Brand new business spreads the word

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am

Liang Sai, a 27-year-old owner of or the 'water army network', which specialises in paying internet users to raise brand awareness on products ranging from websites to movies, talks about the power of BBS marketing and why he is very selective about clients.

Can you describe your clients and how your business works?

We have many clients, ranging from newly established websites to skin-care products and newly released movies. The most common way is to publish articles directly or indirectly about the product, and by the time you finished reading the article we hope you have remembered the product. For example, we have people discuss a movie after its release, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a positive comment. As long as people are talking about it, it helps other internet users become aware of it. Another example: we'll introduce a website, but instead of talking about the website, we will post a funny article with a picture. You will see the name of the website and, after seeing several such pictures, you will remember the website. We have more than 50,000 registered users, the 'water army', among whom 10,000 are very active. It's very common for each user to have dozens of identities. They are a very powerful force. But our management team is very small, only three people: one in charge of technical stuff such as website construction, one doing marketing and sales, and the other in charge of quality control.

How do you carry out an assignment from clients?

We first evaluate the client and the job. Some jobs we will not take. To those we accept, we will assign a certain level of 'water soldiers'. We have a system that informs soldiers that an assignment is waiting once they log on, and they will see a description and the job assignment as well as the payment for completing the task, such as 100 postings published on different forums. When a posting is published, the soldier needs to send the link of his posting, describe it, and we will evaluate its effect. If the client is, for example, a property developer and the soldier's posting is in a forum about pets, we would consider it zero effect and he would not get paid. We calculate the contributions of each soldier and send his payment to his account.

Why are there different levels of soldiers?

Some entry-level soldiers are capable of doing only a few things such as supporting an existing posting, while some can publish well-written articles and select proper pictures to accompany the posting. Each type of posting is also paid differently. The more assignments you have completed, the more senior you are. Senior soldiers are also involved in evaluating others' work.

What's your career background?

I majored in software engineering at college and spent two years writing programs after graduation. I've always been interested in writing code and building websites and I built several in my spare time. Last year I decided to have my own business. I watched a television programme criticising people hired to say nasty things about a product online and was inspired. Although people generally hold critical views about 'bbs marketing', I think online bulletins are good platforms for companies to do less controversial forms of marketing, such as releasing information about their product. That's how I started the website last year.

There are some agencies who would run smear campaigns, what's your company's position?

I have repeatedly told my staff we do not get involved with controversial companies or products. We have a very strict policy in selecting our clients. For example, if someone comes to us and wants us to publicise his posting that complains about a bad product, we won't do it. If a client wants us to spread postings bad-mouthing his competitor, we won't do that, either. We do not have the power to judge or the staff to verify whether his claims are true or not, and we do not want to be part of a false accusation.

How are the water soldiers paid?

Each internet user will get hundreds of yuan for publishing a main article - we call him the 'owner' of the posting. Those who reply to or join the discussion or show their support will get dozens of cents. We do not have a strict policy that you may only say good stuff about the client's product. We consider it done as long as you talk about the product. I think the most senior one will get paid around 2,000 yuan (HK$2,320) a month. We always tell the soldier to consider the assignment as fun and nothing but a game. We try never to mislead them into believing they can make a living this way. It will be fun if you have a very idle office job and you can publish some postings while surfing the internet and make some pocket money at the same time. We strongly oppose anybody doing it to make a living.

It is not a game for you, right?

Of course, for me it's a career. The number of internet users in China is growing fast. You can't underestimate their influence.

How is business?

I can't give you very specific revenue numbers because it's a business secret. But revenue is less than 100,000 yuan a month.

How long does it take to complete an assignment?

It could take less than an hour or as long as three days to complete a job, depending on requirements.