San Gabriel, California, a city of 40,000 residents northeast of Los Angeles, has official Facebook and Twitter accounts. But city officials say that wasn’t enough of a social media presence -- nor necessarily the most effective and wide-reaching channel for communicating city information.
The reason: More than 60 percent of San Gabriel’s population identify as Asian and many speak Chinese -- some exclusively. So earlier this summer, San Gabriel’s city hall added an official account on Weibo, one of the most popular social networks in mainland China.
Why Weibo? “New technologies are all about reaching your audience when and where they are already spending their time,” Mayor Jason Pu told International Business Times. Pu added that the city's Weibo posts are made “linguistically appropriate and culturally sensitive to the Chinese community.”
The situation shows how new arrivals to the U.S. are now bringing not only attachments to traditional cultural fare such as music, food and entertainment, but also to social media. It’s an issue that local and state governments, as well as private brand marketers, will need to address in their efforts to reach out to new residents and potential customers.
Weibo is often called the “Chinese Twitter” -- but looks more like a mesh between social media site Facebook and microblogging site Twitter. Launched in 2009, Weibo now boasts about 212 million monthly active users, the vast majority of whom are in China.
While that figure pales in comparison with Facebook’s 1.49 billion monthly active users -- a figure slightly higher than China's population of 1.4 billion -- Weibo has gained attention as a Chinese-focused social network, sitting next to popular messaging platform WeChat. In May, Apple CEO Tim Cook joined Weibo to share the company’s environmental initiatives in the Asian country, which is Apple's second-largest market.
Local governments and other U.S. officials -- including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the U.S. National Tourism Office -- are tapping Weibo as a way to better connect with Chinese-speaking constituents.
“Governments want to give information. They also want to listen,” said Betsy Page Sigman, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “I think the goal [with Weibo] is to get more people engaged. It’s one way to reach out initially. Like the first pamphlet they would hand out that come in a certain languages.”
'More Trusting Of Police'
San Gabriel isn’t the first government entity in the U.S. to launch a verified Weibo account. Its neighboring city, Alhambra, California, created one for its police department in 2013. Alhambra’s mayor also has a Weibo profile.
Since that launch, Alhambra's police department has seen a “huge increase” in phone calls from Chinese speakers. “Residents are more trusting of police, more willing to use police services and more understanding of the rules and regulations,” Walter Yu, a city worker who helps run the Weibo account, told the Pasadena Star-News.
Alhambra's success with the site helped inspire San Gabriel’s city staff to create a Weibo account. Yu assisted with the development and has served as a translator. But the content on the page is overseen by Lauren Gold, San Gabriel’s public information officer. Her official, full-time position was added as part of Mayor Pu's efforts to improve communications.
The city staff had identified a lack of engagement with the community in certain areas. For example, San Gabriel has faced a rash of illegal trash dumping even though the city sponsors free garbage pickup. But that requires residents to not only know about the service but call and request it. “It’s important for us to communicate with our entire community, not just the portion that’s English-speaking. We want to reach our residents where they feel more comfortable and educate on city services,” Gold said.
— City of San Gabriel (@SanGabrielCity) August 19, 2015
What other kinds of information does the city put on Weibo? Gold said it will host most of the same information the city already publicizes on Facebook and Twitter, such as community news and events. While San Gabriel's police department does not have its own account, Gold said she could see publicizing alerts on its behalf. The Weibo account may also feature posts that have been identified as a need by the Chinese community.
'First Step Of Engagement'
While Facebook and Twitter both allow for Chinese characters -- and constituents can simply translate English posts through online services like Google Chrome -- the adoption of Weibo provides San Gabriel with a social network with which many of its new residents are already comfortable. “There’s always a danger of isolation, but this can get people through the first step of engagement in the government. That allows [the city] to get more attention and get more information out of the people,” said Georgetown’s Sigman, who teaches on social media and e-commerce.
Right now, San Gabriel's Facebook and Twitter accounts reach fewer than 3,000 of the city's residents -- about 80 percent of whom are adults. As of Friday, San Gabriel’s Weibo page, which has been live since May, had more than 200 followers -- with a handful of them based in China, from where San Gabriel hopes to draw tourists. In addition, Weibo claims that more than 400,000 of its users are in California, the Los Angeles Times reports, and the company has established an office in Northern California.
Other locales also hope to attract Chinese tourists via Weibo. That's partly why more than 200 foreign politicians, as well as tourism offices across the globe, have accounts on the site, Weibo CEO Gaofei Wang said earlier this month at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia.
But for San Gabriel Mayor Pu the addition of a new social network mainly supports his city’s nearby outreach. “I believe that any time you can increase communication, and then increase transparency and accountability between city governments and the public at large, you’re doing something right, you’re doing something positive," he said.
San Gabriel is the first full city government in the U.S. to launch a Weibo account, the company confirmed to IBTimes. Pu said he hopes the city will inspire more municipalities to create Weibo pages.
“The benefit depends on the percentage of the population that are Chinese-speaking," Georgetown's Sigman said. "We’ll have to see what comes out of San Gabriel. What problems may arise and what the benefits are.”