Digital Marketing in China: Interesting Times

What makes China such an interesting market right now is the confluence of so many mega-trends. The shift from an imitation to an innovation economy; impending economic cool down; the rapid evolution of social platforms; the change from an export economy to a robust domestic market, and the rise and rise of e-commerce. All these things are causing changes in the way businesses go to market and the way consumers engage with brands.

When growth is in the double digits for the foreseeable future, who looks at real ROI versus keeping moving and learning on the go? When the market is endlessly expanding, who counts the cost of capturing market share today?

As these conditions change, they are bringing a fast maturation in marketing practices.

Suddenly, real ROI is a big topic. Forensically understanding what’s working and what’s not is a top table discussion. And getting a handle on the rapidly evolving customer journey is key. Getting to this point of understanding is no simple task in China.

Many platforms do not have open APIs and where data is accessible there are question marks over its veracity.

But necessity is the mother of invention and as these topics become pivotal for clients, a new breed of agencies is emerging to tackle these issues. It involves a different approach and a willingness to develop tools to surface data from disparate platforms. It also requires getting to real sentiment analysis – something that’s yet to be cracked in China.

We all know China is the master of fast-change – not to mention constant change. What’s interesting to me, it’s not so much the platforms themselves (which are more or less like their foreign counterparts) but the difference in the way people use them. This is driven by some very embedded behaviors because China is simply a more collective culture – the group is relatively more important than the individual than in most western countries and the fact that social platforms like Weibo feel like the first media the people have some control of or voice in.

So as exciting as the latest features of WeChat are, cultural differences have more importance for brands with a long-term plan in China. Understanding these differences will generate the next successful marketing innovations and tools. For instance, the “walkie, talkie” audio message feature of WeChat, which looked strange to most foreigners, may have come from a brilliant insight about the hassle of texting in pinyin or a lucky fluke.

Volkswagen’s brand renaissance came from it first recognizing ubiquity is different from affinity, a fact many brands in their position may have chosen to overlook, and second, generating the insight that referral is disproportionately more important in a collective society. Generating these types of insights, at the speed we need them in China, requires new approaches fused with old ones.

Baidu generates search data in volumes that dwarf Google. Weibo, Wechat, and others generate sentiment and intention data by the boatload. It will be the correlation of this data, filtered through clever tools and analyzed by even more clever people that will do it. Search can show us how the query journey or funnel is changing.

Social data giving clues to purchase intent and affinity can illuminate the sentiment shifts behind these journey changes and messaging required to profit from it.

All this is happening as e-commerce matures at lightning speed and the gap between social and e-commerce closes – creating a new feedback loop.

Hold on for the ride, it promises to be fun! As the old Chinese blessing/curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.”

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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