Digital Marketing Knows No Borders: Digital Marketing in China
In February of 2020, I found myself, along with many other China-based expats and Chinese tourists, returning to the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I boarded a plane in Oslo, bound for Hong Kong – the last stop before my final destination of Shenzhen, I clocked the nervous giggles from Western tourists, and the worried looks in the eyes of the locals, headed home, and unsure what they would find. When China opens back up to travel, a move projected to be in early 2022 in time for the Olympics, business will return – just as it always has, and the key to the Chinese market? Digital marketing.
Just as the immediate reactions of the passengers on the plane were strikingly different, digital marketing in China is strikingly different than anything you’d find in the USA or any Western country. China, as a country, has very specific tastes, cobbled together in a mesh-work of complex, yet traditional influences and preferences. Yet, for a country so steeped in tradition, China often leads the way in innovation – with such a large population, it would be difficult to not produce some absolutely world-creating creators and businesses.
Join me on a journey of personal experience through the sometimes hilarious, often fascinating, and complex world of digital marketing trends in China – and this one ex-expats take on them.
One influencer who has gained a great deal of traction in China, was a young man who sets a table for 4 on his stomach and chest, and then rips the table cloth out from between his body and his dishware, leaving himself naked with a strategically placed teacup covering his private area. This guy became a sticker. No joke. Many influencers in China are simply influential because they are rich. If you decide to work with a Chinese influencer, expect the unexpected. Also, expect to get what you pay for. A less expensive “influencer” might work for peanuts or donations, but big money attracts big money and that’s where you need to go!
3rd & 4th Tier Cities
Don’t dismiss “smaller” Chinese cities in your digital marketing strategy! We have all heard of Beijing and Shanghai, but how many times have you heard the name Shenzhen, a city of 17.5 million people, or Guangzhou, a city of 18.68 million? In a list of all Chinese cities and their population, the smallest city I’ve personally visited in China is Suzhou, with a population of around 1 million. As a banana for scale, the largest city in the USA is New York City, NY, with a population of around 8 million. With population like that, what is considered a tier 3 or 4 city (tiers based on business density, city-level flexibility, citizen vitality, diversity and future projections) like Hulin, Linhai and Zaoyang, likely has a market for your product, and customers or investors with real money.
Digital Aging Population
Over 30% of the Chinese population will be over 60 years old by 2050. Real talk – this market will be huge. The aging population of China have been using smart phones for longer than most of the world, and live in a culture so engrained with e-commerce, some have never set foot in a grocery store. In Shenzhen, the food delivery system was so fantastic, you could almost guarantee delivery of any dish in town within 30 minutes of placing the order. China during COVID saw the delivery industry booming, as motorcycle delivery became the only way to get food for those in quarantine, or with ultra-restrictive community rules. Many communities were responsible for securing themselves during the pandemic, a job they took seriously. These consumers will have locked and loaded credit cards and tons of purchasing power – so don’t underestimate how important understanding Chinese tradition and the aging process is, when marketing to this stacked, yet discerning group.
Short term video content has been all the rage in China for years. Unlike in the USA, China relies on a very specific messaging service called WeChat, for most of its business and personal communications. WeChat is even linked directly to bank accounts, for easy payments using your mobile phone. Even taxes and train fares are paid using WeChat, and thus, short-form video content is the advertising material of choice. Because a great deal of digital marketing is done via WeChat and QQ, the other large China-based messaging application, you will typically see many more emojis than you would see in other countries. Remember, videos forwarded on WeChat are tracked, and content deemed to be inappropriate can be removed at any time – so do your research on both what WeChat videos are trending, and how to stay well within the WeChat acceptability guidelines, to avoid having your account removed or blocked. Also, remember to use appropriate emojis in your advertising material. For example, a smiley face emoji is not necessarily a smiley face in China. Figure that one out for yourself.
Long Form & Mis-directional Content
A trend many are surprised to see is a more long-form, and some would say, mis-directional content. Chinese tradition is passed down through stories and ancestors. As a culture, they are very attached to story-telling and myth creation. It stands to reason they would use this form of storytelling in their advertising and marketing material. But why do we often find Chinese advertising mis-directional? This likely stems from a hybrid cultural and translation issue. When translated directly from Chinese to English, the wording is often devoid of solid verbiage like “will” and “wont,” in favour of more fluid words like “can” and “might.” In China preferrs subtlety and nuance in their communication. It tracks that what the West might see as “mis-directional content,” would actually be just a poor and lazy translation. Remember – if you are considering advertising in China, emphasize using both correct and clever Chinese language, something you will pay a premium for, but is well worth the money.
We can expect to see more of this e-commerce cooperation between our two countries as the pandemic moves further into our rear-view mirror. It’s also your opportunity to break into a large, profitable and wealthy market! Do your research, and achieve your dream of taking your business international with a bang.
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