Being Laowai (foreigner) in China is no piece of cake

In a country of continental dimensions, an ancient and mighty culture, a unique alphabet and more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, getting from abroad and gaining the local’s sympathy can be even harder than elsewhere, especially for westerns.

Business-wise, the reality is quite the same. As fascinating as unreachable, the Chinese market is a platonic love for any brand looking for different winds. Even powerful, world famous brands have faced problems setting foot – notably those who try to adapt their global strategies, without customizing their product and communication as a whole to the specificities of the Chinese market.

Not surprisingly, a deeper understanding of the local culture demands to learn the language, the slang, and the underlying social codes. If you’re not a Daren 达人 (an expert) on the topic, here are 16 Terms You Must Know if You’re Doing Marketing in China. Still, it might not be enough.

“China strategy is often a separate entity”

According to Benji Lamb, Director of GMA China

This seems like an obvious point but is important to bear in mind. Your marketing in China can be run largely independently of wider operations & strategies, indeed in many ways it should be.

With China’s separate and unique eco-system ring-fenced by the Great Firewall all content not only has to be in Mandarin but also formatted and amended for Chinese platforms, searching algorithms & keyword sets in Characters & Pinyin.

The implication of this is that a China strategy does not have to rely on your existing marketing material. New keywords, banners, creatives, logo’s, visuals etc can be created to tailor your offering to the local demographic. Outside of this Chinese eco-system content will often not be either visible or highly relevant.

The Great Firewall he mentioned blocks out western tech giants from their web. Facebook, Google, Uber, and LinkedIn simply don’t exist in China. The digital landscape there is completely different and this fact changes… the whole thing!

China's Digital Ecosystem

The article referenced above delves into the main differences, in relation to some specific topics like Pre-Market analysis, web development, and SEO. In a nutshell, we must bear in mind that we’re talking about a distinct digital universe. So, forget Google and its algorithms, Facebook and its ads or even the keywords we use in English.

Like in Biology or Linguistics, in which distant, geographically separated areas end up developing distinct landscapes, Chinese players are original. Which certainly does not mean they’re less interesting or relevant!

The Chinese social-media

You might be asking yourself: without Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, how do people get updated on trends, what their friends and colleagues have been dining and what is going on in the middle-east? Many have already read or heard about WeChat, known for being a Super-platform, due to the huge number of features and sub-platforms. But WeChat isn’t the only platform loved in China, and some others are even more appropriate for e-commerce and marketing targets.

To better understand this field, we asked Elijah Whayle, CMO at Parklu, one of the largest Influencer Marketing Platform in China, about the subject:

China has an even more fragmented social media landscape than in the West, but of course, we have some dominant players. 

We have the super platform WeChat, but WeChat is not an open social media platform. WeChat is a messenger app focused on communication and commerce. WeChat is actually not a great place to distribute or consume influencer content.

Weibo is like Facebook but on steroids. It provides users and influencers with everything Facebook/Instagram does but adds payments, integrated e-commerce, and you can even call/pay for a DIDI (China’s UBER) ride without leaving Weibo. What Weibo does is aggregate and fully integrate tons of different niche social media platforms like live streaming, musical.ly type content creation, YouTube type interface/ecosystem, e-commerce, etc. So Weibo is a super social media aggregator.

Meipai is a great platform for sub-5 min. video, musical.ly type content, and live streaming. Meipai influencers are mainly supported by the fan economy. But it also has some great e-commerce integrated features.

Pure video platforms like YouTube are very weak in China and extremely fragmented.

Lauren Hallanan lived in China, has been engaged in their social-media ecosystem since 2013 and became a KOL (Key Opinion Leaders). Having returned to the US in 2017, she’s still working with Live Streaming videos for Chines online channels – besides her own podcast about the Influencer Marketing in China. Lauren also shared with us her personal view of the Chinese digital landscape:

Well I think one big thing that stands out about Chinese social platforms is that many of them are integrated with ecommerce platforms, and this social ecommerce is very widely accepted in China. These platforms are also all integrated with mobile payments.

So as a consumer, the buying process is very seamless. I can watch a video and purchase the dress the influencer is wearing in the video at the same time, without ever leaving the page. I just need my password or thumbprint and its done. I love it.

I don’t really have a favorite channel. I like Weibo a lot as far as UX and content, but I hate that it has  become increasingly pay-to- play and now it’s very hard to grow an audience on Weibo without significant monetary investment.

Everything digital in China is focused around mobile and brands allocate huge portions of their marketing budgets on social media and influencer marketing because they know that’s where the attention is.

Mobile Commerce in China

I think Chinese marketers are very quick to adapt, they don’t try to cling onto old ways of doing things. This is also probably because in China the workforce, especially at creative agencies and technology companies, tends to be quite young.

The Influencer Marketing in China and the KOLs

In reality, the use of Influencer Marketing in China is even stronger than in the US. KOLs rely on features specially designed for their online sales and perform in a culture that unashamedly accepts their activity. They play essential roles in the marketing of Chinese and foreign brands, and yet this potential might be still underused by the market.

As an example, we’ve recently witnessed a British influencer being openly criticized after she asked for a free stay in a hotel. In China, this episode wouldn’t drive that much attention, check what the Chinese Consumer Marketing and Media specialist Jennifer Spark posted regarding that, on her LinkedIn:

In China, influencers openly offer their product, with direct links for instant purchase poping-up in their articles, photos or videos. Their audience expects this kind of practice and that’s not negatively seen.

Many products are launched at special events, that gather many KOLs at the same spot and broadcast live videos with special offers for those who buy through their links. Known as “parties”, these events generate thousands, even millions of interactions and, consequently, sales.

How to find and access KOLs?

As in America, there are Chinese platforms offering the service of connecting brands and influencers (KOLs) according to their profile and relevance to each specific business field. Through such platforms, brands can showcase their products in many channels, organize “party” events with KOLs, connect and negotiate with many KOLs everytime they launch a campaign. All of that without the effort of doing their own research – which would probably be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

In Elijah’s words:
Selecting influencers can be very difficult, that is why we have created a curated database of more than 15,000 influencers that have been algorithmically selected, hand picked, or accepted from applications by the influencers to the platform. PARKLU maintains a Community Team to provide influencers with free services like training, special events, brand matching, negotiations, and campaign execution help or advice. Our platform melds a very personal touch with data to create our influencer search and recommendation engine. 

Brands from every sort of field have been hiring KOLs to thrive in the Chinese market through the local internet gurus. The list includes Japanese Canon, American NBA, Apple and HP, and French L’oréal, Dior e Givenchy

Parklu KOLs

Can’t fight them? Join them! 

As in any other country or city, you must “speak the same language”, deeply understand the new landscape and design your content for this new audience. Besides, you must know the social-media channels and their different attributes.

One of the most effective ways to build a Chinese audience is to hire the support of KOLs, who work promoting their sponsor’s products to thousands of fans and followers. Not much unlike brands here do with Quuu Promote and other platforms, but in China, it’s a prevailing practice and still growing with new incoming foreign brands.