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Facebook incognito in China

SHENZHEN, China – Facebook apps and websites have been blocked in China for years. The company has no offices in the country that supports its social networking services. And his attempts to open a branch were quickly eliminated.

But in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Facebook managed to quietly build a presence with the help of a local partner.

In the Futian district of Shenzhen, on the ninth floor of a concrete tower, there is an open sales plan that functions as a kind of corporate embassy for the social network. The 5,000 square foot space is managed by the local partner, called Meet Social, but it was designed with the Facebook guide. It functions as a center of expertise for the Silicon Valley giant – the only one of its kind in the world.

Its small size belies a crucial, and often overlooked, part of Facebook's business. The center – which seems to have come out of the Silicon Valley, with stencil paintings of chat boxes on the walls, a 'lighted heart icon and a pristine pool table – hosts potential customers and curious customers who want to advertise on Facebook reach 2, 3 billion users of the network, most of whom live outside China.

The desire of Chinese companies and other entities to get in touch with people internationally has turned China into one of Facebook's biggest sources of advertising revenue, even if the social network itself is not available in the country. Charles Shen, CEO of Meet Social, said his company has anticipated this $ 1 billion and $ 2 billion advertising sales on Facebook and Instagram. Every day, he added, the Meet Social software puts about 20,000 Chinese ads on Facebook.

In total, Facebook's revenue from Chinese advertisers reached about $ 5 billion in 2018, or about 10% of total sales, according to Pivotal Research Group. It would be enough to classify Facebook somewhere around the seventh Internet company listed in China.

The center of experience is also a strange testimony of the borders that China has traced through the Internet. With its "Great Firewall" of Internet filters that China used to block Facebook in 2009, the Chinese government has cut the digital abstractions of a global information network along geographic lines. This made it necessary to create a Facebook of the center, where the Chinese who have practically no experience with the social network can learn it and understand how to advertise it.

"The center of experience is to invite potential customers to see how Facebook advertising works," said Shen in an interview, adding that Facebook provided most of the materials in the office, while his company managed it.

Meet Social, an advertising agency, has partnered with Facebook to open the center in the spring. While many Chinese have not used Facebook, this does not prevent them from knowing it, Shen said. He said his company has a lot of incoming interest from customers, even if it does little publicity about itself.

"Most of the time, they come to us," Shen said. He said his company has created a system so that Chinese customers do not have to skip the Great Firewall to register an advertising account on Facebook. To do so, it uses a service provided by a state-controlled telecommunications company to legally bypass Internet filters.

Facebook employees come to the center to give talks, said Shen. Since many Chinese can not access facebook.com – even if they put it on their phones while they are in the center of experience, the site remains blocked – Meet Social provides videos on giant phone-shaped screens so people can have a better idea of ​​the Facebook ad offers. Examples of paid posts of Chinese brands are framed on the walls. It also offers training in marketing strategies and advertising on Facebook platforms.

Jeffery Hong, director of sales at a wig company, who refused to name, said that he initially thought about advertising on Facebook when he went to a show run by Meet Social in Shenzhen in 2015.

Previously Hong had mostly made overseas sales through Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce site. In the years that followed, she participated in training sessions and discussions with Facebook employees, including at the experience center, on a range of topics, including how to provide a good user experience and how to advertise.

Now Facebook ads attract buyers to their company's site, which accounts for around 10% of sales. While the company manages its Facebook site, it also allows Meet Social to take care of the page and solve problems and keep up with ad trends.

"We want to establish our brand, let more people know about us," said Hong. "It is quite effective to publish ads on Facebook, the site has a lot of traffic and many people in the West use Facebook".

Meet Social is one of seven official Facebook advertising retailers in China. Others play the same role. Often their presence is welcome because even for sophisticated technologists, doing business through the Great Firewall can be complicated.

Ben Liu, 35, an entrepreneur and a former employee of Alibaba, said the Facebook page he had created for his electric skateboard company, Maxfind, was blocked in 2017 by the social network. He suspects that his employees have accessed and exited the company's Facebook account from personal accounts and that all these activities have caused the suspicion of the company's page.

Now Liu uses a Facebook agent similar to Meet Social. Maxfind spends about $ 100 to $ 200 a day on Facebook and has considered bombarding more for a US advertising agency to spit out his brand building, he said.

Advertising on Facebook has also shown him how much a cultural gap can exist between China and the rest of the world.

One of Maxfind's Facebook ads disagreed with the copyright claims regarding the music used in the announcement, he said. And Liu said he was surprised when another of his ads on the social network was blocked by the company for being discriminatory. The announcement had used the term "fat".

SundayMonday Business on 02/10/2019

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