Five Unique Features of the Digital Environment in China.

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The digital landscape is a unique proposition for any brand or company looking to expand into China. Savvy marketers are getting to grips with what differentiates China from the rest of the world and how to tailor and adapt their practices in order to be successful in the orient.

The whole digital eco-system developed under a unique set of conditions due to state regulation and control. The ‘Great Firewall’ effectively cut China’s online sector off from the rest of the world and up until relatively recently few people were that interested..

This however has all changed with a burgeoning economy, a huge boom in Chinese middle class consumers and a digitally dominated marketplace now making a strong digital presence in China an absolute necessity. With a population of 1.3 billion and a potential middle class market of 400 million (that is digitally orientated) this is the most lucrative place to build your brand or company right now.

Before you embark on a Chinese project here are five unique features of the digital eco-system that are important to understand:

  1. Different platforms

In China domestic platforms dominate, they are the most effective because they are themselves Chinese and understand the audience and market better than any western platform. The big names we come to expect such as Amazon, Google, Youtube or Facebook have all either been blocked or had very little success.

The key is then to understand these different platforms and how you can ultilize them to most effectively carry your message.

WeChat is the largest network in China with 690 million active users, it is akin to a combination of Whatsapp, Snap Chat and Facebook. It has grown to become the most integrated platform (arguably in the world) with a diverse array of services from instant message, voice recording, financial services, an e-wallet, a taxi ordering application, gaming, group chat and the most viewed feed for ‘news’ in China. It is sometimes refered to as the ‘WeChat Times’.

Weibo literally translates as ‘Micro Blog’ and has 220 million active users. It is akin to Twitter and good for short links and images. Many fashion, technology and football brands have active accounts on Weibo as it allows one to communicate with their Chinese audience. Weibo is a very ‘open’ social network with users seeing posts from anyone.

QQ is the largest forum in China, ‘Baidu’ the largest search engine and ‘Youku’ the largest video streaming platform.

It is important to note that these are not just ‘copy cat platforms’ but that they have over time morphed into their own unique entities that need to be studied and understood.

  1. E-reputation is built in forums

Forums in the west are old news but in China they still dominate. The average netzien before purchasing will go onto forums and look into the reputation of brands and companies. Perhaps the more collectivist ideal of society influences this, the Chinese typically really care about what others think.

This can be positive if you build positive sentiment but very damaging if negative comments are being posted about you, this you need to monitor and control constantly. The key is starting threads and conversations which link to what your brand offers, here you can promote positive discussion and content that ties in with what you offer.

  1. Digital has gone ‘mobile’ in China

Mobile reigns supreme in China, the smartphone revolution has really taken hold with 90% of those connected online also accessing sites via their mobile. This is aided by the dominance of WeChat which is primarily a mobile app. It also means all marketing content needs to be optimized for mobile, links will often be opened within WeChat so it will also need to be compatible for this.

There are many reasons China leaped straight into mobile, it is testament to the countries rapid growth, mass market and affordable smartphones (such as Xiao Me) and the fast paced nature of urban society, particularly in the cosmopolitan urban centres on the east coast.

This presents a huge opportunity for those willing to invest in mobile friendly content.

  1. The KOL has huge influence (Key Opinion Leader)

A KOL or ‘Key Opinion Leader’ is an online influencer who has already built up a substantial following for a particular area of interest. They are often getting involved with branding efforts by promoting content to their huge number of followers. You can find KOL’s associated with what you offer and work with them to grow your popularity in China.

This is unique to China that influencers remain particularly popular with users greatly influenced by their choices and opinions than we are by celebrity’s opinions in the west. It is important to understand who the influencers are on social media, KOL’s are often younger which tends to favour products aimed at the younger generation. Especially lifestyle products or clothing and accessories.

  1. Chinese Digital Content

Digital activity in China evidently needs to be carried out in Mandarin, Chinese. The character system is vastly different and content needs to be re-translated, adapted and tailored. Put simply what works in the west is not necessarily transferable. This takes an understanding of Chinese culture and how users respond. For example cartoon graphics are svery popular with major brands such as Alibaba’s Tmall or Baidu having simplistic logo’s based around cartoon images. You will need to find a good agency service that can adapt your content for the Chinese market. Often brands will opt for Chinese specific images and references that fuse the western core values of the foreign brand with this new market of interested consumers. Remember for the Chinese western brands are exotic and connote quality and difference, this need to be capitalized on whilst appealing to the Chinese sense of identity through your digital content.

The Chinese market is very lucrative but without a presence online on Chinese domestic platforms you are practically invisible here, take time to understand this unique market in order to be successful.

Benji is a marketing specialist based in Shanghai, China. For more information see his blog and website here.

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