China has the world’s largest online population. More than 730,000,000 connected people and 58 percent of them use one or more social media platforms. Many are surprised to learn that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Google are all blocked in mainland China, but over the last decade many home-grown platforms have been created to fill the void and many now rival the size of their stateside counterparts.
China’s online ecosystem is dominated by Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Sina (commonly referred to as “BATS”) who between them have over two billion users spanning across multiple social media platforms. Being able to advertise, engage and even directly sell to such enormous numbers of people is a tantalising prospect for any company doing business in China. But successfully navigating through such a complex and fragmented ecosystem can be challenging for even the most experienced marketers. To help, here is a basic guide to the three biggest Chinese social media platforms.
WeChat 微信 (Wēixìn)
Boasting an incredible 768 million daily active users, WeChat is without a doubt the biggest and most important digital platform in China. The app lets users send free instant messages, make free voice and video calls, share statuses, photos and videos with friends, hail taxis, transfer money, use GPS services, shop online, make payments in store, book appointments, read articles, meet new people, play games and even recently introduced its own in-house app development tools. Put simply, WeChat has become engrained into the daily lives of the Chinese people to the point where it is so integral that they don’t even need to leave the house with cash and cards any more, let alone use any other apps.
With such deep-seated user dependency, it is clear to see that WeChat is vital for doing business in China. Companies operating there can set up customisable official accounts, similar to Facebook, which people can subscribe and follow. But, unlike the American social media giant, your posts will appear in your followers’ messages folder, which in turn enables you to communicate with them almost on a 1-1 basis. If you’re selling a product, you can even take orders and payments through it. These are the three different types of official accounts available to companies:
- Enterprise Account – Used for the internal management of a company’s operations, it acts as a mixture of Dropbox, instant messaging and project management. We will be exploring this in greater detail in a future article.
- Subscription Account – This is the most basic official account and suits organisations focused on sharing content. Although it enables you to post frequently (once per day) to your followers, they are not sent any push notifications, decreasing reach and engagement.
- Service Account – The best option for companies who wish to deliver products and services directly to their followers. Unlike a subscription account, posts get prominent position among other service accounts, with followers receiving push notifications when you post. However, the trade-off is post frequency is reduced to just one per week. Additionally, service accounts have access to all of WeChat’s unique features such as the WeChat store, customisable menus and other developer tools.
In regards to paid advertising, companies can have their adverts appear on users’ ‘Moments’ (similar to Facebook’s ‘News Feed’), however this feature is only available to accounts with more than 100,000 subscribers. For businesses and accounts of all sizes, QR codes are one of the most effective ways of generating followers. If you are in China you will see them everywhere so be sure to include them on your website and in other marketing materials.
WeChat’s advanced functionality and prominence in the daily lives of its users is a prime example of how China is shaping the future of mobile internet. It is an absolutely essential tool for any business seeking to promote their brand, products and services there.
TIP: Scanning other users’ QR codes is now beginning to replace the act of exchanging business cards so, if you are serious about doing business in China, ensure you download this app.
Weibo 微博 (Wēibó)
Weibo launched in 2009 and has since become the number one micro-blogging platform in China with over 290 million users. It is comparable to Twitter in size and engagement, although it is worth noting that Weibo has been growing at an exponential rate (revenue grew from $65 million in 2012 to $477 million in 2015). So, by the end of the decade, they will likely dwarf their stateside counterpart.
Like Twitter, posts are limited to 140 characters. In Chinese, however, this roughly equates to 70 words (similar to an average one on Facebook), meaning that users are able to write much longer posts and convey much more. Hashtags work the same way, except that they use a double-hashtag (for example “#ConnexusSeres#”) because the lack of spacing between Chinese characters requires a closing tag. Traditionally, Weibo was only available in Chinese but have begun implementing an English version, but that is still in its early phases.
Chinese consumers generally distrust traditional media sources and rely on recommendations from family and friends when making purchasing decisions. But, with the rise of social media, there has been a surge of ‘opinion leaders’ who have become enormously influential in their respective fields of interest. Unsurprisingly, advertisers have been flocking to these taste-makers in a bid to boost their promotions.
Weibo is a powerful platform for reaching a mass audience with viral posts, generating discussion and, in turn, promoting brands, products and services. Its large variety of advertising options can suit almost any budget and, when utilised alongside key opinion leaders, can significantly enhance the fortunes of any international company.
Youku 优酷 (Yōukù)
Youku merged with their closest competitor Tudou in 2012 to become the largest video sharing platform in China. Today they have over 150 million active users and 900 million daily video views. On the surface, it can seem almost identical to YouTube in terms of size and functionality – businesses can create their own channel on both platforms – but the key difference for companies considering Youku for their marketing strategy is its standing among the general population.
YoukuTudou have teamed up with over 1,500 license holders, including TV stations, distributors, film and TV production companies. The variety and quantity of video content is much greater than Chinese television, which has seen the act of watching TV and movies predominantly move online. This kind of high-quality content has enabled companies to place highly-targeted advertisements – around 2-5 minutes long – to huge numbers of users. Additionally, the majority of its users do so from their mobile devices, meaning these adverts can be seen anywhere, at any time.
As a result, advertising through Youku is considerably more cost effective than through traditional TV, a fact that has seen a whole host of companies from around the world flock there. As their main source of revenue, they are continuing to invest in more original content and licenses to expand their TV and movie database. Furthermore, teaming up with Alipay has enabled them to increase individual user subscriptions. So, with their popularity showing no signs of abating, Youku gives companies a unique opportunity to expose their offerings to the Chinese market with a massive captive audience across a variety of devices.
As with all social media marketing, reassuringly, the best method to build a large and loyal following is by creating original and engaging content for users to interact with. Companies should try not to get too bogged down in the technological differences, instead focusing on adapting their digital marketing strategy to China’s cultural and societal idiosyncrasies. To do this effectively requires a professional and adaptable marketing team that are able to keep pace with the rapid changes that occur in this vast social media landscape and agile enough to use them to stand out from the crowd.