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From Chats to Cash
Social media is a new nifty marketing tool to boost startups
By Wang Jun  ·  2019-06-10  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 13, 2019

People wait in a line outside a Hey Tea outlet in Beijing on December 17, 2018 (VCG)

Hey Tea, the new tea shop chain phenomenon specializing in cheese-topped tea and fruit tea, is famous, especially on social media, for the serpentine queues of customers patiently awaiting their turn to order. Be it in Beijing or Shanghai or even Guangzhou in Guangdong Province in south China, it may take four to five hours to get a cup of tea but buyers' enthusiasm never seems to flag.

An increasing number of restaurants and cafes are becoming Internet celebrities, thanks to posts and short videos on we media—participatory media—by them as well as customers. While they have something outstanding, either the décor or product packaging or unique products, the social media publicity catapults them into fame on the Internet, much faster than traditional advertising could.

Ma Jiayi roasts coffee beans at his creative cafe in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, on June 1, 2018 (XINHUA)

Unique advantages

Hey Tea, for example, scores not only on these points but has another advantage that social media alone can provide fast. It has Internet celebrities recommending its products and customers sharing their posts about their experiences at any Hey Tea café on their social media accounts. All of this attracts new customers keen to try out the trendy outlet.

Liao Huaixue, a lawyer at Tahota Law Firm in Beijing, told People's Daily that Internet-celebrated restaurants can attract wide attention and a large number of followers within a short time, thanks to the social media, which then translates into purchasing power and economic returns.

Guo Qiran, who works in a Beijing-based Internet company, often visits such Internet-celebrated restaurants with her friends. In an interview with People's Daily, she showed photographs of some of these restaurants.

One of them is near the Forbidden City, the former imperial residence in Beijing that housed more than 20 Chinese emperors in Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to 1911 but is now the celebrated Palace Museum. Located in a private courtyard, the simply but elegantly decorated restaurant offers a view of the towering walls of the Forbidden City, which makes it a great venue for selfies, another social media phenomenon.

According to Dianping.com, a Chinese review site for restaurants, shops and businesses, the average price per person at the restaurant is over 700 yuan ($101). "The dishes are not so delicious, and most of the diners are here for the purpose of taking photographs," Guo said.

The viability of Internet-celebrated restaurants also depends on people's focus, Liao said. People go to Internet-celebrated outlets to satisfy their urge to show on social media that they too are part of the trendy crowd, not just to actually buy or eat.

The marketing model works for other businesses as well. Guo once went to a studio to have her photo taken and was told she would get a discount if she shared her photos—and the name of the studio—on her social media accounts. She did so and many of her friends asked her where the studio was.

"This brought many new customers to the studio," she said.

After the upsurge of short videos on social media, these celebrity shops have found a new marketing method. According to the People's Daily report, some shops and restaurants make short videos on their food and services, and then pay some we media to recommend them. Or they invite some Internet celebrities to cash in on the visitors' popularity.

Jin Ge, an associate researcher in journalism at Peking University, said there are good reasons for the rising use of social media as a marketing tool. The flow of customers means potential incomes for a shop or restaurant. But the traditional methods of publicizing one's products and services are expensive while the new method is substantially cheaper but more efficient in a shorter time.

"Those operating Internet-celebrated shops will do whatever catches the eye on the Internet," Jin told People's Daily.

Customers flock to a kebab restaurant in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on May 12 (XINHUA)

Quality still king

However, becoming an Internet-celebrated shop is only part of the marketing and attracting customers is only a primary goal. To retain their popularity, these shops also need to invest time and energy in their products and services like their traditional rivals do.

Social media fame comes easy and goes easy. It may take only a few months for some Internet-celebrated restaurants to fade out of the public eye. The survivors are those that have backed their Internet fame with quality products and services.

"No matter how well an Internet-celebrated restaurant does in marketing, it would still be difficult to get customers to visit again if it fails to satisfy their expectations with its products and services," Jin said. "This is a challenge for many fast-growing startups."

Besides, during the online marketing, some outlets may use misleading information. Many media platforms often gush in their posts or short videos. But when consumers find the real conditions don't match the online advertisement, the myth of Internet-celebrated shops will be busted. "This is a violation of both the Advertisement Law and the Law on the Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests," Liao said.

Besides the celebrity shops, social media platforms such as WeChat and short video apps like Douyin also have a responsibility to ensure that the information published by their users is authentic.

"Online platforms should adopt comprehensive measures to regulate the marketing practices of Internet-celebrated restaurants to protect consumers' rights and interests," Liao said.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to wangjun@bjreview.com

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