Whether it is a realistic business proposition or not, many Western businesses will look to China at one point or another with a view of entering the marketing and making vast sums of money. At least that’s the theory.
China is a vast country with a lot of people becoming increasingly aware of Western brands and products (really). This is the prize that many Western brands seek and why so many are already in China trying to establish their market position. For those involved in marketing, and digital marketing in particular, China presents a whole set of different challenges: Consumers behave differently, salespeople use different styles of pitching and even the way many goods are paid for by consumers is quite different that in Western markets. Additionally, China is home to an enormous number of Internet companies with unfamiliar names who have almost unbelievable numbers of users. Obviously, companies looking to develop their brands in China must adopt different approaches to developing their brands.
The starting point for Western companies is to understand where their brand(s) have advantage over indigenous products and service providers. Generally, Western brands (especially the luxury market) have high levels of perceived reliability and authenticity and, unfortunately for many consumers, high tarrifs as well. This perceived reliability and authenticity account for a huge part of interest in Western brands. This applies to both B2C and B2B markets. So given these perceptions, many digital marketers need to find ways of amplifying these feelings and reaching a broad (target) group.
The social web is an excellent channel to emphasize these attributes. But if there is no web presence, or the presence does not meet cultural or commercial expectation, it can be extremely damaging to brand equity. This is because the Chinese use the web to research purchases far more than counterparts elsewhere. They like content heavy websites, and frequently look beyond first page search results. And the absence of a website indicates a Company with no credibility. You must have a website, even a simple one to be taken seriously in China. This truism is amplified by the fact that Chinese consumers tend to be skeptical of “official” reviews and ratings of products, instead trusting what other consumers have written around the web.
A few key points in your Chinese website strategy – don’t just add Mandarin pages to a Western website. Pages will not be visible on Chinese search engines (like Baidu and Qihoo). It is therefore necessary to have a localized micro-site built from the ground up with Chinese browser habits, design/UX standards and your Chinese consumer persona in mind.
For accessibility and best SEO results, host your website within China or look at using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that has nodes in China. Note – if you host your site in China you will need to an ICP license which is required by the Chinese Government for all business websites, but obtaining one is a matter of formality and takes 2-4 weeks.
The 650 million plus Chinese Internet users are far more likely to access the web from a mobile device (about 85% of web assess comes via mobile device). Further, it is very common for Chinese consumers to check prices in an online store like Taobao or JD.com while physically shopping in a retail outlet. Also, as mentioned earlier, social media is used far more when making purchasing decisions. Chinese will post on review sites, share in micro-blogs and write in BBS’s about the likes/dislikes. In the luxury sector 70-80 percent of purchases are made based on peer-driven social media recommendation.
A key difference in China compared to the West is that there is a much broader demographic that use the Internet on a regular basis. There are no age, social or income groups that do not use it more intensely than Western counterparts, and all are highly influenced by peer recommendations. They want to learn about value, but also learn about the latest trends and fashions. The latter applies to large ticket items in particular.
Although there are equivalents to Facebook, Youtube and Twitter—all with their own unique functionality—there are also high volume niche social media platforms such as Qzone or Renren, which are used primarily by vast numbers of newly graduated students. Also hugely popular are Youku or Tudou–video sharing sites equivalent to Youtube. [Note: for more information on Chinese internet platforms, have a peek at our internet company wheel].
Paid search (PPC) is a powerful tool in China, but it does not work in the same way as in the West. The biggest difference arises from the language structure. This fundamental difference directly affects the bidding for keywords and optimisation/structure of accounts. For example, ‘phrase match’ on Baidu (the Google equivalent in China) acts more like ‘modified broad match’ – broad match modifier does not exist yet on Baidu PPC.
Also, ‘broad match’ captures far more queries due to the complexity of the Chinese language. Other extensions such as Baidu Brandzone are also unique to the Chinese search engine. Although Baidu boasts a 75% search market share, Qihoo is quickly developing as a competitor search engine and should be considered in a search strategy.
SEO also works differently in China. The Baidu spider is quite different than the Google bot, and generally does not crawl deeper than three levels within website structures – sites that have thousands of pages that have been indexed on Google might only have hundreds that index on Baidu. The ranking algorithm is also different on Baidu. Many Western brands do not even have first page visibility for their own brand names. This issue this is primarily due to a Google-centric SEO strategy that does not work on Baidu. Google in a post-Panda [the algorithm changes implemented by Google, not the cute bear] world is looking for ‘content’ when in many cases Baidu is looking for local inbound links.
The key things to remember about digital marketing in China is that browsing and social media habits are far more intense than in many other markets. This presents brands with great opportunities to engage with consumers and influence purchasing habits in the short, medium and long term. Combined with the generic interest in all things Western, it gives Western companies a very effective means of engaging with consumers.
Treat your Chinese consumers with the greatest of respect because although they love Western brands, they are quick to share poor experiences and brand loyalty is short lived.