Social Media and Online Marketing in China

What of international business or those looking to expand into China?  How can a corporation access that massive population in a world where Facebook isn’t even legal and Twitter is hardly used?  Simply put things are different in China.  Yet the opportunities in Social Media and online marketing inside the great firewall remain just as great, if not greater than in the US.  Properly managed a brand can gain access to almost 600 million active social media users in China, compared to the nearly 140 million unique monthly users on Facebook.  That being said, a brand has to play by new rules and engage with new mediums to succeed.But first, to get a scope of how massive social media is and what the comparable sites are.

There are an estimated 91% of Chinese citizens who use the Internet (or netizens) have social media accounts, compared to only 67% in the US.  And on the top 10 sites, there are over 3 billion individual accounts (obviously some individuals have multiple accounts).  And its growing.  In 2012 there was a 60% increase in the volume of social sharing in China alone.  The majority, 57%, of users are male, and the largest age group of users is the 26-30 age group, followed by the 31-35 year old group.

There are several Facebook-esque sites.  The most popular being Renren (translated to people people), Pengyou (friend), and Kaixin (Happy).  Next are the Chinese Twitter sites Tencent Weibo (Tencent Micro Blog) and Sina Weibo (New-Wave Micro Blog).  Equivalent to YouTube is China’ Important to know, Micro Blogging, the largest form of social activity in China, falls into a variety of definitions.  Mostly it can be seen as small and random as a Twitter post, or become what you might be familiar with as a long Facebook post, that may or may not have a recurring theme or purpose.

And while these sites are censored and followed by the government, it is relatively free compared to what many might expect.  Much of the usage on the site is apolitical in nature and unrestricted, nothing like what one might imagine when they think of the great firewall of China.  The homegrown sites have worked with the government and have produced a state-approved environment that is thriving, though the use of pseudo names is still quite common for privacy reasons.

For corporations this means leveraging local and learning how these sites are used and how to get their consumer’s attention.  Some of the primary reasons for the large use of social media include the strains of rural to urban migration on families that have been separated.  The sites serve as a way to keep up and stay connected while families are apart in some cases for almost a year at a time.  The desire for connectedness of the one child generation is another factor as well as the desire for non-state run media and information.  Playing on these motivators can make opportunities for business to engage with the users’ experience and attract attention.

But how the platforms are used also needs to be considered.  Youku (Chinese YouTube), is used more for professional length or pirated videos than it is for short comic moments as seen in the US.  It is more broadly seen as a form of online television that for some age groups may have entirely replaced the government controlled CCTV.  This means the concept of “going viral” in China needs to be reevaluated and content needs to be restructured to suit the audience it is reaching.

Also, Weibo (Chinese Twitter), allows for the posting of images and videos in addition to text.  And its use is largely through mobile devices (50% of use, as compared to only 20% of use in the US on Twitter).  Also of worthy consideration is that the measly 140 character limit that also occurs in Weibo is much more powerful in the Chinese language where a character can stand for a word.  Seeing these opportunities in the same way one sees Twitter would be a grave mistake.  This is what gives Weibo reputation of being a Micro Blog as opposed to quick updates and snippets of information.  Further, Chinese social media sites are more demographic specific with certain sites attracting certain kinds of users.  For instance the users of Renren tend to be more college aged students and Kaixin is geared more towards young professionals.   Using each of these sites to target specific individuals can prove extremely profitable as a corporation can avoid blanket statements geared towards attracting all their users and localize their posts.  Giving certain incentives to poorer students, and portraying a certain image to young professionals

Perhaps most powerful is many Chinese users experience the internet as social media.  When they go online it is simply to engage with their internet communities and they are unlikely to go outside of those networks and sites.  For a brand to miss out on that conversation, and learn about what they can improve about their products or services is a failure to adapt to the changing business climate.  Roughly 40% of Chinese internet users identify instant message as their number one priority in internet usage.  This also correlates with the trend that Chinese social media users are far more likely to rely on advice from friends and family online as for which products to buy and services to use.

One of the greatest struggles with social media in China is the fact that the metrics for engagement are essentially non-existent.  There is no Google ad-sense, or other website tracking service in China.  That means engagement must be tracked using what is seen on the page and following conversations about the brand.  It requires more man power but allows for a more intense and localized campaign.

But promotion, clarification of misinformation, answering questions, and deterring crisis is what social media in China is all about.  It take much more man power and attention than campaigns run in the US. And with only 23% of businesses currently using it, there is still a ton of space to be claimed and attention to be had.

China’s Top 10 Social Media Sites
Social Media in China: The Same, but Different
China: Ten Things You Should Know About an Online Superpower
Why you need social media marketing … in China
China Daily: Talking it up online
McKinsey Quarterly: Understanding social media in China


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