Dramatization of Mediated Brand Communication: Exploring Storytelling Strategies of Sponsored Content on WeChat Public Accounts (WPAs)


With the Social Internet of Things (SIoT), brand communication has turned observably social worldwide. WeChat, one of the leading social networks in China, had over 1.15 billion monthly active users as of Q2 2019 (Statista, 2020). Internet celebrities and KOLs produce contents on their WeChat Public Accounts (WPAs) (equivalent to Facebook Pages), attracting a great amount of followers and sponsors. However, studies on sponsored content are largely based on Western media platforms (Voorveld et al. 2018; Smith, 2017). As China has become the world’s largest emerging market,understanding how Chinese consumers process online information is indispensable for international brand communicators.

The sponsored content on WPAs has created a phenomenal revolution in the field of mediated communication. Instead of indicating “paid” or “sponsored” in the article, Chinese WPA authors apply “plot twist” – a literary technique that introduces a radical direction change or unexpected outcome of the story – to disclose the sponsorship: The narrative starts with an ordinary or irrelevant story; as the story towards the end, the sponsorship suddenly emerges.

This “seamless transition” exhibits playfulness while often generates controversy among readers: Some praise its innovativeness, while some feel betrayed. Although this phenomenon has gone viral among over one billion WeChat users, the types of disclosing strategies, the rationales behind the strategies and their effectiveness still lack attention from academia.

This study features a genre and content analysis of 200 recent pieces of sponsored content from 12 most popular WPAs, which wield more influence than other accounts. Referencing to Frow’s (2015) genre theory, we identified three strategies of sponsorship disclosure:

  • Problem-solution narrative: the sponsored product/service is disclosed as a solution for a problem;
  • Analogy narrative: the sponsored product/service and the story character or plot share common characteristics (e.g. the article begins with a story about a famous actor, such as Brad Pitt, emphasizing the masculinity, then ends with a sportscar)
  • Associative narrative: the sponsored product/service and the story are logically associated but not necessarily related, creating a sense of surprise and playfulness (e.g. the article begins with wedding photography tips, but ends with a jewelry brand – conveying the messages that great photos cannot be without the inclusion of those jewelry)

Elaborated analyses with examples are provided. Furthermore, the characteristics of WPAs (e.g. the KOL’s expertise, the number of followers), the characteristics of sponsors (e.g. brand type, product type), and readers' responses  (e.g. the number of reads, attitude towards the content) are coded, aiming to understand the relationship between different strategies and their effectiveness by statistical analyses.

The study represents the first investigation into the storytelling strategies of WeChat’s sponsored article, emphasizing the importance of information cues and storytelling, contributing to the research stream of the genres of branded content strategies and their effectiveness, providing valuable insights to both communication researchers and brand communicators.