Utilizing social networks for marketing purposes is a powerful and cost effective way to connect with consumers. A comprehensive knowledge of the country, the digital market and the behavior of Chinese internet users are all key elements required to succeed in China.

Here are ten things you need to know about social media in China

Social networks have become vital to any marketing campaign conducted in China

The Chinese social media landscape is arguably the most dynamic, unique and exciting one in the world. Social media in China has exploded particularly with the rise of Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter) and We Chat. Social media has thus become a key target for marketers with the highest internet penetration rate (45%) in the world. There are an astonishing 634 million internet users or ‘netizens’. With increasing numbers of consumers moving into the digital landscape the role of social networks will only become more important to your marketing strategy in China (see some of the best strategies here).

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The social networking landscape is unique

Social networking has evolved differently in the middle kingdom than in western societies. Forget the classic western sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Youtube. In China the market is dominated by local, Chinese social media outlets. The established networks that we’ve come to know in the west have not been able to successfully expand here due to strict state censorship. Being protected by this powerful barrier and without the influence of large, western social media firms many localized networks have been specifically developed for the Chinese market, meeting the desire people have to connect with each other in a unique way.

Different social networks means different approaches, strategies and behaviors that you will have to learn before doing anything. The key is to be adaptable and flexible. Previous strategies do not necessarily work on these Chinese style networks.  An in-depth understanding of the different social networks is the key to thriving in the Chinese market.

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What are the key social media platforms?

Currently these are the most dominant social networking sites but remember this may well change in such a fast paced market.

Weibo : Weibo is a micro-blogging platform which works in essentially the same way as the American ‘Twitter’. Users can exchange any type of content with their friends. With 500 million registered accounts it is the key social network to be engaging with if you are attempting to enter the Chinese market. Weibo is the place to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s popular in China. It’s a much more ‘open’ social network than Wechat and is therefore the most effective for marketers.

Wechat : Wechat is Tencent’s flagship social network. It started as a simple app for the smartphone whose main appeal was to send short vocal messages before morphing into a fully fledged social networking platform. It has over 500 million registered users and is on the rise, locally and internationally (particularly in Asia).

It is currently considerably harder to market effectively on Wechat because it is a closed social network. Users can only see content, posts and likes posted by people they have added as friends. So far there is one way to bypass this obstacle, have people add and subscribe to your brand account using QR codes to spread news about the brand. Once customers are following your account you can promote special discounts or content exclusively for subscribers.

Wechat users can also post ‘moments’ (akin to a status update on facebook) with pictures and comments being shared. The Chinese are especially influenced by others in their social network. Users with many friends online can be influenced financially to promote a certain product by sharing content on their Wechat posts. This is effective as the specific demographic of the ‘friendship circle’ can be directly targeted.

Brands cannot track users accounts but they can assess the media performance of their own, opinion leaders, celebrities and competitors’ accounts.

Sam Fleming writes on ‘Ad Age’ that ‘this leads to informed media buying and content strategy decisions’.

Baidu Tieba : This is part of the Chinese search engine ‘Baidu’ which prevails over 70% of it’s own market. Tieba is a forum for topics searchable by subject categories. Content becomes more important the more it gains visibility based on the ranking of the Tieba community. For a brand, the objective here is to establish a large enough following who are ranking their content highly so that it appears at the top of the Tieba community page.

Qzone : A social networking website created by Tencent in 2005. It is largely an instant messaging platform but users can join groups to discuss certain topics.

Youku : This is the Chinese version of ‘Youtube’, it allows users to upload multimedia content. Users can comment on content giving it a rating and review. There is often an extensive number of adverts shown before any video can be viewed.

There is a larger, more active user base in China

The number of people using social networking in China is significantly more than in the US with an estimated 300 million Chinese users. This number of users is equivalent to the total populations of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK all combined. The figures are staggering.

Chinese consumers are incredibly active and subscribe to several different chinese networks.

According to the China post, ‘Chinese ‘netizens’ spend about 40% of their 25 hours/week online on social networks’.

More time on social networks results in more exposure to content and produces a higher number of interactions. This in turn leads to a social networking landscape that is evolving and changing more quickly. It is vital to have your finger on the pulse to react to and capitalize upon new emerging trends.

The Chinese consumer often engages with social media ‘on the move’

An increasing number of users access social media on their mobile phones rather than via their PC or laptop, this trend is showing no signs of stopping.  This greatly facilitates online interactions as the user can conduct their daily activities and engage with their social network simultaneously. It incorporates and brings social networking to the forefront of the users day to day experience, people can constantly express themselves and update their social media to more accurately reflect their life moment by moment. In WeChat as opposed to a ‘status update’ users post these ‘moments’.

The huge popularity of social networking reflects a lack of trust in traditional media sources

The Chinese government has an increasingly long list of “sensitive” topics that are not supposed to be discussed. People use social networks more to find his type of information they need despite the censorship which is applied.

The key is trust. The Chinese are often distrustful of messages received via traditional state media such as TV, press or radio. They are more influenced by their families, friends and by key opinion leaders (KOL’s) online. Word of mouth is arguably the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal in China. An intelligent, comprehensive digital campaign to facilitate the spread of this is key.

The Importance of Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s) in Chinese social media

These are the influential opinion leaders who shape views and opinions, people see them as experts on particular subjects. These type of celebrities or on-line personalities are especially popular in China. They have successfully gathered large communities of people around them. Different demographics can be targeted on social media via these key opinion leaders.

The benefit of this trend is that a ‘KOL’ can be recruited by your company and become instrumental in spreading a positive message about your brand. In this way you can benefit from the KOL’s large online community and reach thousands or even millions of potential consumers in one go.

The digital solution is extremely effective in China, even more so than in western countries.

E-commerce reviews and consumer’s opinions are vital

With the growth of e-commerce in China has come an explosion of product reviews, often more detailed and strongly valued than reviews found in the west. This is a rich source of user generated content. The Chinese largely look to reviews and are especially influenced by the views and opinions of those within their social circle. With social networks giving users the opportunity to share this information either positive, or negative content can be disseminated extraordinarily quickly amongst social groups.

It is vital to manage your e-reputation and promote positive content within social networks. Tracking this type of user content is vital for brands as a source of consumer intelligence as well as an influential media source.

Social Media is potentially becoming more fragmented and localized

It is not just about the current, most dominant social networks. New forms of expression continue to emerge in this fast paced, ever changing market. With increasing numbers of people from all different ages and backgrounds using social media there is likely to be a demand for ‘new’ spaces where users can communicate and share content in a way which sets itself apart from the ‘mainstream’.

Two examples are ‘Nice’ (a photo app similar to Instagram) and ‘Meipai’ (a video app similar to Vine). Brands such as Ray Ban and Bulgari have begun to launch campaigns on these platforms. Neither has yet gained dominance but it is expected that the fragmentation of the networking landscape through such types ‘alternative’ networks will continue.

Brands should remain vigilant to find the right way to engage their audience and using specialist, local agencies who know the market is key.

It is vital that you understand the differences and how you must tailor and adapt your digital marketing strategy in China to succeed

With over 300 million users of social networks in China, customer retention is a challenge. People respect the opinions of their social circles, so companies need to create intelligent strategies and new advertising models. Only in this way will a brand manage to create a strong image, address the concerns of its customers and avoid damaging, negative reviews.

Lacking the accurate and reliable measurement systems makes it difficult to analyze the results of one’s business strategies, especially given the size of the communities involved. You will need to have staff who can reliably measure the results of a digital campaign and know the contemporary Chinese market intimately.

We are experts in Chinese social media strategies and can help you design your digital marketing strategy in China. If you have a project in mind feel free to contact us.

Further reading :

  1. More on e-reputation in China
  2. KOL in China
  3. Digital marketing in China is key for promoting your brand