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Facebook in December honored Air China for best use of the social network for international marketing by a company in Greater China. That’s not surprising, since the state-owned carrier has aggressively used the service to offer everything from links to its booking engine, to giveaways of models of the new Boeing 747-8 it flies between Beijing and New York, to a recipe for Rolling Donkey, a popular red bean-and-rice snack. The surprise is that the airline has embraced Facebook even though it’s been banned on the mainland since 2009.

Air China isn’t alone in using the service beyond China’s borders; state-owned rivals China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, along with privately owned Hainan Airlines, also use Facebook to connect with international passengers. Chinese airlines, says Thomas Crampton, global managing director of Ogilvy & Mather’s [email protected] team, “are clearly looking to build their connections with people outside of China.”

Despite having its service blocked by China’s government, Facebook is finding ways to profit from Chinese businesses. “We’ve got 1.3 billion people on Facebook, and it turns out that marketing to those people from China works really well,” Facebook Vice President Vaughan Smith told a mobile Internet conference in Beijing last year.

More such collaboration may be ahead. Facebook, which until now has worked with Chinese companies mostly through its Hong Kong office, in 2014 signed a three-year lease for office space in Beijing’s central business district. And last fall, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who’s learning Mandarin, joined the board of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, a prominent business school in Beijing.

Air China didn’t respond to multiple e-mails and calls seeking comment for this story. Facebook said it had nothing to add to previous statements.

Social media has become a key tool for Chinese airlines to woo international travelers. About 60 percent of fliers used foreign carriers for their trips to and from China in 2013, Ron Kent, Boeing’s managing director for marketing in Northeast Asia, said at a conference last year. China’s carriers want social sites to help boost their share of that prized group. Air China has more than 153,000 Facebook followers and has had more than 200,000 interactions with users since it opened its page in June 2013, it said in a Dec. 15 statement. The airline has customized Facebook pages for key markets such as North America and Germany. “Using social media is very cost-effective, and airlines can easily reach customers,” Jefferies analyst Boyong Liu said in an e-mail.

Air China also is using Facebook for targeted advertising. In 2012 guests at popular Asian restaurants in Sweden were encouraged to “check in” with the carrier on Facebook as they sat down to eat, making them eligible to win plane tickets to Asia. For the Lunar New Year holiday in February it’s mounting a campaign on the service aimed at Hong Kong-based consumers who want to spend the holiday on the mainland.

Chinese carriers already are big users of social media domestically. China Southern says it has 2.3 million followers on the local Twitter-like Weibo service and 3.5 million fans on Tencent Holdings’s WeChat service. Passengers on the mainland can book air tickets via WeChat, where carriers sometimes offer discounts for transactions made online. Says Ogilvy’s Crampton: “In China, you never have a conversation whether a company needs to be involved in social media; it’s always how they need to be involved.”

The bottom line: Air China has logged more than 200,000 customer contacts on its Facebook pages, boosting marketing efforts.

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