October 21, 2013
Think about China in the same way that you would think about Big Data.
With Big Data projects, there is a mass of information that decision-makers must understand before they can apply it in any useful way. News about China always involves an unending flow of information about the business environment and the country’s overall development. What strategic communicators need in order to use this information best is accurate input about the market and what’s happening with their target audiences now, and some rules to help navigate China’s unique potential pitfalls.
China attracts businesses of all sizes, and many CEOs believe that they need to compete in China if their company is going to be a leader in their niche or industry. Contrary to popular perception, most companies in China are serving local B-to-C and B-to-B customers, not solely manufacturing for export.
Most executives know that they can’t simply mass-produce products designed for the Western world and expect them to fly off the shelves in China. Similarly, communications campaigns and messaging deployed in the United States usually require adaptation before they’re China-ready. When on their home turf, consider the best practices of our profession, then be ready to adapt them with Chinese culture in mind. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler who is foreign.”
E-commerce is skyrocketing in China. The online economy is large, diverse and unique. Compared with their U.S. counterparts, most Chinese online consumers want more information about products, are more likely to switch among brands for the sake of trial and engage in product-related social media discussions. The country is expected to be the world’s largest online marketplace by 2015. Then, China’s economy will likely trail the United States’, but its Internet population is anticipated to reach 700 million, or almost double that of the United States and Japan combined.
Don’t think of Chinese e-commerce as the sole domain of young tech-oriented urbanites. Today, shoppers 18 to 30 years old make only about 61 percent of online purchases. There are about 5 million online shoppers over 50 years of age. Businesses already account for a significant number of online purchases, and by 2020, B-to-B could represent as much as 70 percent of China’s online transactions.
Chinese shoppers prefer digital marketplaces and storefront platforms because it’s easy to make transactions. American companies are reaching a growing audience through these sites, and many brands have created their own retail hubs. People sell about 58 percent of foreign goods through Chinese websites instead of purchasing them directly from a foreign site.
Digital marketers should consider targeting residents of small, underdeveloped cities. These consumers are contributing to the growth of the Internet and e-commerce in unexpected ways due to rising incomes, Internet penetration trends, and their desire for new products and a better lifestyle. People often overlook this segment, even though growth outpaces the expanding Internet population. The consumers spend more disposable income buying almost as much as neighbors in large, wealthy places.
Companies should question whether their social media strategies in China are as broad and creative as they should be. China-based marketing managers and executives sometimes react to uncertainties in the dynamic social media space by shooting low and recommending ultraconservative strategies that are narrower than headquarters may have intended. Frequent, frank discussions can help companies balance the risks while maximizing social media’s potential.
Anyone accustomed to writing for Twitter who switches to Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, suddenly has a whole lot more to talk about. That’s because they can communicate significantly more in 140 Chinese characters than they can in English. The reason is that each English letter is a building block, while individual Chinese characters represent complete words or thoughts. The difference gives communicators a better opportunity to connect with audiences who are hungry for interaction and information.
Another difference that spells opportunity for marketers is that both Weibo and the new breakout app WeChat include features directly tied to sales and e-commerce. Both platforms have a critical mass of users and are competing to expand options for marketing and selling.
Social media usage patterns are also different in China. Weibo users post at a higher frequency, and they tend to disclose more personal information. They are also more active in sharing their views and reacting to other people. Interestingly, Weibo users publish 19 percent more posts on the weekend, whereas Twitter users are typically 11 percent less active on weekends.
Although China’s economy is currently slowing and restructuring, the country remains a critical business destination. In July, foreign companies invested more than $14 billion in China, the highest monthly amount since 1997, and growing numbers of communications professionals are engaging in PR work in China. The successful ones adapt best practices to the Chinese market and continually sift through torrents of information to understand the current state of play.