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Social Media Marketing in China: What Western Companies Need To Know

 

We recently published a primer for businesses thinking about expanding to China. There was one (big) thing we left out: how to handle social media. Obviously, this is important. Particularly in China, social rules everything.

Social media is essential to succeeding as a business in China. By and large, the country skipped the desktop era and went straight to mobile, basically bypassing the browser all together. When thinking about doing business in China, social media needs to be at the very foundation of your strategy.

WeChat

For the most part, people interact with the internet through apps, the most popular being WeChat. It has over 500 million monthly active users, making it the 7th biggest online community. Based on 2014 numbers, that’s 76% of internet users in China.

WeChat is more than just a social network. It provides a full-bodied internet experience, combining:

  • Messaging (voice, text, and group chat)
  • Video calling
  • Broadcast messaging (like Twitter)
  • A feed (like Facebook)
  • A nearby feature for hooking up with people close by
  • Online payments
  • Taxi ordering
  • Restaurant payments
  • A whole lot of fun, quirky stuff
  • A native browser ← this will come up later
  • And a lot more

As a result, much of Chinese internet consumption happens within the app. In fact, for many people, their first point of contact with a brand is through WeChat (or Weibo, the Twitter-like network) rather than their website. People do most of their web browsing through the WeChat browser, so you’d better have a mobile experience that works. As Du Haihang, one of the best Chinese designers, once said,

“If your website here sucks on WeChat, it’s meaningless to the marketplace.”

The Other Players

There are social networks other than WeChat, of course. Weibo is the next one brands should look at, as it can be very useful for marketing and for learning about your Chinese customers. It also has a young user base, which makes it valuable to companies.

Weibo is similar to Twitter, with 140 character limits, verified accounts, and hashtags. It also incorporates rich media (and does it better than Twitter), which is one of the cornerstones of the new internet and the best way to engage an audience. Although Weibo has fewer active users than other Chinese platforms at 212 million, it offers similar marketing opportunities as Twitter does.

The next one to look at is Tencent’s Qzone, with 659 million active users as of June 2015, and it’s still growing. It’s primarily a blogging site, so brands can use it in that way to get started. Blogging on a native Chinese platform rather than an American one can lend your brand a lot of credibility, and users will appreciate that you understand the Chinese internet culture.

However, the impact of these sites and the other Chinese social platforms all pale in comparison to WeChat. It’s a powerhouse, and any brand looking to sell in China should focus on WeChat first. If you find success there, then it’d be a good time to start exploring new options.

Social Commerce

Chinese consumers today rapidly adopt the latest mobile technologies, then adjust their behaviors to enjoy new shopping experiences on their phones. They evolve so quickly, in fact, that the changes can barely be benchmarked. At a Razorfish summit in China earlier this month, Jim Lerch, business development manager at the country’s leading internet TV platform, Youku Tudou, reported that most national brands and research firms are forgoing publishing consumer trend surveys. Apparently, by the time one comes out, the information is outdated.

The sheer size of the Chinese e-commerce market is pretty crazy. Last August Smart Car held a flash sale on WeChat that sold 388 cars in three minutes. This would never happen in the US.

Chinese customers are so much more likely to buy things online that any American company looking to expand into China should take that into account when developing a strategy.

In addition, the Chinese are more comfortable talking about their purchases on social media. 40% of online shoppers in China share their shopping experiences and reviews on WeChat and the other apps.

What this all boils down to is that social commerce is a key aspect of your Chinese social media presence. Considering the different mindset of the Chinese consumer, adjust your strategy accordingly. Social commerce is not the future. In China, it’s the present.

Conclusion

To sum up:

  1. Make sure you understand the cultural differences in China, and how they apply across the board, right down to the fundamentals of your business model.
  2. Know your target market. It’s crucial regardless of where you’re doing business, but infinitely more important when you’re expanding into new, foreign markets.
  3. Do your due diligence on which social networks will be most effective to you. Don’t try to do too many things at once.
  4. That said, WeChat is probably the best starting point. It’s pretty much a necessity to have an internet presence, and it’ll help you get used to the Chinese market at large.
  5. Social commerce is huge. Make sure to think about that in light of your entire business model.
  6. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Change may be uncomfortable and expensive, but not more so than expanding into a new market and failing.

Kendra Schaefer at Smashing Magazine has an excellent post examining how the Chinese approach user experience. We recommend reading it. But for now, we’ll leave you with this:

“Overall, doing social media right is crucial to succeeding in China, and to do social media right it’s crucial to understand your target audience.”

Bonus

Here is a great infographic that explores the current social media landscape in China:

Social Media Marketing in China

 

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