Relationships and Localisation: The Key to Understanding Email Marketing in China

While the commercial potential of the Chinese Internet has barely been tapped, its rapid development and sheer number of Internet users (over 400 million) offer great opportunity for market growth. As global marketers look to reach consumers and businesses via the main driver for any Internet marketing programme – email – standard rules just don’t apply.

If you’re serious about your company’s foray into China, then be advised: you need to plan for the long haul and you need to develop trusted personal relationships, locally. Hurdles you will face include ISP fragmentation (China has six to seven major ISPs), less developed anti-spam technologies, greater volume of mailboxes, different tech specs, more involved parties (consumers, ISPs, and the government), strict advertising rules, and culturally-sensitive content-related issues. Overwhelming? A bit. Rewarding? Definitely.

To help you on your way – invest in relationships. Make time to meet and develop good personal relationships with leading ISPs (mailbox partners) like Tencent QQ and Sohu. Nothing happens in China without personal trust, so it is really important to build relationships with business partners. If you don’t have an internal source who can help build relationships, use a third-party mediator with knowledge of the Chinese market.

If you think you can manage your Chinese marketing remotely – think again. Even Internet marketing efforts require a lot of face-time in order to be successful. Marketing operations need to be managed locally. And just because English is widely studied in China, doesn’t mean it should be the language used in your marketing campaign. In fact, Chinese is essential for marketing purposes, not only to get the attention it deserves, but to help ensure deliverability. Chinese ISPs tend to be suspicious of English emails and view non-Chinese IP addresses as threats.

Don’t stop at localising your email marketing materials; make sure your website and any other links you use are also in local language. Using a localiser from Mainland China (not Hong Kong or Taiwan) will help you be culturally sensitive and increase your chance at success. Localisers will vet your email content and help ensure it is appropriate – that you haven’t picked a date when everyone is on holiday, or that your colour scheme, use of numbers (lucky and unlucky), symbols, etc. is culturally appropriate and will not inadvertently affect you negatively – with lasting repercussions.

To develop successful, local campaigns you’ll need to be more creative in reaching your customers – i.e., via SMS and IM, which is wildly more important than in the U.S. or the EU. You also will need to make some technical adjustments, like setting up your email servers in China, so you don’t have to go through an international gateway, and following local anti-spam and advertising legislation.

Once you have your infrastructure set up, and your campaigns designed and ready to go, remember three things to always keep in mind when launching your email marketing efforts in China: 1) relationships, 2) relationships, and 3) localisation.

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