10 Tips: The Social Media Landscape in China

The culture, language and networks of China are vastly different than those in Europe and the U.S. And if brands want to thrive in the region, they’ll need to seamlessly integrate new forms of media as part of the customer journey.

What if a single social media platform integrated commerce, location, messaging, and social networking? I won’t bother marking your 2020 calendars because the service already exists and is being rapidly adopted by Chinese consumers.

A colleague in our Beijing office told me how she’d shared photos with her family of her daughter’s first day at nursery, and a recommendation and map for a new yoga studio with a group of friends. She helped a colleague benchmark property prices, bought groceries and then ordered a cab. On her way home she browsed the latest fashions by a hip young Shanghai designer.

She did this in ten minutes flat … on a single app.

This app is the fifth largest online community in the world after Facebook, YouTube, QQ and WhatsApp. It’s also the fastest growing, 600 million active users and 40percent growth in 2014 alone. It’s called Wēixìn (WeChat in other markets) from a company called Tencent.

Wēixìn isn’t the only social network in China.

Weibo is a mix of Facebook and Twitter with 600 million users. It is more open than Wēixìn, enabling more two-way conversation but is fast being overtaken by the newer entrant.

Finally there’s LinkedIn and Renren. LinkedIn is a new entrant to the market. It is working hard to integrate with local culture. Renren is mainly used by students and has been overtaken by Wēixìn and Weibo.

Social media monitoring and planning tools are nascent. It is firmly a work in progress. Social forms of media offer a huge opportunity for brands.

The challenge in building communities and relationships with consumers in China is no different than any other market.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips for brands exploring opportunities in China:

1. Market
Hong Kong has traditionally been the entry point for European and US companies seeking to start out in China. It’s a good well-connected base but is no replacement for heading to the mainland.

2. Politics
If you want to work in the market you must respect its politics and structures. The Chinese people are very proud of their culture and heritage. Any foreign effort to color outside of the lines will be met with heavy resistance.

3. Networks
Whenever you travel, share your plans on LinkedIn or Twitter. People in your network will connect with you, provide insights and offer to make introductions (click to tweet). There are plenty of expats and Chinese business people willing to help.

4. Chinese operations
The governance for starting a business in China is complex. The most common route for an organization is in partnership with a local company. It’s a good way to learn about the market and de-risk an investment.

5. Research
Seek help from embassies and trade organizations. There’s also a large community of Chinese expat students in Europe and the US who will also help you better understand the market.

6. Mobile
China’s Internet users are mobile. Content needs to be designed for mobile first and should integrate with a call to action, typically a purchase, as quickly as possible.

7. Social media
Use both Weibo and Wēixìn for content marketing. Integrate offline wherever possible. You’ll need paid effort for influencers or to sponsor communities. Build direct relationships with customers.

8. Content without boundaries
Media censorship is a reality in China. VPNs, and messages passed back and forth via social media, make it porous. Do not regard it as isolated or separate from other markets.

9. Creative
European and US companies are celebrated by Chinese consumes for their content and design. Western brands should use these strengths as the foundation of their marketing and storytelling efforts.

10. Speed
The Chinese market is vibrant and fast-moving. WeChat is three years old and launched micro-payments 18 months ago. It will almost certainly have completely transformed in another 18-months.