We often see clients who are a bit overoptimistic about what it takes to be successful in China. “China has a population of 1.3 billion,” they say. “Even if we only manage a penetration of 0.1%, that’s still 13 million people – more than half the population of Australia!”
While this sounds great in theory, these numbers don’t give the full picture. When you’re effectively starting from zero, it takes much more work than you might think to reach your target audience. It’s certainly not enough to simply set up a website or WeChat account, cross your fingers and hope that traffic or followers will just stumble upon it.
There are many lessons to be learned from other businesses who have entered the Chinese market before you. However, there’s also the fact that the Chinese market is extremely dynamic, so depending on your time to market and the nuances of execution a similar strategy may still lead to significantly different results.
What works for one company isn’t necessarily going to work for yours. Vice versa, what hasn't generated any results for others may well be effective for your business because of the sophistication of your approach and the adaptability on the execution level. When it comes to digital marketing in China every company has to forge its own path.
That’s why you need to adopt a continuous improvement and growth mindset for your China digital marketing strategy. With ongoing testing and trialing, you can develop a pragmatic and robust strategy that works for your unique business, and your specific target audience.
First things first, though – you have to establish a solid foundation.
Phase 1: Building a foundation for your China digital marketing strategy
Before you can begin testing, you first have to set up your basic infrastructure for your digital marketing strategy. As a minimum, this means setting up a well-functioning Chinese website with basic on-page SEO as the backbone for your brand presence in China, as well as a WeChat account for future nurturing initiatives
I often get asked why you'd still worry about setting up a Chinese website and go through all the trouble of optimising it for local search engines at a time when social media channels are extremely popular. The answer is quite simple: your official website and social media channels complement each other and fulfill different functions in the buyer journey and for different target audiences.
Some channels are simply better for generating awareness and engagement while others build trust and facilitate sales. Chinese consumers typically rely on a brand's official website and relevant search results to validate the brands that they have first heard about through other channels. Your WeChat official account, on the other hand, allows you to publish long-form posts which are perfect for nurturing and engaging with your customers
What's more, on average the Chinese customer requires 9 brand touch points before making a purchase decision. That’s 3 more than Western customers. Research has also shown that 90% of Chinese internet users are heavily influenced by search in their purchasing decisions, meaning that you'd potentially miss out on quite a lot of business if you miss this critical step.
Setting up your digital marketing foundations in China, of course requires a some upfront investment, and it may take several months before your digital presence is at the level where it needs to be.
This phase is also about mapping out the customer journey. While you may have developed some brand cachet in your home country, in China you will basically be starting from scratch. So what does the sales journey look like? How do people get from awareness, to engagement, and finally to conversion?
Phase 2: Pilot and test the market
Here’s where the rubber hits the road, and where having a growth mindset really plays dividends. During this phase, you’ll be testing not just how to best operate channels you set up in Phase 1 (i.e. what works best in terms of traffic acquisition and WeChat follower acquisition), but also what products, pricing and messaging resonates best with your target audience.
You may find what works for a Chinese audience is markedly different to what works for your market at home. Expect to spend at least 6 months testing out the various permutations of these areas.
To gain meaningful insights and initial results during this phase, you will need to set some media budget aside. To give you some benchmarks, AU$50,000 – 100,000 will allow for some small pilot campaigns and tests within a selected network, while AU$100,000 – 250,000 will be enough budget to run tests across multiple digital channels such as targeted ads, KOLs, search engine marketing and vertical portals.
Phase 3: Scale up
Once you’ve worked out what products, channels, pricing and messaging works best, based on your results from Phase 2, it’s time to double down on these, and develop a Year 2 marketing plan that focuses on scaling up in these areas.
This is not to say things still can’t be optimised during this phase, but you should have a good idea where to make some strides in your marketing strategy while you test other areas.
Build, test, scale, repeat!
Phase 3 isn’t where your China digital marketing strategy ends. This is a circular framework – once you’ve scaled up in one area, it’s time to start building in another area. In this way, you can ensure your marketing strategy develops in line with the market.
Adopting a mindset of continuous improvement doesn’t just mean your China digital marketing efforts will be focused in the right directions – it also means you’ll be adaptable and flexible enough to take advantage of any new opportunities that may arise. This type of adaptability is particularly key in a landscape like China’s, where new channels appear all the time – just look at Douyin, which in the space of just a few months has become one of the most popular channels in China.
There’s also evidence to suggest that those who manage to get in on the ground floor often reap the benefits later on. Take the example of popular Chinese search engine Baidu – those companies that took the chance of advertising through Baidu in its fledgling days ended up being able to acquire traffic far more quickly and cost-effectively than their competitors, giving them a huge advantage. Similarly, companies who adopted Weibo and WeChat when these channels were just emerging were able to reap the rewards of being early adopters through lower advertising cost and less competition.
Cultivating a continuous improvement and growth mindset may require a significant cultural shift for your company, but it is well worth the effort. Ingraining this test-and-trial mentality into your strategy early on will put you miles ahead of your competitors, and set you up for success from the get-go.