Q&A: How Can I Get Into the Chinese E-Commerce Market With a Budget Under 500 USD?
“ In your view, is there any way for a small western brand without Chinese speaking staff to get into the Chinese e-commerce world? I mean, even a small foothold?...
What are the e-commerce marketing tools that are doable for a non-Chinese staff that can't constantly keep up with every trend?
My assumption is that none of this can run very well with all those limitations. But is it possible to run "reasonably" well enough to at least get a foothold? And if so, how? Thanks for any insights.
For us, we've been able to sell a little into mainland China via our regular website, but very little. Some have found us because we get Chinese tourists to our islands (Svalbard, Norway). Others perhaps via seeing press out of Hong Kong - we have been in the SCMP and have distributors in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. So we've got a little bit of exposure and have had a little press, though not a ton.
I imagine we'll continue to get some online purchases, but it's rare with our current setup and wouldn't think that would change much.”
This question was asked by Jamal from Svalbardi, which sells very high-end water from icebergs.
Now, if this were a client project of ours, we’d need to thoroughly investigate first. We would treat it as a team effort.
For the sake of this post, I’m going to make some assumptions and then provide ideas that could be relevant to both Svalbardi and other small businesses on a starting budget of less than $500.
If you have a different opinion, please comment below! Feel free to tear me a new one, Nanjing Marketing Group staff do it all the time anyways! ;-)
What is the first objective to meet?
This is always one of the first things I do. I think we need to have a clear idea of what it means to have a “foothold” in China. Does it mean sales? Or does it mean gathering actional data from consumers? I think it should be the latter. If we find the people that are likely to buy, then figure out why they do or don’t, they can use this information to grow.
Svalbardi has an interesting story. Mr. Qurashi and his team actually charter a small icebreaker, go out to the icebergs to grab the purest water. What an adventure, right? But it is also controversial to some. By gathering this pure water that was collected before the age of industrial pollution, is he spreading word of conservation? Or is he being wasteful? This is the topic in an SCMP article.
And the water is EXPENSIVE! Like, “bling bling look who can throw down 500 CNY for water” expensive. Imagine bringing that to a family dinner, or the KTV.
Now, I’m not a fancy guy. I don’t think I’m the target buyer. But I know people who would. My Chinese family isn’t rich either, but it’s not uncommon for them to bring drinks worth 200 or even 1,000 Yuan to a family dinner.
I think this is the type of item that one would A) carefully consume and b) show off. Their packaging matches this. It looks great to me. It’s fancy, boxed yet clearly foreign. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think it’s a good start.
But how can we get this message across to Chinese people?
For one, the website is only in English now. It could be localized. If we created 1,500 words of content, it would cost $225.
We’d focus on the story. We need to make sure that the words are just perfect. Images wouldn’t need to be adapted.
The website – Leave it as it is
Say he wanted to host it in China? The hosting and ICP license applications would be out of budget, possibly running over $3,000 just for the ICP license and first year of hosting. He would need a business ICP license…. so, let’s leave that out.
Jamal can ask friends in China how the current site loads in the mainland. As long as it isn’t inaccessible and the site loads fast enough, it’s not absolutely necessary to host in China.
The site is based on Shopify, and Shopify does support Chinese payment methods. Stripe also supports Chinese payment methods such as Alipay.
I haven’t done these integrations myself. There are just too many possible ways to configure things for me to remember it all. I assume that it will not work in the absolute best way with the absolute minimum effort. If Jamal does this on his own, I think he’ll need to put some elbow grease in and figure it out.
Still, we have seen Shopify-based sites work in China. And since he already has it set up and wants to keep the budget as low as possible, it’s a good way to go.
What about WeChat?
If you’re familiar with China, you might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the super-app WeChat yet. It could, possibly, be a solution on its own. There are tools built just for foreign companies to setup WeChat stores, but they are out of budget for this case.
We would use Youzan, a Chinese-language WeChat store solution, and setup everything for a client, including text, design, product entry, etc. Although the cost would be lower than foreign-facing WeChat store solutions that I’ve seen, the cost just to get started would be at least $2,500.
A WeChat account on its own would also need quite a bit of effort to build up followers.
WeChat is also very competitive, so I wouldn’t advise it for this case.
Where can people buy the product?
This is tricky.
We considered the idea of shipping free gifts to influential people, but the shipping cost would eat up the budget. We considered selling the product to a distributor, but it’s unlikely that a distributor would want to buy it unless they were certain they could sell it.
So, let’s not apply any of the $500 budget to sending product to China. Instead, make orders online and ship them to China, or to offline customers in Iceland including Daigou (semi-professional shoppers that buy products abroad and ship them to China).
So, how can we drive traffic with a remaining budget of only $250?
The minimum costs for advertising on the major Chinese platforms are all higher than $250. You can usually expect to pay somewhere in the range of $2,000-$10,000 per channel. So, advertising is out.
He could try to optimize the site for organic search- but who is really searching for a 500 Yuan bottle of Norwegian iceberg water? I would assume very few... It would also take months to gain traction. Again, this is the kind of product that some people would buy, but that almost nobody is looking for. It’s peculiar and fancy. So, it lends itself to organic social marketing.
The journey to get the water is interesting. Why not show it? Livestream it even. Some people will think “Oh, the scenery is so beautiful”, and watch on. Others will say “That’s dumb, who the eff spends so much $ on water?” Or, “this looks dangerous.” Or, “that girl/guy on the boat is so cute.”
This is a low-budget plan, but it could work. Jamal will need a stand to hold a smartphone steady to get the video. Still, this only works if his 3G connection is good enough. Jamal said it might be good enough, and the data costs aren’t high.
We recommend having a Chinese social marketer ready to respond to comments as they go. They just need to answer questions, gather feedback and make connections. The result could be a list of interested people and summarized qualitative feedback.
Now, this might not be the final idea we’d pitch to a client. In that case, we’d have a small team of us, we’d each understand the project and provide ideas. Usually, I line up the requirements and a social marketer with their finger on the pulse will come up with a better idea than I would.
In this case, I’m interested in ideas from readers. I lined it up and provided a couple crazy ideas. If you have more, let us know in the comments!