Joan Liu gave an inside look into Johns Hopkins Medicine’s social media strategy in China

The urgent thing we wanted to do was to increase our outreach efforts for this market. Joan Liu
In May 2018, Digital Marketing Specialist Joan Liu joined Johns Hopkins Medicine International to build their social presence in China from scratch.

According to Joan, China is crucially different from other markets because none of their existing social channels can access the market — Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked.

“The urgent thing we wanted to do was to increase our outreach efforts for this market,” she said. In the year since she began, they launched their first social media channel, Weibo, in November 2018. Then they launched WeChat in May of this year.

To get their Chinese strategy off the ground, Joan collaborated with her social media colleagues — to extend existing successes and best practices to the global expansion.

This collaboration was important for initial brainstorming and as a way to gather feedback as the Chinese plan was developed. It also ensured there was buy-in from the larger group before the plan moved forward.

“That was really important and also really helpful for this effort because they provided best practices and documents that they use in English channels,” said Joan.

According to Joan, the most important component of their Chinese social media strategy is content customization.

“We had to customize what we already had on our English channels — which really includes rewriting a lot of it because our Chinese audiences are different from our domestic audience,” she said. “They are different in terms of culture, health concerns, level of education, content preferences, etc.”

They are different in terms of culture, health concerns, level of education, content preferences, etc. Joan Liu
For example, back in March, Johns Hopkins had breaking news about a successful kidney transplant for a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) positive recipient from an HIV positive donor. This was the first kidney transplant of its kind in the U.S. And, for that news story, Joan had to take a different approach to promote this to the China market.

“In China, HIV is a controversial topic and the level of knowledge is lower than the U.S. audience,” she said. “We had to rewrite a lot of the content about HIV itself to focus on what it is, how it gets transmitted to others, and how physicians protect themselves in the surgery, to complement promoting the news itself.”

Another tactic they used to promote this story was to engage their physicians to answer inquiries they received from their social channels in China, which vastly extended the lifespan of the content in the platforms.

In total, they got 130-million impressions for that news story, and Joan said it became something of a viral topic.

As part of their content customization efforts, they also work to produce specific, original content exclusively for this market.

“In China, Johns Hopkins has more brand awareness as a university than a medical institution or hospital,” she said. “So one of our strategies is to leverage that brand awareness.”

In China, Johns Hopkins has more brand awareness as a university than a medical institution or hospital. Joan Liu
But the challenge was to create this educational content within the team. Recently, they looked to Johns Hopkins’ traditional White Coat Ceremony — which signifies the progress the students have made to step into this medical field — for inspiration.

“At the time, our domestic marketing team didn’t have a plan to aggressively promote the event, but for us, it’s a topic that attracted a lot of interest,” she said. “We went to that event and essentially live-tweeted it, taking into consideration the time difference. We interviewed our students and shot a lot of videos that we could share out on our channels.”

They also took the opportunity to do some pre-promotion. “We invited some of our ambassadors, some of whom are residents, medical students, or physicians, to share their experiences from their White Coat Ceremony ahead of the event,” said Joan.

Joan remarked that the competitive landscape in China also played a role in their content strategy.

“When we first entered the Chinese market, we didn’t have a lot of competitors from the U.S., but those local to China were strong, especially medical media outlets,” she said.

Instead of creating content similar to our competitors, we chose to be an authoritative resource for original content. Joan Liu
“Instead of creating content similar to our competitors, we chose to be an authoritative resource for original content. As a medical center combing education, research, and clinical care, we are able to provide an abundance of diversified first-hand content for those local players to pick up and reuse from their perspectives.”

They also recruited more than 200 “key opinion leaders” to distribute the content.

That network includes local accounts from media outlets, students, patient communities, and heavily-followed physicians. They post a lot of Johns Hopkins’ medical research news, and whenever these accounts repost their content, Johns Hopkins’ Weibo and WeChat accounts gain followers. “Through them, we’re able to amplify our voice.”

Joan emphasized that this strategy is a work in progress, because they started from zero. And because of paid advertising restrictions for healthcare in China, everything has to come organically.

“So, by using these key opinion leaders to distribute content, we’re able to gain followers in this market,” she said.

Another factor in their organic success has been making sure they have quality content.

You have to make sure you provide something different, something that they are not able to get access to from other channels. Joan Liu
“We have a lot of health and wellness-related content that we use in our English channels which is designed to be consumer-friendly,” said Joan. “But it really doesn’t work well for our audience in China, so we realized we needed to customize this content if we were to use it for the China market.”

For them, focusing on their medical research seemed like a perfect fit and differentiated their brand from local competitors.

Joan talked about the importance of making sure you’re providing something that is appreciated by your audience. “You have to make sure you provide something different, something that they are not able to get access to from other channels,” she said.

According to Joan, as they continue to develop their strategy, they have to be willing to make mistakes.

“We don’t have a lot of benchmarks to reference,” she said. “Most of the benchmarking we do tells us what isn’t going to work — as opposed to what works well. We saw a lot of our competitors translating their content and reusing it directly and the engagement rates and follower rates are low.”

She said their strategy in China is still all about learning by doing, and she said they’ve learned it’s important to follow your audience and be willing to make mistakes.

But, so far, Joan is proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.

They launched Weibo last November and currently have 15,000 followers, and Joan said those numbers are still growing by 50 percent MoM over the last few months.

There are a lot of restrictions, but it doesn't mean it's impossible. Joan Liu
“We have also been ranked number one among our competitors regarding post frequency and audience engagement,” she said. “So, we’d say we’ve succeeded on Weibo to an extent.”

For WeChat, which they launched just three months ago, she said there’s still a long way for them to go. “But the beginning is always the most difficult part,” she said.

Moving forward, they’re hoping to conquer their big challenge of paid advertising.

“There are a lot of restrictions, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Joan said. “We are constantly working with the platform to find a way to do paid advertising to target our audience.” They’re also working with some local media outlets to post things through their own accounts to generate attention.

When it comes to content development for WeChat, Joan said it’s completely different from Weibo.

It is hard to understand how to best engage without a good knowledge about the culture, not to mention responding in an appropriate and responsive way. Joan Liu
“The audience preference for content is really different,” she said. “For example, hospitals focus a lot of energy on patient stories and, most of the time, on English social channels those videos are three to four minutes long. But in China, these short stories never satisfy our audience. They are really particular and want a lot of information, specifically on WeChat. Some patient stories end up being more than 30 minutes long or taking 30 minutes to read.”

She said it’s critical for them to have the capability to produce customized content for this channel, because translating just doesn’t work.

“As a service account at WeChat we also have a lot of limitations, like only being able to post four times a month,” she said. “It causes a lot of challenges, particularly when you’re trying to respond to something in real time.”

For anyone looking to break into the Chinese market on social media, Joan emphasized the importance of knowing your audience.

“The most important thing would be to follow your audience instead of following your competitors, especially when there aren’t many best practices in the market yet,” said Joan.

She also emphasized the cultural difference in the market, and the importance of having the right people for the job. “This is not just about the language. The Chinese audiences live in different environments, share different lifestyles, and are interested in different topics. It is hard to understand how to best engage without a good knowledge about the culture, not to mention responding in an appropriate and responsive way.”

Joan Liu has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2018. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.