Digital marketing agencies in China are feeding you bad information. There, we said it!
A simple search for how to enter the Chinese market, or digital marketing trends in China, will turn up countless annually recycled articles that all have the same intent: to look as though they’re informing you, but in fact laying out old or incomplete information, in a way that is confusing for anyone new to marketing in China to understand.
You will be told, as a brand:
-> You need to be on WeChat, Taobao, Weibo, RED, Pinduoduo, Kuaishou, Douyin and more.
-> You will need a website optimised for Baidu, integrated with official accounts across multiple advertising platforms, on top of mini-apps and H5 pages.
-> Further, you will need to throw down thousands on KOLs, while tipping the balance towards engaging KOCs, create endless short videos, regularly livestream, build entire worlds in the metaverse and have constant online-offline activations.
Do you really need all these things to enter or thrive in the Chinese market? No.
Do you need some of them? Yes.
Which ones? Well, as with all marketing endeavours, the options at hand are virtually endless.
What is key is figuring out which options are most suitable, most effective, for you and your brand.
In this article, we’re going to give you the information you need, considering whether you’re a small, medium or large enterprise, your industry, your target demographics, and more, so that you don’t get lost in the often-befuddling wilderness that is digital marketing in China.
We are Sekkei Digital Group, and we will be your guides.
How to Enter the Chinese Market through Digital Marketing
If you’re trying to enter the Chinese market, it’s likely that you’re already somewhat established elsewhere. If you’re a large brand, this can be of benefit, as respected foreign brands are still looked upon favourably by most Chinese consumers. If you’re small or medium-sized, however, your reputation will likely mean nothing.
Chinese consumers have been stung before by brands appearing to be foreign-made, or by poorly-run and unfamiliar foreign brands, selling inferior products. The days of just being able to slap ‘German’ on the side of a toaster and see it fly off the shelves are over; Chinese consumers are savvy. For all intents and purposes, reputationally, you are starting fresh.
To start, you need to understand some key things about the Chinese digital ecosystem.
Should Your Brand Get a Chinese Website?
It is true that you will likely need a Chinese website, hosted on Chinese servers, with a .cn domain. If you’re looking to sell through your website, you will additionally need an ICP licence. Partly, this is so people can find you on Baidu (the search engine with 70%+ market share). More significantly, it’s either advisable or mandatory for certain advertising campaigns, further down the line. Some social media apps you may end up using will need a website to review and/or link to before you can even open an advertising account with them.
When building the website, keep in mind that the vast majority (90%+) of Chinese internet users access the web through mobile devices. Doing so, they usually use different browsers to most of the rest of the world – Safari and Chrome collectively command about 27% mobile market share, but the remainder is taken up by homegrown alternatives. It’s therefore important to find developers who know how to test on these browsers, and who can design sites that are equally as responsive.
Should Your Brand Use WeChat?
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, WeChat. By now, anyone who knows anything about China knows that it is a super-app, an indispensable part of most people’s lives, a fundamental building block of Chinese society, blah, blah, blah. Figures aren’t even that useful here. Just think of it this way: WeChat is basically as essential in China as a social security number is in the US.
But, it doesn’t operate like any Western social media platforms. First of all, what people post to their feeds is only, and can only be, visible to friends. Second, advertising options are fairly limited. Although ads have become more commonplace in recent years, it is still a largely ad-free experience. Third, brands therefore mainly use it in three ways:
- First, to push content via ‘official accounts’, which can be thought of like blogs that users subscribe to. These are not like Facebook pages, there is no two-way interaction. Even comments have been disabled for accounts made since 2017.
- Second, to host‘mini-apps’, and interactive pages called ‘H5 pages’, geared at e-commerce functionality and PR blasts, respectively. Apps within apps. Not cheap, not always necessary, but sometimes good for sales. Especially if you’re exploring O2O (online-to-offline) options.
- Third, as a tool for customer service, either through official accounts or via direct chats and chat groups.
WeChat is a digital ecosystem all of its own, and you will need to use it for at least one of the functions just mentioned. It’s labor-intensive and investment-heavy though, so don’t worry about hitting all three right away. Just choose what’s right for you.
Which other Chinese Apps Should Your Brand Use?
It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve, your size, and your target demographics. Here’s a very quick rundown of which are good for what, from Chinese social media platforms, to live-streaming and e-commerce.
- Social e-commerce app Xiaohongshu(RED) is best for fashion, food and cosmetics companies looking to target young affluent women. It will require high-quality video content, and trendy, non-traditional products.
- Short video platform Douyin(known as TikTok elsewhere) can generate huge returns, but is best suited for brands that have big budgets, and the time to meaningfully engage with local agencies and influencers.
Clarins on Douyin.
- Live-streaming apps Kuaishou and YY Live likewise will require significant investment and local engagement, as user-generated-content (UGC) reigns supreme, but offer access to a slightly wider range of demographics, from outside tier-one cities.
- Micro-blogging powerhouse Weibo has invested heavily in developing its e-commerce offering in the last few years, and with 565 million monthly active users (MAU), can help a brand reach virtually any demographic. It has rich advertising options, flagship stores, official accounts and more. For success, it requires a robust, consistent and engaging communications strategy, as brands are extremely public facing and there is a great deal of two-way interaction.
- Taobao is good for straight-down-the-line e-commerce and even directly selling services. Pinduoduo is good for bulk-selling household products; expect older, ‘homier’, demographics. TMall and JD.com are known for slightly higher-end consumer products, especially furniture, electronics and baby products. Taobao Live, Taobao’s live-streaming service, can be incredibly lucrative, but also requires large investment to hire appropriate and effective hosts.
Taobao (L) and Pinduoduo (R) Interfaces.
- Youku and Sohu were once touted as China’s answers to YouTube. Forget about them. They’re relics of the past. If you want to advertise on video platforms, look to iQiyi for long-format content such as films and TV shows, accessed by all age ranges, or Bilibili, accessed mostly by very young people who are big fans of anime, lifestyle vlogs and a certain type of proud nostalgia.
There are myriad other more niche apps, many of which have MAU counts in the tens of millions. To explore them in more depth, it’s best to ask an expert who can give tailored advice based on what your brand is looking to sell, and to whom.
Trends in Digital Marketing in China
If there’s anything that anyone who’s lived in China for a while can tell you, it’s that things change fast. So it is with digital marketing trends and consumer preferences. Western businesses commonly frame trends and consumer preferences in reference to decades. The fashion, music, products of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
In China, it’s better to think in years. 2020 was the breakthrough year for live e-commerce and Singles Day. 2021 was the year when frisbees (yes, frisbees) exploded in popularity. 2022 saw the boom of group-buying, and, almost everyone under the age of 40 bought a surfskate board. The challenge for marketers is to distinguish trends from fads, in 2023. Here are a few key pointers.
- Live-streaming. Live-streaming boomed in 2020, and is a wave that hasn’t yet broken. It’s looking likely that while its growth will inevitably slow, it’s now a permanent and significant feature of the e-commerce landscape. Driven partially by the pandemic, partially by Alibaba’s ‘Singles Day’ shopping event every November 11th, and partially by the rise of KOLs (key opinion leaders, aka influencers) across multiple new social apps, the gross merchandise value (GMV) shifted thanks to livestreams in 2023 is estimated to be around $730bn.
- Online flagship Stores. Virtually every Chinese e-commerce and social media platform has given brands the ability to open online ‘flagship stores’ in the last couple of years. The most significant have been Weibo, Douyin and RED. These companies have no good reason to go back on these strategic moves, but whether consumers respond well in the long-term, or revert to classic sales channels like Taobao, is not yet known. It may be that an over-abundance of options triggers a return to simplicity.
- O2O (online-to-offline). Brand activations, pop-up stores and experiential exhibits are becoming more and more popular. Chinese consumers like to see and feel products before buying them, and they tend to enjoy going on days out to malls or special brand pop-ups. Gen-Z in particular are expressing a preference for engaging with a brand online, then visiting their offline locations.
- VR, AR & Metaverse. No country has embraced these technologies with the speed and enthusiasm that China has. Brands have responded, especially in the luxury sector, leading to forecasts that the metaverse marketplace might be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in just a few years. However, it remains to be seen whether it will really materialise in as utopian a form as many predict. Already, it is being reported that consumer-focused projects are quietly disappearing.
- Sustainable consumption. More and more Chinese consumers, especially from younger generations, are paying attention to issues around environmental sustainability. This is driven in part by a massive increase in the nationwide access to education, and in part by content and brands championed by KOLs online. Other markets have shown preferences for sustainable consumption have a strong staying power. Whether this will apply to the Chinese market or not is not yet certain.
Key Marketing Strategies for the China Market
Caption: Build your digital face (Mianzi).
How to Build Your Digital Face in China
Everyone knows that ‘face’ (Mianzi) in China is important. It is important that, as an international business, you get yours in order before you start any big sales or advertising campaigns. Here’s a to-do list.
- Build your website. Open your WeChat account. Decide one or two other apps to focus on first.
- Localise your content. Don’t just translate the content you use, hire someone to localise it. This will maximise your chances of resonating, and avoiding sensitive issues.
- Create compelling visuals and videos. Your content is going to be scrolled over quickly, it needs to be visually arresting in order to stand out.
- Be ready to list detailed information about products and services. Chinese consumers love a deep-dive.
- Identify a selection of well-aligned Chinese KOLs and have them ready to use when you wish.
- Create a KOC (key opinion consumers) strategy.
How to Launch a Campaign in China?
- Check trends. As mentioned, things change quickly. Check with in-country experts about what trends you might want to make use of..
- Match inbound with outbound marketing. Banner ads on any platform are a great way to jump-start a campaign, but the content will need to be interesting enough for people to share it, and gain followers.
- Consider engaging with selected Chinese KOLs, and perhaps hire them to host a live-stream.
- Open channels for interaction, and be ready to interact. Chinese consumers will want to ask questions, and get responses.
- Build loyalty. Offer memberships, loyalty programmes, discounts and more in return for following social media accounts or registering.
Is This All You Need to Know to Enter the Chinese Market?
No, of course not. But this is a handy guide to get started, to give you the rough sketches of a China entry strategy. Like we said at the beginning, exactly how a brand should engage with digital marketing in China has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But, this guide has hopefully dispelled some myths around Chinese apps, shown what is important and what is not, illuminated a few trends and given some pointers about launching.
For true expert advice, get in touch. We’re happy to help, in a no-nonsense, locally-informed way.