Why do companies use social media in China? This article addresses these questions and more. Written by Andrea Fenn, as featured in the February Shanghai Business Review.
When in the mid-2000s automobile brands like Volkswagen or Honda started leveraging Chinese online forums to talk about their nameplates, the world of Chinese social media was muddy ground for doing business. Rules were unclear, governmental control was tight and the Chinese Internet audience seemed more interested in online games than in brand and product information.
Five years later, social media have become a core platform for brands to spread messages to their audience and to build supporters’ communities. This is because of the unrestrained growth of Internet usage in China, and because Chinese Netizens have evolved to a more mature, informed and consumption-prone audience.
China’s Netizens: Many and Active According to the China Internet Network Information Center, the official voice about Internet usage in China, the Chinese Internet population has today reached around 404 million. With a 5.2% growth from 2009, China’s Internet population is the world’s biggest, bigger than the entire population of the Middle East. But what is even more pronounced is the level of participation of Chinese Internet users in social media. The latest China Social Network Report indicates that roughly 54.7% of Netizens in China users today own or visit blogs, and 47.3% have a page on one or more social networking site (SNS). More than 25% write 10 or more posts on forums, blogs or SNS every day, and 92.3% of Netizens visit social media pages at least three times a week, while 27.1% have pages on five or even more different social networks. Social media is progressively becoming a crucial element in the lives of Chinese people, as it allows them to gain entry to social circles and information that would not be otherwise accessible because of distance, governmental control or other constrictions.
Farflung Relations, Dull Media Firstly, the sheer size of the Chinese territory is a limit to keeping long-distance relationships, getting in touch with old friends and meeting new people outside one’s work nucleus. Thanks to social media, Netizens can keep the threads of their lives together and expand them without resorting to overnight train journeys or expensive long-distance calls. As a consequence, China is the only country in the world where people say they have more friends online than offline, stated an MTV Research in late 2008.
Secondly, because of the restricted availability of information on traditional media, social media have become an invaluable resource for Chinese to access the “other side of the story”, and information they would not be able to find anywhere else.
This is true for political discussion and social issues, but it is also true for brands. As many foreign products are often unavailable outside tier-one cities and official information about them is often limited or only available in foreign languages, social networks have become the privileged forum for Chinese consumers to find news about brands and products and share experiences about their shopping habits.
Trust “Strangers With Experience” According to the 2010 TNS Digital Life Report, China is the first country in the world for number of Netizens who join social networks to find information about brands. And the Internet is a trusted source, as 2010 Global Web Index indicates that Netizens trust reviews and insights on social media three times more than a recommendation from an acquaintance in a bar.
International Brands Join the Conversation Facing the thirst for information and consumption of Chinese Netizens, international brands are entering full force the Chinese social media space. Not long ago it was not unusual for even internationally reputed brands not to have a Chinese-language version of their website. Today, most brands have a branded page in SNS like Kaixin or Renren, from which they broadcast tailored messages for their Chinese audiences.
This is true for multinational corporations with a huge retail footprint in China like KFC or Coca-Cola, which have been active on social media since early times and now have communities of hundreds of thousand fans on Chinese SNS. However, it is also true for brands that have been slow in penetrating the Chinese market or that have lagged behind in terms of brand definition in China. Sportswear brand Reebok has suffered from unclear brand positioning and poor sales in the past few years, and is now straightening its status in the Chinese market by aggressively building communities and buzz on social media.
Chinese Brands: Slow Start, But Now Innovating While Chinese brands have been somewhat slow in understanding the potential of social networks, now they have developed their own approach to social media, and are quickly moving to leading the way in the field. The reason is mostly cultural: as western social networks like Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, the Chinese counterparts developed in China are not just replicas, but rather new original creations that incorporate elements of the local culture and Internet customs. The Sina Microblog, the Chinese alternative to Twitter, try to appeal to multimedia-loving Chinese Netizens and thus has extremely well developed video and photo sharing functions, better even than Twitter itself. At the same time, because 140 Chinese characters can say much more than 140 alphabetical characters, Sina Microblog is being used for more complete communications than mere short messages, which made it more suitable for a wider range of audiences and purposes.
Local brands have been better interpreting the peculiarities of “Made in China” social media, and in the past few months they have crafted extremely successful digital campaigns that will set the tone of advertising trends in China for the years to come.
Strong Case Study: Vancl Most notable is the case of ready-to-wear brand Vancl: in April 2010, Vancl created parody versions of its own commercial, substituting official sponsor celebrity writer Han Han with new figures and modifying the slogan, and distributed it online without disclosing the official provenience. The strategy aimed at leveraging the growing popularity of “online mockery”: the tendency of Chinese Netizens of ridicule, distort and customize online content as a means to express themselves.
The mocking campaign generated immediate reactions online: Netizens posted thousands of user-generated mock-versions of the Vancl commercial, and the phenomenon of online mockery became subject of wide attention in the Chinese public opinion. Few months later, the term fan ke ti (Vancl-ization) has already become a new popular idiom in the Chinese Internet vocabulary.
While it is hard to predict what changes will take place on Chinese social networks in the close future, lessons such as Vancl’s suggest that the social media space is bound to become more crowded with local companies. “Made in China” campaigns are soon bound to become trendsetters for the direction of online marketing in China. To be successful, online marketing efforts of western brands will have to pay more and more attention to the peculiarities of the Chinese Internet culture and structure.
Andrea Fenn is Regional Digital Strategist at Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence Shanghai, the social media strategy team of Ogilvy. Andrea helps foreign brands or organizations understand and plan communication strategies on Chinese social media. He also writes on Chinese and foreign media about communication, social issues and lifestyle in China.