The Social Media Landscape of China
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Get Social in China

Companies that enter the Chinese market and simply roll out their existing social media marketing strategy are often left disappointed when customers don’t come running. Creating a customised solution is essential.


‘If you are going to generate the kind of reaction you want from a marketing campaign, you need to be speaking to people’s hearts through their own language, not just one they understand.’ Chris Rowley, Global Business Development Manager at YBD


The immediate challenge any newcomer to China faces is that most of the familiar apps used for digital marketing in the West are blocked. There is no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram… so which social media channels provide the best route to potential clients and customers?

Which Weibo?

The two key social media apps for business in China are Sina Weibo and WeChat. People often talk about ‘Weibo’, which is the Chinese word for ‘microblog’, as if it is a brand name in itself. In fact, there are an array of different companies that provide Weibo platforms—for example, Tencent Weibo, People’s Weibo, Phoenix Weibo and Sohu Weibo—so it’s important to distinguish between your Weibos. And it makes sense to opt for the most popular one, Sina Weibo, which was established in 2009 and now has in excess of 500 million registered users and over 210 million active users and climbing.

Sina Weibo, with its 140-character limit for written posts, users’ uploaded videos, images and gifs, and the ability to ‘follow’ any other user without them following back, is distinctly Twitteresque. Unlike tweeters, though, Sina Weibo users post more on weekends than weekdays suggesting it’s used more for ‘personal’ than ‘business’ pursuits. However, as approximately 85 per cent of Weibo users access the app via their mobile phone, it does provide an important conduit for brands to communicate with consumers, whether promoting new products or instantly responding to customer feedback.

The rise of WeChat

While a presence on Sina Weibo is still advisable, WeChat looks set to become the pre-eminent social media tool for businesses in China in the future. Launched in 2010 under the name ‘Weixin’ in China, the app was rebranded a couple of years later for the international market as WeChat and is experiencing explosive growth. The number of WeChat monthly active users increased from 500 million to 700 million between March 2015 and 2016—90 per cent of WeChat users are in China, but it is also gaining popularity in other Far East countries and South Africa. Originally, conceived as an instant messaging service along the lines of Whatsapp, it is evolving into something more akin to a one-stop life-management app, with all services optimised for smartphone access. ‘You can do everything from ordering taxis and paying for meals at restaurants because you can choose to link it to your bank account,’ says Yanyan E. Ding, Country Manager at YBD’s China office in Suzhou City, Jiangsu. As more consumers use smartphones on the journey to making a purchasing decision—and even to make the final purchase—WeChat’s importance looks set to increase further.

WeChat has pioneered the use of QR codes with benefits for building B2B and B2C relationships. ‘You may have a QR code at a trade show or your shop which clients or consumers can scan then follow you,’ says Yanyan E. Ding. ‘Once they follow you, messages are sent as a push notification to subscribers so marketing messages reach their target audience. People of all ages use WeChat now, so it’s a very important tool for marketing and its becoming progressively more important for sales.’ ‘If I call someone’s mobile phone and they save my number, I will show up in WeChat as a person they can add to their network. Once you are connected, you can ‘like’ and comment on their content to show that, ‘Hey, we’re still here’ and interested in communicating further.’

Youku, not Youtube

By the way, posting links to your old YouTube channel from your sparkly new Weibo and WeChat platforms won’t work in China (yes, YouTube is blocked too). No problem, though – you just need to create a Youku channel instead and upload videos relevant to your Chinese target audience there.

Oreo and LEGO

So how are foreign companies getting social in China in practice? Take the examples of Oreo, manufacturers of the world’s bestselling cookie, and LEGO, the biggest toy company in the world. One of Oreo’s most successful social campaigns was ‘Emoji Bonding’ via WeChat, targeted at time-poor parents who worry about not having enough communications with their kids. Millions of parents and children enjoyed pasting photos of their faces – or those of well-known celebrities – into emojis and sharing their creations.

Chinese consumers respond very well to promotions, coupons and competitions which should be an important part of any social marketing plan. For instance, LEGO offers discounts via Tmall, its dedicated B2C platform within its consumer ecommerce site. LEGO was also among the Danish brands who participated in the Danish General Consulate of Shanghai’s ‘Double 11’ promotion for China’s biggest e-shopping day, November 11th. Traffic is driven to such promotions via Weibo (the company has over 400,000 Weibo ‘fans’) and WeChat (which LEGO delivers a bundled post once a week).

Speak to the heart

What is clear is that, whether writing 140-character posts on Weibo or longer-form articles for consumption via WeChat, your copy needs to be delivered in Chinese. ‘We work with a number of Scandinavian companies in China,’ says Yanyan E. Ding, ‘and even though the top management may be Danish or Swedish, the local staff and consumers are Chinese and they prefer reading in Chinese as most are not that proficient in English.’ ‘If you are going to generate the kind of reaction you want from a marketing campaign, you need to be speaking to people’s hearts through their own language, not just one they understand,’ explains Chris Rowley, Global Business Development Manager at YBD. ‘As a Western company going into China, you can’t just maintain the status quo with your social media. You need to be speaking in Chinese to the Chinese, localising your communications as required, and making sure what you’re doing is culturally relevant.’