Reaching Chinese Audiences Through Social Media

Despite reports of the various problems in China, the country’s economy continues to grow, serving as an enticing target to local and foreign entities wanting to expand there.

Skyline of Shanghai, China's largest city and mainland China's business center.

Skyline of Shanghai, China's largest city and mainland China's business center.

The country is positioned to surpass Japan as the world’s second largest economy (after the recession-stricken U.S. economy) at the end of this year, according to Tom Rauch of the Associated Press.

Although the use of the Internet and various forms of social media are heavily censored and monitored, Internet and mobile phone use in China is on the rise. This provides organizations willing to make some investment in social media as part of their strategy with plenty of opportunity to make inroads into the Chinese market.

Much like in the U.S. market, being informed, being authentic and engaging in conversation would serve a company well. But to successfully carry out a social media campaign in China, companies should also recognize the differences in the Chinese market, and tailor their strategies and choices of social media tools to the conditions of that market.

In a recent article, Forbes stated that Chinese Internet users, also known as netizens, spend nearly two billion hours online each week, compared to 129 million hours per week for users in the United States. These numbers reflect only a limited portion of the population, not a majority, so the growth could be significantly higher in years to come.

The 298 million people online only account for 23 percent of the Chinese population and may not offer the greatest reach cities beyond a certain tier, according to Sam Flemming, CEO and co-founder of CIC, a leading Internet Word of Mouth (IWOM) Research and Consulting firm in China.

Despite the small percentage, for those on the web, it is indeed a primary media, according to Flemming.

“Numerous studies have suggested that Chinese netizens spend upwards of twice the amount of time online as they do watching TV,” Flemming wrote. “Compared to traditional media, digital is so much more varied, exciting and open. It serves the primary platform for consumers to find information, be entertained and socialize: 81.5% of netizens get their news online and … QQ, China’s leading social internet platform, is bigger than Facebook.”

Social networking site QQ claims to have had more than 200 million monthly active users in January 2009.

Social networking site QQ claims to have had more than 200 million monthly active users in January 2009.

Flemming added that China has the most mobile phones in the world, and more people there access the Internet via mobile phone than other methods (they often access a site trough their phones before accessing via computer). According to Forbes, 400 million use cell phones in China, with over 6.1 million mobile users connecting online.

[The Forbes numbers are attributed to Dr. Charles Zhang, chairman and CEO of Beijing-based, an Internet company. The numbers are higher than those reported by other organizations, such as the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). According to Forbes, Zhang’s internal research revealed that Chinese Internet users numbered over 150 million (possibly up to 200 million) and that was in the top five most trafficked sites in the world. Zhang attributed the discrepancy and “lower-than-accurate” CNNIC numbers to the organization’s polling methodology (calling land lines).
“Young people do not use fixed line phones. They all have mobile phones,” Zhang said.]

Blogger Enid Burns quoted Netpop Research President John Crandall’s suggestion that businesses create unique experiences tailored to both the Web and mobile Web.

“It’s more important to do so now more than ever, and provide them [mobile users] with that experience that is tailored to that device, because it might be their first experience to the brand,” Crandall said. “Then bring them back to the PC, through the consistent login experience, a consistent branding experience, offering more marketing abilities through the computer, because the computer may offer more marketing real estate than the mobile device.”
Although the Chinese are using applications like Facebook and Twitter, and their equivalent or similar Chinese counterparts, Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) seem to be the most widely used form of social media. In 2008, there were over 3 billion registered BBS users in China. (A user may register on multiple forums.)

Although the relatively low Internet penetration rate, Flemming said, social participation is very high, with “more bloggers (162 million) and more places online to be social than any other market in the world.”

According to recent statistics on Internet use published by Shanghaiist, blogging is about five times more popular in China than in the U.S. Their report also states that the typical Chinese Internet user is likely to simultaneously listen to music online and use an instant messaging service.

Flemming had some recommendations to connect with the online community in China. Loosely paraphrased and augmented, they include the following:

Find out who’s talking and what they are talking about. Flemming wrote that to build connections, communicators must conduct a “community audit”, similar to a media audit. The community audit involves a systematic mapping out of key blogs, BBS forums, QQ groups and other community channels for the brand and its industry. As a result of conducting this audit, businesses gain insight into the communities and their culture, Flemming stated—including conversation topics, which topics are the most sticky or talked about, how topics are handled and how different groups (e.g., teenagers) are discussing them.

Contribute value to the community. By gaining insight into the various communities, marketers can identify opportunities to reach out and connect with the communities on another level. Flemming mentioned sponsorship of “fubai” or offline meet-ups by companies like Crocs as one example.

Connect with “efluencers”. Just like a business person maintains mutually beneficial relationships with traditional business contacts, marketers must also remember to maintain similar relationships with “effluencers”, or influencers.

Find your voice and use it. Engage consumers by listening and communicating with them online, not just in times of crisis, but also as a regular activity, such as providing advice on a specific topic or recommendations on the use of the company’s products. In discussing the challenge faced by computer manufacturers like Dell and Lenovo “is to find an authentic voice to talk back and participate in the conversation,” Flemming said. He added that Dell has multiple blogs, including one in Chinese, along with microblogging accounts on Twitter and the Chinese site Fanfou. (The latter was not available at the time this post was published.)

The Great Wall of China. Government efforts to monitor and censor the Internet are sometimes referred to as "the Great Firewall of China". Photo credit: National Geographic

The Great Wall of China. Government efforts to monitor and censor the Internet are sometimes referred to as "the Great Firewall of China". Photo credit: National Geographic

Marketers should also remember that, with the high engagement and high participation also comes significant government monitoring and censorship.

As evidenced earlier this month after the Xinjiang riots, the government can swiftly block or limit Internet and cell phone access as a means to control information flow to and from all or part of the country.

Disturbing though these practices might be, the situation is not likely to change any time soon, so marketers should remember that:

  • Social media should be treated as an element of their overall strategy (not the strategy)
  • Relationships should always be developed and maintained
  • Offline relationships are also valuable and can be key to maintaining continuity of operations in case of an online outage

One Response to Reaching Chinese Audiences Through Social Media

  1. Good and well researched overview of social media in China. You do a good job of using points made by Flemming and incorporating them into your wider post to make your point. The sources you use throughout the post help to make your points and lead to your conclusions. (4)

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