Twitter is blocked in China – what does it mean to Travel and Tourism Marketing?

twitter-blocked.jpgFirst some background:As reported by Reuters, and experienced by myself yesterday in sunny Beijing, the GFW (Great Fire Wall) strikes again. The Chinese Government censors blocked access to Twitter and other popular online services on Tuesday (June 2) afternoon at approximately 5pm, two days before the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The photo-sharing site Flickr, email service Hotmail and other services were also unavailable this evening. was blocked last month and YouTube has been inaccessible from the mainland since March.

The move came amid increasing pressure on dissidents, in a reflection of the authorities’ anxiety ahead of the sensitive date. Hundreds died as the army forced its way through Beijing to clear away demonstrators from the capital’s political heart in June 1989, but the issue is taboo on the mainland.

Twitter is

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a crucial icon for the new internet era on which many innovations emerge. China can’t block their young generation from the future. While most Chinese internet users rely on domestic services, which are heavily monitored and controlled, Twitter had become hugely popular among an urban elite. They used the site to share information on sensitive issues in recent months, such as the fire at the Chinese state television complex. A Chinese tweet can have three times the volume of an English tweet, thanks to the high information intensity of the Chinese language. Twitter limits users to 140 characters per “tweet,” but in Chinese one or two characters can make up an entire word.

The Twitter community in China was visibly upset, as many of them still found access to Twitter using proxy servers or via Twitter applications on iPhone and Blackberry, sending their complaints about the ban.

There are various speculations about why these sites were blocked today – was it the Chinese Government in light of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, was it because a famous Beijing-based artist, known for his open opinions, started using Twitter two days ago, or was it an anti-Chinese Government group wanted to get people thinking the Chinese Great Firewall blocked more sites.

gfw1.jpgBut in any case, it is clear that access to Western sites is unstable to say the least. It happened before, and it will happen again.

What does that mean for (Travel and Tourism) Marketers that would like to reach and connect with the growing Chinese consumer market?

As social media is growing in acceptance by marketers, while still being a black hole for many marketers in the travel and hotel industry, the ability to reach consumers world-wide on sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr when sharing videos, photos, and quick thoughts can be very powerful.

In North America and Europe, it is vital today to have a social media strategy, which goes way beyond just posting pictures on Flickr, and starting a company profile on Facebook and MySpace. But what many companies, especially travel organizations have not even realized yet, still struggling to understand the essence of social media, is that social media executions in various countries is vastly different, and requires different strategies and executions. While the underlying strategy of social media is the same, to engage in conversations with customers (B2B, B2C, and C2C), consumer behaviour and the use of the sites, as well as the sites being used may differ greatly – even though

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many sites have a global reach, like YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Wikipedia, and others.

But while we see differences in European countries, or Latin American countries, China is an entire different game – and this recent censorship of websites made it very clear. Even if sites may get unblocked again, they can get blocked again at any point in time. YouTube for example has been blocked and unblocked multiple times, and has not been accessible to Chinese consumers since March 2009.

The growing Chinese consumer market, especially the elite and affluent population is getting independent and using the internet as an outlet to connect. It is then not surprising that online engagement skyrockets in comparison to North America and Europe. While some of them use proxy servers to access blocked sites, the speed and performance can be worse, which makes the online experience not as enjoyable (reminds you going back 10 years with modem connections). Take Youtube, Twitter and Facebook for example, a lot of people use the Chinese video sharing site Youkou, and a lot of people are already switching to the Chinese micro-blogging application Fanfei, as well Xiaonei, dubbed as the Chinese version (some people say “copy”) of Facebook is gaining in popularity . Regardless if Youtube or Twitter will become freely accessible in China again or not, some Chinese people will continue to use them, however, as a marketer, it is important to not solely rely on these sites, but become familiar with these rapidly growing Chinese social media sites. Of course, the differences don’t just stop there, but creating and executing a Chinese digital marketing and social media strategy also requires the use of technology applications in Chinese, such as booking engines, trip planners, content syndication and aggregation, to web design and usability.

With China’s leisure travel market growing at the same time as its online usership grows, it’s no surprise that a number of players are looking to capture the attention of travel consumers through social media. While companies can test if there URL is accessible in China, has created a unique methodology to help international travel organizations to connect with Chinese consumers, from tourist boards, hotels and hotel companies, cruise lines, and tour operators, by leveraging technology, digital marketing, social media, and electronic distribution, both on the consumer as well as the trade (travel agent) side.

All these questions were discussed at length at the recent China Travel Innovation Summit in Beijing in May of this year. Please see the article by China Travel Daily writer

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Maggie Rauch that is a great summary of the discussions at the Summit:

Travel Industry and the Social Media Puzzle

jens-thraenhart-chinatravelinnovationsummitbeijing_may2009.JPGWith China’s leisure travel market growing at the same time as its online usership grows, it’s no surprise that a number of players are looking to capture the attention of travel consumers through social media.

The social media tools that are gaining steam–social networking sites, bulletin board systems, microblogging–may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but their function for marketers is based on a tried and true principle, says Mark Inkster, chairman of “You might not believe what you read online, but if it comes from your friends you will trust it.”

From travel booking sites like eLong and Ctrip to airlines and hotel review sites, China’s travel industry players are experimenting with using social media to attract and engage travelers. But the best ways to leverage that are still unclear, and social media strategy–particularly involving online social networking–was a major topic of discussion and debate at the recent China Travel Innovation Summit in Beijing.

“The barriers are quite high for creating a standalone social network,” says William Bao Bean, partner, Softbank China and India Holdings, who moderated a panel on social media at the Beijing summit. “Everybody belongs to two or three and doesn’t want to add another.”

Lufthansa Airlines learned that lesson when it experimented with creating its own social network for the U.S. market,, which failed to generate the interest that Lufthansa had hoped for. Its social media tactics in China are now anchored by a partnership with, the so-called “Facebook of China.” Lufthansa uses its presence at to interact with young consumers at the same place where they interact with each other.

We felt that we would rather hook up with an existing social network provider,” says Martina Groenegres, Lufthansa’s chief China representative. “We chose Xiaonei because it is the biggest network for students, with 22 million active users. They’re generally well-educated, between the age of 18 and 25 and come from more than 3,000 universities.” Lufthansa’s 1,000-plus “friends” on Xiaonei share travel tips and have access to special deals and contests.

Jason Xie, eLong’s vice president of web and business development, is not so positive on the use of online social networking for travel industry players. Says Xie: “It’s hard to have success with SNS in tourism because: One, the stickiness is not enough–people travel maybe twice a year for tourism; two, travel itself doesn’t generate sufficient content; and three, travel information is destination-based, so I think that SNS is in conflict with travel information. I don’t care about the ten places my friend has been.”

Mark Inkster, chairman of Yiqilai, a travel review site that relies heavily on user-generated content, directly disagreed with Xie. “Because you only travel two or three times a year, you want to come back [to social media] and have fun,” he said. “Dream, plan, book, travel, share–these don’t happen in sequence. We are looking to engage people as they move among these phases of the travel experience.”

Despite his aversion to social networking, Xie said that eLong is working on an initiative with Xiaonei, though he would not elaborate on it. The only program he discussed was eLong’s Yiqifei (“Fly Together”) program, which allows travelers to connect online with people who will be on their flight. Ctrip tried and scrapped a similar program in the past, as have several companies like the now-defunct, but Xie seemed confident that Yiqifei would appeal to eLong’s customers.

Inkster, though bullish on the role that social media can play in travel, acknowledges that Yiqilai is still working out its strategy. Echoing Bean, he says, “People are parts of other networks. I’m not too confident in travel social networks, so we’re building a presence on other networks.” Yiqilai allows users on its own site to contribute content through wikis, BBSes and interactive games. Its “Where I’ve Been” map app, which lets users place virtual pins on cities they’ve visited, is available on four different social networking sites including Facebook and Xiaonei, and is a top-rated app on, Inkster says.

China presents an interesting set of challenges and opportunities to travel providers when it comes to social media. Its rapidly emerging leisure travel segment does relatively little online booking, but is otherwise very active online.

“Online social engagement is higher in China than in the United States and Europe,” says Jens Thraenhart, president of brand strategy firm Chameleon Strategies. Forty percent of China’s online users can be categorized as “creators” Thraenhart says, compared to 14 percent in the United States. Thraenhart considers 44 percent of China’s online population to be critics or commentators, compared to 16 percent of the United States’ Internet users.

Of course, spinning that engagement into air ticket purchases and hotel bookings is not an easy thing. Questions of measuring return on investment for social media projects were raised throughout the Beijing travel summit, and there were no easy answers.

Groenegres says Lufthansa is still waiting to see if its latest experiment pays off: “Will people actually exchange a lot of information and then finally buy something? Do they link with our own site,, and book something?”


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Comment by Nabeel
2009-06-03 10:26:51

How one could match their pace with today’s world by blocking such important websites?

Comment by Lauren
2009-06-03 14:48:41

Good reading Jens. I was waiting for you to mention Youkou from the first instant!

These on and off blocks are a good reminder to (newly arrived) massive brands to finesse the mainland with much greater flexibility and responsiveness than is required elsewhere. “Here today, gone tomorrow” is never truer.

2009-06-03 22:43:44

Since I have not worked much in Asia yet, I really enjoy reading your insights, Jens. It’s helpful to know that social media promotions in China require a completely different approach than something we would try in North America or Europe.

I’ll be interested to see if the Chinese equivalents to Facebook and Twitter grow faster over the long term. I know that if I was in the same situation, I would probably switch to a local service that doesn’t run the risk of being blocked.

Comment by AG
2009-06-04 15:01:38

It really reminds me prior to the blockade, Twitter was done due to overcapacity and various other things. At one point another digital marketer points out “your marketing plan involves twitter or other social media, what happens when it fails, such us glitches, system and of course the blockade.

I guess you need to balance the field and have it spread across, maintaining a consistency of communication or dialogue can be time consuming as it is a 24-7, you basically have to got someone dedicated to manage it.

For China case, on hotels side, it is difficult as most of this effort is deemed controlled by MARCOM (Marketing Communications, Communications or Public Relations. While some may have ace in the hole, some others are struggling on understanding social media strategy. True that we use them as vehicle to market or promote from time to time, but from my understanding has always been building a long term relationship…more like marriage, start massaging an awareness that is interactive and getting feedback, talking.

2nd aspect to it, PR in China have just started with press release that is generally released to media and still not convinced it is a press release that can be googled and found by a consumer.

It would be interesting to see how the tide will turn with the coming era that is probably unavoidable… the expression is “sink or swim” I believe?

Comment by Yesi Hill
2009-06-18 21:47:29

I dont think so its right decision because twitter has many users and it is one of the important web site 🙂

Comment by Paul Martin
2009-08-13 04:20:25

Actually, there is a taboo subject concerning Chinese outbound travel agencies. A lot of hotels marketers still think that they can reach affluent Chinese outbound travelers trough the network of Chinese outbound travel agencies, wich does not work. It may be difficult to say openly that the vast majority of State-owned Chinese travel agencies do not have the trust of Chinese travelers, but it is true. Let’s face the facts that only a direct communication with Chinese travelers is effective for international hotels and resorts. China Elite Focus has developed speficic marketing tools to target directly the most affluent and high spenders Chinese tourists. And do not forget that the rules of marketing in the Western countries generally do not apply in the highly complex Chinese environment.


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