New brands are entering an increasingly competitive online market place in China. With growing levels of online consumers, the Chinese market is a target for serious & savy brands. Here, we’ll explore the best approaches for ‘cracking’ the Chinese market in the most cost-effective way that delivers long-term Return On Investment for brands looking to sell to Chinese consumers.
How New Businesses Can Crack the Chinese Market
There are a lot of details for this complex market. We give you this article as a starting point but a good marketing strategy still needs to be:
- Tailored for every business
- Unique to your sector
- Adapted to suit the brand’s current positioning
- In-Line with current or previous marketing efforts in China
At GMA we’ve worked on over 1000 projects, which has led to a team with a wealth of experience across a range of sectors.
Here are our key takeaways from the Chinese market for businesses new to the market:
1) Face the facts – You are largely invisible in China
Even with a very strong reputation in Western, English platforms in China (except for the biggest global names) will need to start from scratch.
Chinese web searches and content browsing is in Mandarin Chinese. English language content is simply not picked up based on local search algorithms.
The Chinese web is also ring-fenced by what is known as the ‘Great Firewall’ which omits the majority of content outside of the Chinese net unless your target audience is using VPNs. Major western websites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked in China and are usually much slower when used with a VPN. Currently, only 3-5% of netziens use VPNs regularly so content, platforms, ads, and media exposure have to be re-tailored to the Chinese market in Mandarin.
2) Embrace Chinese Platforms
You need to be where your audience is most active – local Chinese platforms.
As of 2021, according to Amazon’s ‘Alexa Table’, five of the top ten websites in the world by user number & influence were Chinese platforms. Yes, half of the largest platforms on a global scale are Chinese (Tmall, Baidu, QQ/WeChat, Sohu, Taobao).
Chinese platforms (as most people are now aware) are no longer merely ‘copycats’ but industry-leading lights in terms of:
- Innovation / Integration into daily life
- Targeted Advertising
- Engaged User Numbers
- Receptivity to brand presence
- Developments in ‘Socialized E-Commerce’
There are a host of players in China and options to suit a range of budgets, we most often work on the following platforms.
- Toutiao (Popular News App)
- Forums (Zhidao, Zhihu, Tianya)
- News Sources (Eg News 168, Ifeng)
- Nice (Akin to Instagram in China)
- Meipai (Video Platform)
- Youku Video’s/Ads
Zhihu is a popular Chinese forum in terms of Q&A + building your reputation through user-to-user conversation.
3) Finding Your Focus – Consultation with an Expert
It is important to speak with an expert to discuss your project in depth. An expert will help you focus your marketing by analyzing the following:
- Product Type
- Audience Demographic
- Campaign Budget
Consultation is the answer to most questions – even the ones you may not even know you have. You’re entering a new, complex, and different environment. The agency you work with needs to deeply understand the brand and how an intelligent strategy can be implemented.
4) Validation of the Concept First
Before launching a full-scale campaign, it’s important to test the concept first with an initial budget designed to prove the most effective strategies. This needs to be enough to create feedback with enough data and run on a number of different channels if there is the option to do so.
VALIDATION & PROOF OF STRATEGY IS STEP ONE, BE SAVVY.
5) In China EVERYTHING is digital
Digital reigns supreme in China. The nation now boasts a whopping 60% internet penetration rate, that’s over 800 million online users and growing by 5% per year.
Here are some statistics to explain the scale of digital in the hearts & minds of the Chinese:
- 25% of all retail purchases are now transacted online
- WeChat boasts 1 billion monthly active users
- Weibo follows with 550 million MAU’s
- Digital payment methods have been used by over 70% of all consumers
Why has digital become such an essential element of the fabric of Chinese society? China, which was later to develop than other global powers made the leap economically at a time when technology was abundant. They skipped traditional media forms and leaped straight to digital tech, smartphones, e-commerce, and social networking.
China is arguably the most digitally-centric country in the world. It’s a unique case study and important for businesses to understand before any launch in China.
6) International Products sell with Long Term Commitment
Once a concept is proven to work it’s important to commit to the strategy. This is a big market and the initial investment is required to make an impact, especially if you have to shift from being unknown to highly visible and reputable.
This requires time, no product or business is an overnight success in China but by working with a trusted partner on an intelligent strategy over a 6-month starting period products & services can make a mark.
International products remain especially popular in a market typically associated with local Chinese fakes.
International = Quality in the mind of Chinese consumers.
Long-term strategy and consistent branding have been behind the success of Blackmores in China, they embraced E-Commerce Strategy not only on large platforms such as Tmall but also engaged closely with their community.
The Rise of Cross-Border E-Commerce
Cross-border E-commerce (CBEC) is growing at a faster rate than ever seen before due to the advent of major CBEC platforms such as Taobao, Tmall, and JD. These platforms allow western businesses and brands to reach Chinese consumers easier than ever and sell their goods globally over the internet. This also means that Chinese consumers have a growing appetite for global goods.
Improved logistics and global supply chain strategies also account for why this industry is booming.
Specific industries that are seeing a rise due to CBEC:
7) Quality Mandarin Chinese Content
Quality content does not merely cover text/PR. That’s the tip of the iceberg, here are the key elements to focus on when creating quality local content:
- Bi-Lingual Copywriters
- Chinese platform-specific formatting
- Image/aesthetic development
- Video Content
- Design & Formatting
The key to content is to understand what type of strategy is required on each platform for example..
- On Weibo you have a microblogging system, posts need to be kept short and snappy, you utilize the hashtag system but these need to be placed both before & after each post.
- WeChat service posts require a strong call to action but also need to be highly personable, why? They are push notification that appears in a follower’s personal feed, it is like they are receiving a message from a friend.
- Baidu content needs to focus on your ranking on China’s number one search engine, it, therefore, should include backlinks, be connected to the Chinese keyword sets that you are optimizing, and be highly engaging in order to be featured.
- PR in China is typically shorter, more sensationalized, and image-based, lengthy technical pieces will not cut it.
Starbucks profile page on Weibo.com showing content in Mandarin
8) What are the main Platforms?
In this article we’ll select the three most important for the majority of clients, contact us for more information and a detailed consultation session but for now..
Baidu is China’s version of Google & largest search engine with a 70% share of the search engine market, with the other major player being Sogu.
Many have speculated about the demise of Baidu as social media networks such as WeChat & Weibo grow in power / become more integrated. However, with such an established user base it’s unlikely Baidu will continue to be a powerhouse on the search market as they develop.
Baidu remains essential to any Chinese marketing campaign. In addition to being a powerhouse search engine, much like Google, Baidu has started to branch out to create other platforms underneath its umbrella. For example, Baidu Tieba is a social media platform that is integrated into the Baidu search engine platform.
What are the keys to marketing on the Baidu platform?
- Mandarin Chinese Keyword Searches = Visibility
- PPC (Pay Per Click) Ad Links are very important and can deliver real ROI in terms of quality traffic (ad conversion rates in China are typically higher than in the more skeptical western markets).
- SEO (Natural Search Engine Results) is important when it comes to ranking your site in the organic results, the most serious prospects research extensively.
- Your site needs to be built as a vehicle for visibility on Baidu with Chinese keyword audits etc.
You can’t overlook WeChat but it requires a higher initial investment than Baidu. Why? You have to grow your following numbers in this closed network. It’s mainly a branding tool, and it’s poor for lead generation but in terms of content sharing + e-commerce (with WeChat stores), it’s a strong opportunity for digital growth.
Only users connected to your account will see your content. Therefore, WeChat isn’t necessarily the best tool for brand awareness or lead generation but rather an extremely strong tool once you have established your brand and following. You need to build followers.
What are the most important WeChat marketing elements?
- Building followers, including QR code links from external sites, pushing content and engaging + animating a following.
- As a WeChat service account, you have 1 push notification to followers per week, this is effective as it appears as a private message in their chat feed, personalizes content + really curates the most attractive and interesting messages!
- WeChat utilizes HTML5, content in this format will provide the smoothest and most quality user experience.
WeChat can be integrated with a WeChat store to feature up to 10-25 Product Pages (SKUs), The benefit of driving traffic from an account to a store is you make use of WeChat’s inbuilt wallet/payment system, a very convenient tool.
The three different types of WeChat account are Subscription, Service & Enterprise. Service is the most effective for most businesses because it allows for push notifications to reach followers.
Subscription is more suited if you are regularly producing content (e.g. an e-mag/news service). Most sales businesses opt for service accounts in China.
Weibo now boasts over 500 million monthly active users it’s a very targeted platform in terms of ad opportunities + boasts the majority of China’s influencers.
The name literally means a micro-blog, so think China’s Twitter but in fact far more advanced. Weibo is also an open ecosystem like Twitter which means that one does not necessarily need to follow an account to see its content. In this way, Weibo is a superior tool to WeChat in terms of viral marketing and visibility.
What are the main points of Weibo’s marketing strategy?
- Weibo offers DSP/Fan Tunnel Posts/Search Result advertising
- Content needs to be short & snappy with a limit of 150 character posts.
- External links can be restricted but Alibaba e-commerce platforms are given free rein in terms of promotion, why? Alibaba owns over a third of the platform.
The popular Weibo page for L’oreal in China with 2.5 million followers. A powerful launchpad for promotions.
Douyin, more commonly known in the west as TikTok, reached over 400 million active users in 2020. It is an incredibly popular short video social media platform. With many features and functions within the app, this makes the content on Douyin highly viral and trendy. The app creates a feeling of an online community for its users. With such a huge audience with many users following accounts that are niche to a certain subject, this makes Douyin an incredibly powerful tool for marketing, especially when used in concert with KOLs (key opinion leaders).
Key benefits of Douyin marketing:
- Content is highly viral/has the potential to be extremely viral
- A large audience looking for good content about specific subjects
- KOL marketing is extremely effective
Kuaishou is similar to Douyin in that it is also a short-video social media platform. In that way, Kuaishou and Douyin are seen as competitors within this space. That being said, Kuaishou, which has over 300 million daily active users, is much more popular among the lower-tier cities in China. Kuaishou also boasts much higher user engagement than Douyin due to the content being much more centered around specific demographics.
Key benefits to marketing using Kuaishou:
- High user engagement with content
- The high conversion rate for e-commerce
- Target demographics such as China’s lower-tiered cities and regions
9) Targeted Advertising
China has a unique ad sector, in some ways it is very developed and in others more backward than the advanced ad words/targeted banner technology Google offers.
Regardless, this is China and this is the ad services you have to work with!
Some general facts about ad strategy;
- Baidu ads revolve around PPC with a more limited scope in terms of DSP
- Weibo ads are a targeted series of solutions, perhaps the most advanced in China
- WeChat ads offer banner/moments posts, it’s a more expensive solution but very high reach can be achieved through investment into moments.
- Banner, Display & Media Buying is also an option on E-Commerce platforms
It goes without saying that ads need to be curated & formatted to each specific platform.
10) Acting Fast & Understanding new trends is Important
Speed is one of the defining features of this fascinating market. The speed local Chinese competitors take products to market is astounding. Western business needs to understand this, it’s a fast-paced market with a high demand for quality international products but with trends ever-changing, you need to capitalize on such current demand.
You need a local partner on the pulse in China. New trends are always developing.
Toutiao: A Serious Player
Toutiao for example is a burgeoning news application. By the end of 2021, Toutiao had 272 million daily active users, who spent an average of 76 minutes reading the news and watching videos through the app, according to company sources. They offer targeted ad services in the news feeds of readers (alongside news content), this makes your business newsworthy alongside trending content in China.
Another hot new trend is the re-emergence of smaller platforms such as Meipai, Nice, or Little Red Book as social platforms with sharing functionality of Videos, Images or even purchase information.
Toutiao, China’s Number One News Application. The literal translation of which is ‘Today’s News’
A long-term commitment is absolutely essential for success in this market, if you have a serious project let’s discuss your needs with our first consultation session.
It’s important to seek out a trusted partner, and compare not just pricing (as many agents engage in a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of offering low-cost services), but rather the quality of your potential partner’s work.
Who is GMA?
We are an international team of 75 based in Shanghai. We have worked on over 1000 projects and are a purely digital & Chinese-focused marketing & advertising agency.
Contact one of our experts for a chat or come into our office for quality coffee 😉