeng, director of the children’s publishing division of Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP), remains cautious in his approach to using social media platforms despite the strong sales results. “There is now a fatigue linked to the appearance of even more social media platforms promoting numerous products. Sales figures from these channels are slumping,” Xu says, adding that these platforms are often beneficial for new books but less useful for long-term sales.

For Baby Cube, the first title sold through social media was Nina Laden’s Peek-A Who. “I used the Niangao Mama platform and sold nearly 5,000 copies within an hour in August 2015,” Liu says.

The choice of the WeChat-enabled parenting platform Niangao Mama makes perfect sense. Niangao Mama, which means “sticky-rice-cake mom,” has been so popular that in January 2017 it received a CNY 60 million investment from Matrix Partners China. It has more than one million daily active users, 12 million followers, and monthly transactions valued at CNY 80 million.

Since then, Liu has utilized various platforms to sell nearly 250,000 copies of the Elephant and Piggy series (five titles); 500,000 copies of Peek-a Who; 900,000 copies of the Little Critter series (27 titles); and 1.5 million copies of the Old Textbooks of China series (30 titles).

The initial decision to use a social media platform to launch Baby Cube was a practical one. “We entered the children’s book publishing industry relatively late and at a time when the bookstore channel was showing declining sales and when the competition among online retail networks was intense,” explains Liu, adding that finding a new channel was crucial to bolstering the company’s early performance. “Mobile devices were then becoming popular, and social networks such as WeChat were developing rapidly. Online parental communities were emerging. For me, the message was simple: Where there is a crowd, there is a market.”

Liu then contacted various online communities for maternity and childcare and suggested that they recommend Baby Cube titles. “They were not sure at the beginning, but soon sales started to come in. It heralded a great beginning for Baby Cube.” The biggest advantage of using social media, she adds, “is the integration of marketing and sales that efficiently shortens the whole process. This sales model is proven to be the fastest and most effective way for new market entrants—small and medium-size independent publishing houses, especially—to carve a foothold in the industry.”

However, social media marketing has shown itself to be much more successful for children’s books than for other publishing segments. “This is mostly due to the social media platforms’ two major features: celebrity endorsement and on-site marketing. These features appeal to new mothers, who have a much more urgent need for authoritative guidance and sharing of childcare experiences with others in the same community,” says Liu, whose team works with about 400 platforms, including Michael Qianer Pindao and Big J & Little D.

Success in social media marketing is about doing your homework, Liu says. “Understanding your own products is crucial. Then you have to find out details about the social media platform that you want to use: their community and fans, income levels, occupation, children’s age, and consumption preferences, for instance. If your products are in line with their attributes and requirements, then it will be easier to convert their interest into actual sales.”

The next step involves providing additional materials to promote the products. “The usual cover images and text-based description are insufficient,” Liu says. “You need photos of reading scenes, or even better, audio and video clips. Social media marketing platforms require 3D presentations to capture the attention of harried and distracted mothers.”

The development of products specifically for social media platforms comes next, Liu says. “Customized products—with different packaging, gift certificates, and special pricing, for instance—mean a wider selection of items for social users to choose from for their communities. This increases the chances that your products will be noticed and reviewed.”

For Liu, there are many advantages to using social media marketing. “The sales success on these platforms can be used to trigger and influence sales on conventional channels. High-volume sales via social media platforms are also good for offsetting the cost of the first edition. Plus, the typical return policy on these platforms is short—15 days—and this is great for cash flow, especially for a company that is just starting in the industry.”

The major disadvantage of social media marketing is the lack of the long-tail effect. “Once a group purchase is completed, you will no longer be able to sell to that demographic or community again—or at least, not for a very long period of time,” Liu says. “But with online retail outlets, you can have large-volume traffic as well as a long-tail effect in that your products are listed and sold for many years. Then again, online retail outlets demand a steep discount, which is not good for the book industry as a whole. For Baby Cube, we are trying to combine these two channels.”

For Xu and his team at FLTRP, social media is “a promotional—not sales—channel, which we use judiciously so that more people get to know our titles. For instance when we first published the Israeli series Uncle Leo’s Adventures, only those frequenting physical bookstores or major online retailers knew about those books. But because we promoted it on Michael Qianer Pindao, a platform with around 600,000 followers at that time, the audio clip was played 3.1 million times and sales began to rise rapidly.”

Some social media platforms, Xu adds, have the capacity to broadcast professional lectures on books, thus enabling a much longer promotional period. “In 2017, we introduced Bob Books phonics reader series and worked successfully with WeChat-based Ivy League Dad to launch it and then gave a series of talks to its followers,” Xu says, reiterating that he and his team “do not rely on social media platforms alone to promote FLTRP titles. We utilize a combination of channels—online and bricks-and-mortar—to market and distribute our products. We also have a powerful school distribution channel.”