Philbert the Pig at Reading Terminal Market

Updated 2:20 p.m. 

If you were at Reading Terminal Market during the first week of February, you might have seen Chinese and Chinese-American people enthusiastically snapping pics of a pig. Not even a real pig — the subject of the paparazzi-like photo rush was the market mascot and Food Trust piggy bank known as Philbert.

Why the rush to take a selfie with a sculpture? Credit some savvy social media marketing by the city’s tourism promoters around the Year of the Pig.

After making it past many restrictions and through a long verification process, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitor’s Bureau has tapped into the mega Chinese mega social media platform known as WeChat.

Per Kyle Huff, social media specialist for the PHLCVB, Philbert was popular during the Chinese Lunar New Year because of an in-app scavenger hunt game he and his team created, capturing the fancy of travelers relying on WeChat for advice on where to go and what to see.

Philly is no stranger to Chinese tourism. In 2017, China was the city’s second largest source for overseas visitation, per the tourism agency. That year, 68,000 visitors traveled to Philadelphia from China.

Per Huff, Philadelphia is one of the first — if not the first — destinations to have a U.S.-based and owned, verified, official WeChat service account.

“We have a presence on other Chinese social media platforms, like Weibo and Toutiao,” said Jeffrey Yau, global tourism manager for the Asia-Pacific markets. But he believes neither will prove to be as integral to PHLCVB’s Chinese tourism initiatives as WeChat.

An all-encompassing platform

As of August 2018, there are 1.057 billion monthly active users on the Chinese messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent Holdings, and more than 50 percent of users spend at least 90 minutes or more on the app daily.

Known as a “super app,” WeChat incorporates a plethora of services in one, sold as “mini-programs” that take up less than 10MB of data. These include ride-hailing, banking, business and personal messaging, hotel bookings, local restaurant ratings, food delivery, games, shopping and even swiping for your next hot date.

Essentially, Huff explained, WeChat is leagues above Facebook and WhatsApp as far as it’s capacity to go beyond what traditional messaging apps offer.

Because WeChat has the most extensive coverage of any social media platform in China, its potential for marketing is huge. At the same time, it should be noted, the sprawl of the platform may be making it easier for the Chinese government to constrict freedom of expression.

The platform’s all-encompassing potency has been felt in New York City’s restaurant scene, where WeChat foodie influencers give the final verdict of what’s in or out to other Mandarin-speakers, immigrants and tourists.

Some Philadelphia organizations with WeChat accounts include Metro Chinese Weekly, Five Spice Philly and the Philadelphia Development Chinatown Corporation.

Making Philly more than a day stop

It took nearly three months for the PHLCVB to obtain an official WeChat account, but the lengthy process was worth it, per social media specialist Huff.

Once verified, an account is allowed to post up to once a week, and four times per month. Since its December 2018 launch, the Philly tourism account has pushed out various info designed for a Chinese audience.

So far, the PHLCVB has shared an overview of Philly’s various neighborhoods, delving into the unique personality of each one; an extensive, in-depth profile of Chinatown that highlighted the history and culture of the district; and a rundown of all of the popular celebrations in the city (Lunar New Year included).

In addition to Year of the Pig Scavenger Hunt, which connected Chinese visitors already in the city with pig-themed artifacts and pieces of art (“Hidden pigs,” Yau called them), WeChat’s platform allowed the PHLCVB to publish its own in-app game.

Similar to Bubble Pop, the game created by Huff and his colleague’s challenges users to align three or more Philly-centric tiles to clear a board in 40 seconds. Behind that board? A Philadelphia-themed Chinese New Year greeting. Players were entered to win a PHLCVB notebook, so that, per Huff, they could have “a little piece of the city in their possession.”

Though the game only attracted about 92 participants, Huff considered it to be a success because it was good exposure.

When possible, Huff explained, his team tries to capitalize on timely, relevant world events. Most recently, an article that profiled Philadelphia’s film history was shared at a specific time to coincide with the airing of Hollywood’s Academy Awards.

The primary goal of the PHLCVB’s WeChat marketing efforts? To inspire independent, overseas visitors from China to include Philadelphia as an overnight destination — not as a brief day stop on the way to DC or NYC, or a city that was packaged in group travel accommodations.

“For the most part, WeChat is the bread and butter of the social media landscape in China,” Yau said, “and we’re excited to continue fostering a relationship with our potential Chinese visitors.”