One of the most common statements we hear from international companies is that ‘China is so different!’ Yes, the Chinese market is unique and challenging, but also filled with many opportunities. Don’t dream about being successful here by copying the strategies back home. To win the heart of Chinese consumers, you have to understand the differences and adapt to the local environment.
To begin with, the online landscape in China is different. Forget about Google, Facebook and other worldwide platforms, most of them are not working in China due to the Internet censorship. However, there’s a counterpart for nearly everything: Google is replaced by Baidu, Twitter is replaced by Weibo, eBay is replaced by Taobao (with way more vendors & merchants)… Although these ‘doppelgangers’ bear similar functionalities, when it comes to marketing, the rules are completely different.
Secondly, consumer behavior in China is also unique. When buying online, Westerners usually research for products on Google, and then go to brand stores to place an order. In China, however, everything happens on ecommerce marketplace. People tend to search for products on Tmall or JD (two of the biggest local platforms), and place their orders directly within the platform. Meanwhile, Chinese consumers are used to consult customer service BEFORE they make a purchase (asking about size, delivery, material…), therefore, a live chat tool is essential for your online sales in China.
With all the differences and ‘culture shock’, how to approach Chinese consumers online? The answer is: 1-to-1 communication. Think about the market size here: regardless of what your product is, you’ll find thousands of competitors selling the same, probably even at lower price! Moreover, you can’t count on your western heritage either. With so many international brands flooding in China, imported products are less and less associated with ‘premium’, and the local consumers have switched their focus to quality and the brand story behind. Hence, the only way to win the heart of consumers is to show that you really understand and care about them.
Nonetheless, no single channel fits for all the billions of consumers. Successful online communication in China always involves multiple channels, so as to follow and engage consumers along their journey.
Technical setup for email marketing in China is different. Due to the heavy censorship, emails sent from a foreign server are likely to be blocked. So it’s important for international companies to hire a local server. Moreover, obtaining an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license in China could further secure your email delivery rate. An ICP license is basically a permit to your online activities: building a website, sending email/ SMS/Wechat…you name it. You can apply for such a license through the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), however, be aware that the application process is fully in Chinese.
Meanwhile, Global email providers such as Gmail or Hotmail are not accessible in China. To get your mailings in people’s inbox, make sure that you are complying with the rules from the local ISPs. For example: 1) Add [AD] to your subject line for promotional emails; or 2) Avoid words such as ‘free’ /‘best’, or any sensitive terms.
When it comes to email design, Chinese consumers are big fans of icons. It’s proven that including emoji/icons in the subject line could boost open rate, especially for ecommerce/retail industries.
Apart from sending promotion info, SMS in China is also combined with email for database cleaning. Once someone subscribes/becomes a member, a welcome email will be triggered. If the email is bounced back due to invalid address, an SMS will be triggered to remind the user of the wrong email address. The user is able to change his/her email address simply by replying to the SMS with the correct one.
SMS can also be connected with social media to enlarge your database. For example, Lacoste included a QR code in its MMS. After scanning the code, users are directed to an H5 page to win a trip to Sanya. Personal information is required for a lucky draw, and in this way, Lacoste was able to both create a social buzz and collect useful information from subscribers.
WeChat is by far the No.1 killer app in China, and it’s basically What’s App + Facebook +Amazon all-in-one. On average, young adults in China spend 4 hours on using the app. Nevertheless, when combined with Location-based-service (LBS), WeChat could help to direct foot traffic to your offline stores.
Many Wechat users tend to enable in-app location service, making it possible for brands to track where their customers are on a real-time basis. When a user is wandering around your store, a WeChat message can be triggered to inform him/her about promotions in the store(s) close by; or send a promotion code that can be redeemed in a nearby store. By doing so, brands are able to boost store visit and increase sales.
KOL (Key Opinion Leader)
The use of channels mentioned above requires companies to have their own database already in place. For those who are complete strangers to the Chinese market, how to accumulate massive subscribers within a short time? The answer is KOL.
KOLs in China are centered around industries such as fashion, cosmetics, and the show biz. They garner from thousands to hundreds of millions of followers. The only task for a company is to inform the KOL about the goal of the campaign, and then the KOL would be able to plan online content and execute the campaign on his/her own. KOL campaign in one of the most efficient way to obtain members/subscribers with targeted demographics.
In Chinese New Year 2017, Mr. Bag (one of the most popular Chinese KOL in fashion, with more than 3 million followers social media) collaborated with Strathberry (Scottish luxury brand) to offer a special handbag collection for Chinese consumers. Weeks before the sale, Mr. Bag published posts on social media (Weibo and Wechat) as a warm-up for the product release. These posts got tens of thousands of reposts and ‘LIKEs’. Finally, within only 3 hours after the official release, all the 400 bags were sold out!
In conclusion, the Chinese market is unique and ever-changing, marketers need to fully understand the differences and integrate the right channels to communicate with the right audiences at the right time.