What Makes Chinese Social Media Different
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Chinese social media logos

Social media in China tends to change very fast. Not so long ago, Sina Weibo was the last word when it came to connecting with the Chinese people. Now, it’s WeChat, though Weibo still has a major stake. However, it’s not just the platforms themselves that you need to keep up with, but also the way your competitors and your target audience are using them.

Social media marketers will find that while there are many similarities with their practices elsewhere, there are also distinctions, with two coming to mind instantly: one is scale (of course, as with everything China) and the other is censorship. But what else is typical to China? What should you keep in mind when launching your social media campaigns for China?

1. Ahead of the curve

While instant messaging services are slowly gaining momentum in the US, the top ones in China such as WeChat and QQ are all the rage and command a universe of commerce within their app environments. Almost every top Chinese social network worth its salt is already making money via its messenger app, or has immediate plans to. It will take some time for Western messaging apps to equal the reach and monetization level of their Chinese counterparts.

Even on other platforms, developments are often fast-paced and set the trends for their Western equivalents. When Twitter was still considering excluding pictures, videos, and links from the character count, Sina Weibo had already done it a few months ago. Twitter has since followed suit, of course. Weibo also got rid of the 140-character limit in the same move, but has retained the limit for the post preview. That may not be the best move for Twitter, but that’s another discussion.

2. WeChat is inescapable

If there is only one social network you can afford to be on, look no further than WeChat. With more than 650 million users, it rules the web in China and is a global trendsetter when it comes to messaging apps.

WeChatters are also the most likely to indulge in some social shopping, according to China Internet Watch. Not surprising, given that WeChat is at the center of consumers’ daily lives, helping them access many services such as buying movie tickets, booking a flight, transferring money and more. Companies can create an app or a mini-site within WeChat and let users add them, just like they would add contacts. WeChat offers a choice of service or subscription accounts, depending on how many times you would ideally like to message users.

With a service account, you can only message users four times a month, unless the user interacts with your app, in which case you can send unlimited messages to the user for the next 48 hours. With a subscription account, however, you can send one message to the user every day, but this type of account has far less functionality than a service account.

Businesses have latched on to WeChat and are using it in different ways to put themselves at the forefront of the user’s social media landscape. And why not? If you do it right, the user engagement rate is pretty high. According to AdMaster, 88.5% of consumers interact with WeChat Moments feed ads. Durex launched a “Shoot for a miracle” HTML5 game campaign on WeChat during the 2014 Brazil FIFA World Cup. It attracted 500,000 users, with every visit lasting an average of 179 seconds and each user playing the game 3.85 times.

While Starbucks uses its WeChat app to educate users about its range of products, many companies such as China Southern and China Merchant Bank provide customer service from their WeChat accounts.

Predominantly app-based businesses like Evernote are integrating right into WeChat. This is the best way for them to get maximum interaction with users, while, of course, not disrupting their WeChat experience. This is a very smart move, as most app users in China are known to abandon apps after a week. So, don’t waste time on native app experiences; instead channel your energy into building your app on top of WeChat.

3. More receptivity towards business communication

Most users in the Western world would cringe at the thought of adding a company as a contact in their messaging app. Not so in China. If they like a product or service, there is a good chance that they may add it to their WeChat account, even if sometimes they have to take an additional step of scanning a QR code. QR codes are a great way to bridge the gap between online and offline — you are dead without them in China.

The Chinese also don’t particularly hate ads in social media: about 30% of netizens “embrace” them, according to Kantar, the data investment management division of WPP.

China social media marketing

Attitude towards ads in social media in China. Source: Kantar Social Media Impact Report 2016

They also trust social media more than they trust traditional news outlets. Peer recommendations invoke more confidence than formal institutions, and companies definitely need to make this work in their favor.

4. No social media without gaming

When in China, you need to be a gamer. According to Wikipedia, two-thirds of China’s online population plays games on their mobile device. Add to this the fact that more than half of social media users are under the age of 30, and you have the perfect recipe for social gaming.

Tencent, which backs QQ and WeChat, has seen revenue soar from value-added services such as gaming. Renren, dubbed as China’s Facebook, is focusing on turning itself into a gaming portal. Online gaming is also an important subject on Baidu Tieba, a hugely popular bulletin board of sorts: its World of Warcraft bar (forum) has six million users.

So, whether or not your business has anything to do with gaming, it’s a strategy that you would do well to incorporate into your marketing campaigns. Gaming makes the user feel in control, and thus, builds a sense of ownership with the brand. In a nation crazy about gaming, it’s the fodder for social conversation.

5. Big Data is as important as elsewhere

As many as 91% of Chief Marketing Officers of Chinese companies believe that “…it is inevitable that we’ll have to connect all network and data platforms”, while 89% of CMOs agree that “…marketing won’t work without the support and application of technologies.” The sheer size of Chinese social media makes it imperative for businesses to use data science to help figure everything out.

Not just that, a lot of ecommerce in China takes place on third-party platforms such as social media sites and messaging apps. Big Data analysis is necessary to capture the hundreds of thousands of data points related to transaction records, such as product reviews, prices that were paid, and how many products were bought on certain dates. In that sense, it’s perhaps imperative to use Big Data more in China than elsewhere.

6. Conversation is light

The popular topics on Sina Weibo are usually around jokes and videos, as opposed to current events on Twitter. Even on other networks, “emotional” and entertainment-related posts show better engagement. Emotional content usually refers to that dealing with advice on love and relationships, while entertainment predominantly includes gaming. So, in general, lighter topics curry more favor than those related to society and politics.

It’s not easy to make a dent in the very competitive world of Chinese social media. Tactics that work elsewhere can’t be simply imported here: the platforms are different, so are the rules. Yet many Western companies have been successful, too, by keeping their ear to the ground, understanding what their audience wants, and delivering it at the right time and right place. To that extent, Chinese social media is more of the same.