When Chengdu launched its Facebook page last year - the first Chinese city to build an official presence on the platform banned on the mainland - the provincial capital of Sichuan looked to Hong Kong for help.
Guru Online, a homegrown Hong Kong agency, convinced leaders of the inland city to prioritise social media in their global campaign to draw tourists and investors.
“We told Chengdu, Facebook is the most cost-effective platform because of its traffic and loyal users,” said Alan Yip, chief executive at Guru.
Chengdu was seeking a wider audience even though it was already pulling creative muscles promoting itself. Besides running two official Weibo accounts, the city also managed to invite the crew of Kung Fu Panda 2 - who had not seen a real panda - to visit the city and meet the black-and-white bears in 2008. This was later widely reported by Chinese media. The crew apparently enjoyed their stay so much that they incorporated into the Hollywood blockbuster the city's famous dandan noodles, mapo dofu dish and landmark Qingchen mountain.
But running a Facebook page would be a new challenge. The social media site, Twitter and other popular platforms used worldwide remain banned on mainland China. Very few people inside the city's information office had a Facebook account at the time.
In the months leading up to the city's Facebook launch, officials brainstormed with their Hong Kong partners to plan how to market the city to an international audience - one that knows Chengdu only as the "hometown of pandas".
Guru and Chengdu agreed on an ambitious plan that involved a regularly updated Facebook page and Twitter account, as well as an English-language website to serve the city's visitors and expatriate community.
Chengdu's information office even required its staff to create their own Facebook and Twitter accounts to hone their skills, according to a source familiar with the matter. The city purchased VPNs for employees to bypass the Great Firewall to access the sites.
Chengdu is among a growing number of Chinese cities vying to promote themselves in an increasingly flat world. The city hosted the Fortune Global Forum last month and allowed journalists and Fortune 500 business professionals access to Facebook and Twitter, but only momentarily.
Many cities are tapping into Hong Kong's social media expertise.
“Demand for globalisation is huge on the mainland,” Yip said. “ Be it second-tier cities seeking investors or state-owned companies undergoing transformations - that’s where we can help.”
Chengdu’s experiments with social media have been largely successful. One year after its creation, its Facebook page has more than 125,000 “likes”. Its Facebook app, Spicy Panda, a game introducing the city's local snacks, has been played more 16,000 times as of July.
The city made headlines with the much-anticipated opening of the New Century Global Centre, the world's largest free-standing building, a picture of which was posted on Facebook on July 5.
Several Chinese cities also placed advertisement on the world's largest social networking site, which is reported to be “secretly planning” to open a Beijing office to expand its advetising sales arm .
When Nanjing, host of the 2013 Asian Youth Games, grappled with the challenge of connecting with their young audience, Guru advised Jiangsu's capital to consider creative options with Facebook.
“Young people live online now,” said Zou Lei, spokesman of Nanjing’s Asian Youth Games next month. “We realised we had to adapt to their ways if we wanted to reach them.”
Nanjing ended up taking its Facebook followers on a virtual torch relay to 44 Asian countries. In the relay, mascot Yuanyuan would “arrive” in a certain country, wear local attire and greet its followers in the local language. A real torch will be passed in Nanjing in August.
The virtual relay, held from May 8 to June 20, attracted 156,600 participants from 80 Asian cities - mostly young sport enthusiasts, Zou said. The results greatly impressed the organisers.
Terrence Wong, managing director at Wan Chai-based Trinity Financial Communications, said he too had seen a rise in the number of mainland clients who turn to Facebook or weibo to reach a wider audience. But Wong said social media is hardly a cure-all.
“Social media campaigns work better for clients seeking to promote a certain brand, like clothes manufacturers and cellphone makers,” Wong said. "Financial firms are much more conservative."
But when mainland folks want to kick their campaigns up a notch to Facebook or Twitter, Yip said their best bet was the creative minds in Hong Kong, who are in a "unique" postition to help.
“This means great opportunities for Hong Kong,” Yip said.
To best serve his mainland clients aspiring for an international presence, Yip has made a point of hiring people who “understand both the east and the west", in which he believes Hong Kong excells.
"That's why we hire three kinds of people at Guru," Yip said. "HongKongers, mainland professionals educated in Hong Kong and expats born and raised overseas."