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The 9 most common mistakes companies make with their Chinese digital marketing presence

August 5, 2020 |   Nicolas Chu

Setting up your digital presence in China can be overwhelming. From understanding Chinese internet regulation, to learning how to reach and engage your target audience in a completely different digital ecosystem, there’s a lot to get your head around.

Add to that the general lack of reliable information and confusing grey zone solutions offered by some service providers in this space, and it’s no surprise that many organisations make mistakes when they first set up their Chinese digital marketing foundations.

Over the years of working with many clients across education, tourism, consumer goods and B2B at Sinorbis, I have seen a fair few issues crop up. And while none of these issues are unfixable, they will have a big impact on your digital marketing performance in China. In some more severe cases, they might expose your organisation legally without you even knowing

In this article, I have outlined the 9 most common mistakes companies make with their Chinese digital marketing presence, including why and how they impact your business.

Mistake 1: You don't have a dedicated website for China

Hosting content in multiple languages on a company website is pretty common. And from an operational perspective it’s easy to understand why. It’s less digital infrastructure to maintain and the content management and publishing processes are the same across the whole business.

The issue with taking this approach for China, though, is that no matter how much effort you put into creating your Chinese website content, none of it is going to be visible in Mainland China.

Since the Internet is highly regulated in China, and common digital marketing platforms such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked, using any of these services on your website will mean that it won’t load within the constraints of the Chinese digital ecosystem. And since you probably need these services to market your organisation in other regions, removing them from your website isn’t really going to be an option either. In short, if you’re serious about marketing to China, there’s no way around creating a dedicated Chinese website.

Severity of the problem: Moderate if you’re in the early stages of marketing to China. High if China is a key market for you.

Mistake 2: Your dedicated Chinese website is not optimised for China

The second mistake we encounter very frequently is that businesses have gone through the effort of building a dedicated Chinese website, but neither the content nor the infrastructure is optimised for China.

For instance, there are many aspects about Chinese online browsing behaviour that are very different from what we’re used to in the West. Links should open in new tabs, CTAs in red are perfectly acceptable and you definitely need to include a QR code so users can follow your WeChat official account. And these are only a small portion of the user-facing aspects you need to consider.

Yet, a far bigger problem is if your hosting environment is not optimised for China. Unless you have a business licence in China and can obtain an ICP filing, it is impossible to host your website in China. That means even if you host your site in Hong Kong or another location geographically close to China, your website load time will be patchy at best.

No matter how much you have invested in your Chinese website, in this scenario you’re unlikely to get a lot of return on your investments. If you’re running paid media campaigns, a lot of this budget may also go to waste as slow website loading speeds will inevitably impact your conversion rate.

Helping businesses work around this common issue has been one of my main motivators for founding Sinorbis. Our Chinese digital marketing platform allows you to create a Chinese website that is fully optimised for the Chinese digital ecosystem without having to jump the usual regulatory hurdles.

Severity of the problem: Moderate but something you want to address sooner rather than later, especially if you’re investing in traffic generation campaigns.

Mistake 3: Your Chinese website is hosted under somebody else’s ICP filing

Another issue that we see sometimes, when organisations work with Chinese digital marketing agencies, is that their website is hosted under an ICP filing that is owned by somebody else.

While this may seem like a tempting solution to the problem I have described above, we advise against this approach as it’s illegal and puts your business in China at serious risk.

What’s more your website could be blocked at any time and once that happens, it can be a very difficult and lengthy process to get it back live again. And that’s not even mentioning the negative impact this could have on your brand perception in China.

As a general rule, your Chinese digital marketing presence in China needs to be 100% compliant with local Internet law. It’s definitely not an area where you can afford to cut corners.

Severity of the problem: Extremely high. The issue should be addressed as soon as possible.

Mistake 4: Your WeChat account is a personal account

In the absence of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other Western social media platforms, businesses have to adapt to Chinese social media platforms to engage with their audiences – most importantly China’s biggest platform, WeChat.

But setting up a WeChat official account comes with a lot of red tape that businesses have to deal with. If businesses are applying with a foreign legal entity, the approval process can take 2 to 3 months. If businesses are applying with a Chinese legal entity, it’s much faster – but applying for a Chinese legal entity itself can be a complex and time-consuming process.

In the face of this red tape, it can be tempting for organisations to take a shortcut by using a WeChat personal account, which only takes three days to activate, so businesses can start engaging with their audiences much sooner. However, while this may solve the issue of getting your social media marketing underway faster, you won’t be doing yourself any favours in terms of your brand credibility. Chinese consumers are highly attuned to any whiff of inauthenticity, so if they get any hint you’re not legitimate, they will run a mile.

In terms of building brand trust, therefore, you’re probably much better off taking the time to cut through the red tape and establish a proper WeChat official account.

Severity of the problem: Moderate. A personal account may be useful in the very early stages, so you can learn how WeChat functions from a user’s perspective, but in order to build credibility for your brand, it’s worth setting up a WeChat official account as soon as possible.

Mistake 5: Your WeChat Official account doesn't belong to you

When it comes to creating a domestic WeChat account, there exists a bit of a grey area where international companies can ‘borrow’ local legal entities from third parties – this is another way to skirt around the red tape mentioned above. This will mean that your account will have your branding, name and content, but is technically still owned by the Chinese legal entity. If you decide to open your local Chinese presence a little later down the track, followers can then be transferred to your account.

The issue with this approach is that it very often leads to disputes between the brand in whose name the account was opened, and the third party who owns it. What’s more, this kind of setup can have a serious impact on your brand’s success in China as consumers will doubt the account’s authenticity if they see a discrepancy between the account brand name and the legal entity who owns it. We recommend staying clear of this approach.

Severity of the problem: High. This approach can leave your business very exposed – you may even be at risk of losing everything you have invested.

Mistake 6: You don't have a way to measure your Chinese digital marketing performance

Another mistake we often see at Sinorbis is that organisations invest lots of resources into their Chinese digital marketing presence, but have no access to analytics, and therefore zero visibility over how their assets are performing.

That means if your digital channels are underperforming (which they most likely are, particularly if you’re new to Chinese digital marketing), you have no way of knowing, and no way of enhancing your results. After all, you can only improve what you can measure.

Analytics are the only sure-fire way to figure out which strategies and campaigns work and which don’t, so that you can hone your strategies to the point where you get maximum ROI on every dollar.

Severity of the problem: Usually moderate, but could be high if you invest a lot in paid media.

Mistake 7: You are not seeing any results from your digital marketing activity in China

It’s not unusual for organisations to report to us that, despite having set up their digital marketing presence (e.g. their website or their WeChat account), they’re not really seeing any results from their digital marketing activity.

Quite often, this is a sign that the foundations have not been set up properly – for example, your Chinese website isn’t hosted within the Great Firewall, and therefore performs poorly or is not even visible within China, or your WeChat account is a personal rather than business account, and therefore not attracting many followers. In this case, it’s important to go back to basics and make sure your foundation is solid before you spend any resources on campaigns – after all, this is simply a waste of funds if it’s not based on a sound foundation.

The other reason you might not be seeing the results you want is because your marketing efforts are too sporadic. Organisations are often enticed by the huge market China represents – even if you only reach a small percentage, that’s still a significant number of people, right? But that doesn’t mean you can put in minimal effort and expect big results. If you’re serious about entering the Chinese market, you need to understand your target audience and build a relationship with them – and both these things take time, resources and consistent efforts.

Severity of the problem: High. There’s really no point spending money establishing a digital marketing presence if you’re not going to get any return on that investment.

Mistake 8: An agency set up your website and you have no flexibility to edit or make changes yourself.

Many organisations will enlist an agency to setup their Chinese website, and while at first this may seem like a sensible move – after all, they’re the experts – what can often happen is the agency retains full control over the website. That means that even if you want to make a minor update, you have to go through your service provider.

Under normal circumstances, this may not be such a big deal. Sure, it may be a little inconvenient, but that’s about it.

But we saw just how problematic such arrangements became during the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. Many organisations found that during this time, they simply couldn’t reach their agencies in China. This was especially disastrous for organisations like universities, who had students, both domestic and international, trapped in China – being unable to update their Chinese website seriously hampered their ability to communicate effectively with these students.

Severity of the problem: High – especially in the current economic, health and political environment. It’s important to have full control over your digital marketing presence so you can respond quickly to regulatory changes such as visa requirements.

Mistake 9: Your website structure and content is not optimised for Chinese search engines and has poor SEO performance.

Just as in the West, having a high organic search engine ranking is one of the best and most cost-effective ways of reaching Chinese digital consumers, and to achieve this, your website must be optimised for Chinese search engines.

Yet we often see many organisations make mistakes with search engine optimisation (SEO), whether it’s because they focus too few resources on it, or because they assume SEO lessons they have learned in the West will also apply in China. Remember, Google doesn’t exist in China, so websites have to be optimised for engines like Baidu, Sogou and 360.

Because search engines are one of the highest-performing channels, SEO should definitely be a key part of your overall website strategy. That being said, it’s also important to remember that performing well on organic search rankings takes time, so you may need to be patient – an optimised site should keep driving better results over time.

Severity of the problem: Moderate, but something that should be addressed sooner rather than later – the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get the results you’re after.

Nip these issues in the bud

While these mistakes may not seem like a big deal in the beginning, over time they can compound to the point where they can seriously impact your long-term success in China – and the effect may be even more profound if you’re committing two or more of these errors.

That’s why it’s so important to nip these issues in the bud as early as possible. Establishing a solid foundation, along with transparency and full control over your assets, will ensure you have all the building blocks in place to achieve a strong digital marketing presence in China.

One of the best places to start is your website. Our Chinese Website 101 guide will tell you everything you need to know to create a high-performing website in China. Download it now.

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