Chinese consumers are addicted to social media, a recent Forrester Research study declared. And marketers show no sign of curbing their intention to feed that habit.
China is a digital landscape that plays by its own set of rules. And as one of the most valuable and fastest growing digital playgrounds on the planet, it’s also one of the most complex for marketers to navigate. But there are some areas of innovation that could point out a path to success.
China’s advertising spend in 2014 is likely to reach US$535.5 million, 24.6 per cent of Asia’s five collective markets, Forrester Research claims. Its report, “Asia Pacific Social Media Advertising Spending Forecast, 2014 To 2019” projects spending on social media advertising in Asia-Pacific to hit $5.8 billion by 2019, across marketers in Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Expect China to be the greatest contributor to this growth.
And as in most markets around the world, mobile technology is behind much of the growth in social media investment and innovation in China.
“When investing in social and digital, mobile should be the lens you view everything through,” said Alice Hu, manager, social & digital, Asia at MSL Group. “China understands the importance of mobile. Chinese netizens use multiple digital devices and share extensively about their lives on WeChat and other platforms. In China you have to be mobile-centric and localise content.”
The country’s social media ad spend should almost triple to $1.7 billion in 2019, overtaking Japan’s $1.6 billion. This excludes mobile messaging apps such as Kakao Talk, Line, WeChat, and WhatsApp.
While the importance for brands to reach the hypersocial Chinese market is clear, China’s fragmented social media space makes it a challenge. The homegrown social and digital ecosystem is unique and where opportunity lies.
“The social media experience in China is increasingly mobile and closed,” said Jeremy Webb, National Director of Social@Ogilvy. “There’s nothing particularly Chinese about the importance of mobile, but the increasingly closed nature of social, on the other hand, is a trend particularly relevant to China right now.”
Weibo, explains Webb, is a totally open platform – as a brand or an ordinary user, your social interactions are there for anybody to see. WeChat, on the other hand, is relatively closed – you have to be friends with somebody to see their posts. Since users can more closely control who sees their interactions, this has led to a far more “intimate” social experience.
“It is due to this intimacy, and the fear of irritating their friends, that people are much more careful about what they share; as a result, brands are finding it harder to be shared,” added Webb. Despite its closed nature, marketers still seem to be moving towards the platform.
Community and conversation
Figures from April this year showed that, in China, QZone claims to have the highest number of active social networking users with 625 million. In a report (Social, Digital & Mobile in China 2014) by social media agency We Are Social, stated WeChat and Sina Weibo, “the current ‘darlings’ of Chinese social media”, had 355 million and 129 million monthly active users respectively.
But numbers aren’t everything. An article in the South China Morning Post in April this year revealed that just 5 per cent of Weibo users generate almost all its messages.
“We’re also seeing a lot of movement toward WeChat,” said Rand Han, founder and managing director at Resonance, a social media agency. “But brands are still trying to grasp how to best use the channel. Some brands use it as a magazine, publishing branded content periodically. Others build mini site engagements to drive interaction.”
Hu believes that while the industry is still struggling to connect the sales dots to the social media dots, WeChat holds the solution for marketers.
“WeChat is the tool to bring everything together, to be the catalyst of social business. It can be used to benefit all business units within a company and user analytics from WeChat to impact business objectives.”
Meanwhile Rand suggests that the social media landscape in China is maturing, and this is resulting in better content, better key opinion leader (KOL) usage and partnerships, and better creation of communities.
Community, beyond immediate family that unifies people in other ways, such as though hobbies, fandom or other interests, is fertile ground. “The most successful brands are building communities through a multi-pronged digital strategy and channel support network,” he said.
Haiyi Tang and Tianyu Xu from social media agency We Are Social echoed Rand’s suggestion of a shift towards WeChat as a way for brands to build communities and develop conversations.
“The social ecosystem in China is becoming increasingly interactive, and as a result, the platform focus has shifted from Weibo to WeChat,” the two explained.
“WeChat allows for more ‘personal’ social interactions, and is more tailored to two-way conversations. This interactivity isn’t just valuable for users though; it also presents interesting opportunities for brands who want to listen and engage with their audiences.”
Conversation my not seem like a startling innovation but for brands with print, TV and radio, the talk has always been one way. Now that consumers can really respond, the trick is for brands to start listening and turn what people say into insights for better service, new marketing or even product development.
Tang and Xu (We Are Social), reiterate the idea. They believe brands need to move away from using social media like a broadcast medium, which misses the real opportunities the channel presents.
“The most successful brands actively engage their consumers – they’re listening to organic social media conversations, and fostering genuine dialogue around what matters to their audiences. Brands in China do best when they are proactive listeners. For example, successful brands on Weibo actively respond to fans’ questions on a regular basis; they also create interesting content around those conversations, and demonstrate a focus on inspiring and adding value to their communities, not just ‘selling stuff’.
Getting it right with content
People are more selective about what they share and feel less comfortable sharing a piece of branded content on a closed system, Webb said.
He argues that for brands to be successful, the area where they need to innovate most is coming up with even more insightful and engaging content.
He also pointed to CRM functionality. “Brands need to go beyond content to make the most of WeChat. A successful WeChat strategy will look more like a combination of a CRM, e-commerce and social media content strategy,” he said.
“WeChat allows for some terrific CRM functionality, such as new forms of segmentation and targeted messaging; similarly, WeChat has done some great payment innovation.”
Hu says companies who do well in this space understand that Chinese netizens love to share their lives and take photos at every opportunity. Why not leverage the selfie?
“User generated content (UGC),” she said “is rapidly churned out. Brands can be even more engaging by leveraging UGC. More importantly, driving the conversation and type of content created. Use fans to speak for you in an age where not only Chinese but most people don’t trust what big companies have to say and look to their friend circles for information.”
The common innovation among successful brands to put communities, conversation and content to work is channel integration, Rand believes. Content needs to be adapted for each channel, and not simply copied over from place to place, to achieve the best quality messaging. “Social media done right really needs an intimate understanding of the consumer, it is the glue that brings each channel together.”
Webb too explained that that brands need to think less about social media platforms and more about the communities, conversation and content that people engage with.
“This might some counter-intuitive, but it’s based on my insight that “the best social media campaigns are not social media campaigns”.