With more than 700 million social media users, China is one of the world’s most social nations, similar to Indonesia, Brazil and the United States. As eCommerce and digital media rise in China, it is important for foreign companies not only to understand the Chinese social media landscape, but also to learn how to leverage this powerful vehicle in their branding and marketing in the region.
China is one of the world’s most social nations
As Chinese consumers use social media in a significantly different way to their foreign counterparts and as the most popular social media channels in the west (such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) cannot be accessed from China or are unknown to Chinese consumers, it is essential that companies learn and adapt to the differences in Chinese social media.
Social Media Landscape in China
Social media is changing how Chinese consumers go about their day-to-day lives. The biggest impact of China’s love of social media is the fact that many Chinese people only experience the internet through social media platforms. Unlike Western consumers who browse both websites and social media pages, it is clear that more and more Chinese consumers make no distinction between the internet and social media per se. To them, the internet is social media and vice versa.
For corporate marketers, it’s essential to understand the difference between Western and Chinese consumers. Whilst in the US internet users spend an average of 5.5 hours/week on email, Chinese internet users only spend as little as around 0.3 hours/week on email. However, like in the US, social media is popular in China, with users on average spending 2.4 hours/week on it, although it’s still less than an average of 4.7 hours/week among US internet users. In addition, Chinese users prefer IM, at an average of 4 hours per week on instant messaging services, double the time spent by US internet users.
The Importance of Social Marketing in China
This usage data, as outlined in McKinsey’s report on Understanding China’s Digital Consumers, sheds light on why traditional marketing approaches that are popular in the US and other Western countries such as direct emails, simply do not work in China. Instead, marketers need to adapt their marketing methods and platforms in order to reach their target customers.
As a matter of fact, social engagement and shopping behaviours are so intertwined that Chinese shoppers rank their friends’ recommendations - both online and offline - as the most important factor in their online buying choices. Online shopping sees the greatest boost from “going social”, as reported in McKinsey’s iConsumer 2015 report where consumers were asked how their time spent on websites/activities changed after using social networking sites. 38% of these consumers reported their online shopping increased as a result, significantly higher than the number reporting an increase in the rest activities such as watching videos/reading news/listening to music, etc.
Chinese shoppers rank their friends’ recommendations - both online and offline - as the most important factor in their online buying choices.
This is why social marketing is essential for companies looking to promote their products or services on the Chinese market. Companies could utilise social media in China not only to launch, sell and promote their goods, but also to research their target market, engage with consumers, monitor online conversations, manage crises when needed and avoid running into serious problems.
Top Social Media Platforms in China
Whilst Chinese consumers do still follow similar basic rules for engaging with their peers on Chinese social media platforms, where and how they are spending time on social media is completely different from Western social media users. Moreover, with western social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter banned, Chinese consumers are instead turning to local platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, the most impactful social media platforms in the region. Other social media platforms include QZone (also owned by Tencent), Penyyou.com, Renren and Douban. Whilst these other social media platforms are less famous than WeChat and Weibo, they are still worth being considered in each of the segments they focus on as their user base ranges between 96-447 million users.
WeChat is the most popular and impactful social media platform in China, with a monthly active user base of 806 million (as of Q2, 2016) and YOY growth of 34%, as announced by Tencent in Aug 2016. Tencent, its group company, is what people widely know as BAT, one of top 3 internet giants in China .
Not just a social media platform, WeChat is an innovative and powerful combination of social sharing, instant messaging (voice and text), group chat, voice and video calling, mobile commerce, mobile payment/wallets, shake, people nearby and more, combining many of the strengths of Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms and applications into one.
WeChat is now intertwined with the day-in-day-out lives of Chinese internet users. A 2015 report by Tencent on WeChat user behaviours revealed that for 46.3% of those surveyed WeChat is the most frequently used app on their mobile phones. This same report also disclosed that 25% of WeChat users actively used WeChat more than 30 times a day, with 55.2% used the platform more than 10 times a day and 16.5% of all users used it more than 50 times a day. With so many active and highly engaged users using WeChat, most companies are fully aware of its potential for their business, and many companies have created official WeChat public accounts to acquire new followers, communicate company offerings, deliver customer service, engage customers and even directly leverage their mobile commerce and mobile payment capabilities to integrate their mobile website with WeChat and/or open WeChat stores. To give a snapshot, by Q1, 2015, the total number of WeChat public accounts from brands reached 8 million, with over 85,000 mobile applications currently integrating with WeChat for commerce.
In order to take advantage of social media in China, it is essential that marketers understand the rules and habits of the market and develop their own playbook and the capabilities needed to operationalise this critical marketing engine in China.
Once the most popular social media platform in China, Weibo now sits second to WeChat; however, it’s a platform that is continuing to deliver powerful results in the areas where it is strong. With a monthly active user base of 261 million and 32% YoY growth (as of Q1 2016), Weibo has similar functions to Facebook and tends to be the platform local users turn to when looking for the latest news on hot topics.
With many users turning to Weibo to find out the latest discussions on the popular topics ranging for celebrity, economy, society, sports, entertainment, military etc. Weibo is an effective choice particularly for any brand using celebrities for branding and marketing or aiming at attaining brand awareness with a wide audience quickly.
It’s essential that businesses looking to market their products and services in China understand the need to leverage social media.
In summary, as the best platform for word-of-mouth referrals, social media has become the place where consumers offer opinions, ask for advice and discuss brands. It’s essential that businesses looking at marketing in China understand the need to leverage social media. It’s also important to note that video sites, such as YouTube, which are normally used to host the videos shared on social media, are also different in China. Just as we turn to Google, Facebook and Twitter, Chinese consumers turn to local platforms like Youku and Tudou for video content.