Why Foreign Companies Should Take Chinese Social Media Seriously

February 9, 2014
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Over the New Year break, I took a vacation trip to Japan with my parents before we headed back to Chengdu, my hometown in China. One day, while we were riding a train in downtown Tokyo, my mom, who just finished replying to a Weixin comment on her Samsung Galaxy 3 that she bought a few weeks ago after she decided her iPhone 4S was too small, looked around and said to me, “Look, everyone on the train is playing with their cellphone. This is so interesting because I thought that was something that only happens in China.”

Over the New Year break, I took a vacation trip to Japan with my parents before we headed back to Chengdu, my hometown in China. One day, while we were riding a train in downtown Tokyo, my mom, who just finished replying to a Weixin comment on her Samsung Galaxy 3 that she bought a few weeks ago after she decided her iPhone 4S was too small, looked around and said to me, “Look, everyone on the train is playing with their cellphone. This is so interesting because I thought that was something that only happens in China.”

My 57-year-old mother suddenly reminded me how much our daily routines have altered by social media and mobile devices in the last few years. And this change can be felt across generations and countries–from New York, Tokyo to Chengdu, the obsession with social media and smartphones has quickly become a universal phenomenon.

The majority of my clients are multinational pharmaceutical companies with operations in China, where many of them have been enjoying double-digit growth in the last few years. Developing robust online communication strategies for the Chinese market has never been more important as the power of social media has reached a level that no marketers can ignore. Moreover, the giant “social crowd” continues to grow at a rapid speed as hundreds of thousands of new users joining the group every day.

What comes with this exciting trend is the reality that the operation environment for foreign companies is changing–the growth in Chinese market is estimated to further slowdown; preferential policies for foreign companies continue to diminish; more Chinese companies rise as competitors in both domestic and international markets. Marketers from foreign companies need to revisit their overall strategy for China. The approach to digital and social media can have a far-reaching impact on their overall business performance.

chinese social media

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A successful digital marketing strategy in China largely depends on an accurate grasp of the unique digital landscape of the country. Marketers from foreign companies need to take a fresh look at the leading Chinese technology companies in 2014 because they have been driving significant changes in the Chinese social media industry in the last few years. Huge success achieved by Chinese technology companies such as Tencent, creator of Weixin and Sina, developer of Weibo tells marketers of foreign brands that building trust and long-term relationships with these star players will be imperative to strengthen their relationship with Chinese consumers and sustain growth in the long run.

Meanwhile, the limited presence of U.S.-based social networks in China due to government policies highlights working with Chinese technologies is not only a practical approach but can strategically maintain the competitiveness and increase safety net for foreign companies

Programs Designed for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Won’t Work

Marketing leaders who often make strategic decisions in their home offices in the U.S. or in Europe can easily miss the reality that in the last few years, many small Chinese technology firms that started their business by copying Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have gradually incorporated unique features that have largely redefined their services. Additionally, original social media networks with hybrid features such as Weixin, a mobile social network that provides both message and microblog services, have outperformed many first-generation competitors (e.g., Weibo and RenRen), taking a larger share of the market. According to a recent New York Times article, the number of Weixin users has reached nearly 300 million within three years, a faster adoption rate than Facebook or Twitter.

For marketers of foreign brands, this change means that those “global digital communication plan” slides developed by New York-based PR agencies may experience major difficulties in execution in China because what has worked on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube cannot be easily adapted in China. The most effective Chinese social media channel for a foreign brand may include weird features based on local consumer preferences that a New York-based marketing executive has never heard of.

Marketers of foreign brands need to gain hands-on experience with Chinese social networks and understand at least the basics of the industry such as major players, key features and targeted users of each channel.

The Social Media Industry is Strategically Important for China   

no Facebook in chinaBy blocking access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and forcing Google out of the country, the Chinese government has sent a clear message to foreign technology companies how it handles social media. Very little evidence suggests the policy will change in the future, especially when data security became a major global concern in 2013 thanks to Edward Snowden.

In a recent HBR article, Ian Bremmer pointed out that social media is considered by many countries an industry that is strategically important for social stability and national security. In the case of China, Chinese technology companies may be the only options for multinational companies to reach Chinese consumers online. Establishing great relationships and building trust with major players is not only a practical approach for foreign companies to achieve marketing goals in the short run but also opens doors for potential strategic opportunities in Chinese market such as forming unique partnership and gaining exclusive access to targeted demographics, which supports the long-term growth of their businesses.

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