China Digital Marketing for Western Businesses – The Definitive Introduction
You've probably heard this before:
But is it really that simple? Can a foreign business expect to reach a large number of Chinese people online just because China has such a huge population?
The truth is Chinese online marketing takes work. The rewards can be huge, but not everyone will be successful.
This post will help you decide if China is a good market for your business, and if so, what Chinese digital marketing channels may be most useful in helping you achieve your goals.
You won’t know how to do Baidu PPC or WeChat marketing by the time you finish this post, but you will have a more strategic understanding of Chinese online marketing for Western businesses, and be able to gauge the level of commitment and resources you’ll need to be successful.
"There are a billion people in China. Surely someone will like my product or service, right?"
Not necessarily. While my goal with this post isn't to tell you whether or not you have a golden ticket item for China, I do think it's worth mentioning that you should have strong reasons for wanting to enter this market.
Many companies take a wishy washy approach to Chinese marketing simply because they don't have clear reasons for coming to China in the first place. They probably feel China's so big that they can't possibly miss - even with a sloppy approach.
They don’t last long.
It's true that China has a large population that's eager to buy foreign goods and services, but that doesn't mean getting customers is easy. Before even thinking about the marketing part, here are two simple questions to try to answer:
1) Why should Chinese consumers want your product or service?
What problem does your product or service solve that's difficult for Chinese companies to match? A lot has changed in recent years. China is a fiercely competitive market, and Chinese brands continue to make headway against foreign brands.
But foreign brands still have some advantages, and will continue to for the foreseeable future. For example, trust for many Chinese brands. A few common reasons Chinese buy foreign brands include:
- Higher quality
- Status appeal
2) How committed are you?
China is not a good place to just dabble. You don't need to have the resources of KFC or Walmart to get started in China, but you should at least be prepared to make a serious one year commitment to things. Even if you're just planning a small campaign to test the market, you'll still want to invest in things like:
- A Chinese brand name. Names are very important in Chinese culture, so we highly recommend investing in a Chinese brand name. A lot of effort goes in to bringing attention to your brand, so it's critical that the name is memorable and easy to understand to a Chinese audience.
- Chinese content. You'll need Chinese content for your website, ads, social media and/or e-commerce store. No getting around it. Depending upon your marketing strategy you may need lots of it.
- Chinese customer support. Whether for your landing pages, social media accounts and/or e-commerce store, Chinese customer support makes a huge difference in conversions.
In this sense, a "test" of the China market is not really a proper test if you don't make some upfront investment. This is why we don't recommend going in with the mentality that China marketing is just something to try for a couple months and then stop if expectations aren't met. You'll want to give yourself more time than that after making that upfront investment. It takes time to educate people about your brand and products, so you can't expect major progress overnight.
Also, you may feel the urge to rush to market, but being the first mover in China isn’t as much of an advantage as you might think. Strategy and commitment are what ultimately make the difference.
A lot of people are 100% sure they want to do Baidu SEO or WeChat marketing, but aren't sure why. This makes no sense. Everything starts with goals.
For example, are you trying to generate leads? Boost on-site purchases? Raise brand awareness? Build followers? Increase site traffic organically? Several of the above?
Also, your performance metrics must be specific for a Chinese audience. For example, if your main goal is generating leads, you’ll want to make sure you track calls and live chat sessions (e.g. QQ), as these are preferred ways for many Chinese consumers to get in touch. You don’t want to use the same metrics you use in another market, e.g. number of contact forms submitted, if it’s less relevant to a Chinese audience.
Once you've figured out your specific marketing goals you can start looking at which online marketing channels may be most useful for your purposes. Below we'll look at four main categories:
- Search engine marketing
- Social media marketing
- E-commerce platforms
In some cases one channel may be adequate, but below you'll see why the best campaigns generally span multiple channels.
The most popular Chinese search engines as of 2015 are Baidu, Qihoo 360 and Sogou. If you’re going to start with just one, we usually recommend Baidu, as it generates the most traffic, but a combination of the three is ideal. If you’re on a tight budget it may make more sense to use Qihoo 360 or Sogou, as CPC is often lower. Below is the list of requirements to setup a PPC account on any of these search engines:
Search engine marketing is a great way to find new customers in mainland China, but it’s not for everyone. As with SEM on Google or Bing, your average conversion value needs to be enough to offset the costs of advertising, so we generally recommend PPC advertising for two main purposes: driving sales transactions and/or leads.
We don’t, for example, recommend using PPC to reach some critical mass of users for a new product, e.g. getting 50,000 users for a cell phone app. Paying for users gets expensive fast. Depending upon the industry you're in, your CPC on a Chinese search engine may be every bit as expensive as AdWords - or more. In our experience, the most expensive industries for Chinese PPC are health care and finance, but others include:
- Nutritional supplements
- Real estate
If you’re in the health care or finance industry you'll need a monthly budget of at least 15,000 USD to compete with the top advertisers on Chinese search engines. CPC can be reduced to some degree over time by optimizing your SEM account, but it will never be cheap. The other industries listed above won’t be quite as much, but still require a sizeable monthly budget.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but examples of conversions we've had very good success driving using Chinese PPC include:
- Online delivery orders for a multinational fast food chain
- Leads for businesses that sell financial/investment services
- Online orders on a major fashion e-commerce site
- Leads for large SaaS companies
User Experience Necessities
There are an estimated 575M smartphone users in China, so having a mobile optimized website is critical. In fact, Baidu is so focused on mobile user experience that it won't even allow businesses that don't have a mobile optimized website to setup an SEM account.
Also, your website needs to be professionally translated. Actually, I hesitate to even use the word "translated" since what you really need is good content for your target audience, not just a direct translation of your English content. And don't even think about Google translate - you're throwing away money by sending people to pages with clumsy copy.
You can start with translating your landing pages, but really you should have your whole site translated. If people want to read more about your brand after visiting your landing pages, sending them to English language pages is a wasted opportunity.
On the subject of landing pages, Chinese consumers are used to getting immediate support when they have questions, so we recommend having a call and live chat option available. You'll need to hire a Mandarin speaking customer service team to make this work, but it can make a huge difference. If you're paying for clicks, you want to make sure you're getting the most possible bang for your buck from each visitor.
Also, if you're selling something on your landing pages, you need a Chinese payment system like Alipay or Tenpay. Without this a large percentage of potential buyers will fall out of the conversion funnel.
PPC and Brand Awareness
Companies that sell a product or service where authenticity or safety is of the utmost importance need to be recognizable to Chinese consumers. If you’re not a known brand in China, it’s difficult to establish trust with just a landing page.
You don’t want to be paying for clicks if people are going to bounce because they don’t recognize your brand. This is one reason why social media marketing and SEO are beneficial for SEM - to raise brand awareness. More on that in a second.
Takeaway: Here are a few key questions to ask yourself prior to doing Chinese SEM:
- Do you have a mobile optimized site with professionally translated content?
- If you're in a highly competitive industry, do you have the budget for PPC advertising?
- If you sell a product or service where trust is critical (e.g. for safety or quality reasons), do Chinese people already know your brand? Have you done any marketing in China prior?
- Are you able to invest in a customer service team to provide real-time support for people that come to your site?
While most people think of SEO as a way to improve organic rankings for your website, with Chinese search engines it's better to think of SEO as tool for increasing overall organic visibility for your brand.
You can certainly increase the ranking of your website on Chinese search engines through a mix of content marketing and technical SEO know-how - and you should. But you also shouldn't neglect the branding opportunities offered by Baidu, Qihoo 360 and Sogou's own content platforms, as they offer essentially immediate first page exposure for branded keyword searches.
For example, some of Baidu’s content platforms include:
- Baidu Baike - a Chinese language wiki
- Baidu Zhidao - Chinese equivalent of Yahoo Answers
- Baidu Wenku - a collection of user-submitted Chinese language documents, somewhat similar to Google Docs.
- Baidu Maps - yup, it's a maps platform
In the screenshot below you can see why these platforms are useful for raising brand awareness. Look at how much of the SERP is controlled by Papa John's own websites and Baidu's content platforms for a branded keyword search:
This is why we take a holistic approach to SEO on Chinese search engines. Content marketing, for both your website and the search engine's own content platforms, is the best way to take advantage of all the organic SERP space that's up for grabs.
The drawback with SEO is that Chinese search engines index content more slowly than Google, so it takes a while to see results for your website, especially if it’s on the small side. You may need to wait up to six months, and will have to commit to a certain quota of content marketing work each month. Without this, SEO isn't going to work for you.
There are a few reasons doing SEM and SEO together is the best option:
1) As mentioned above, content you post to Baidu's own content platforms can be found basically immediately, but SEO for your website takes a good six months to kick in. By doing paid search ads you can drive immediate traffic to your website for both branded and non-branded keywords.
2) PPC gives you immediate feedback about what kinds of keywords convert well for your business. You can then double down on these keywords in your SEO work so that you target the highest return search terms right out the gate.
3) With the number of ads on the average Baidu SERP, it can be difficult for people to find your website for non-Branded keyword searches. Organic search results may not begin until very far down the page, and they're difficult to distinguish from ads. Thus, less people are going to find your site for non-branded keyword searches if you're not doing SEM.
The screenshot below shows how far down the page organic search results are for the keyword "Study abroad in America":
4) SEO can help convert more of your PPC traffic. If a potential customer finds you through an ad and isn't familiar with your brand, your landing page won't be enough to tell your brand story. If this person likes what they see but knows nothing about your company, they'll likely do a new search, this time with a branded keyword. When they see how much good content there is about your company, between your website and all of the search engine's own content platforms, they're far more likely to convert.
To drive this point home, let's use an example. Let's say a Chinese shopper is trying to decide between MusclePharm and Positive Nitro protein powder after seeing display ads for the two while browsing different websites. Compare the search results for the two companies on Baidu:
Which protein powder do you think he'll buy?
Social media is a powerful marketing tool in China. There are a ton of Chinese social media platforms, and nearly a third of users are over the age of 35, which means many have considerable purchasing power.
Much like Western social media, Chinese social media is used for community building, networking and customer service. The challenge of course lies in reaching an audience from a completely different culture.
Some social media platforms like WeChat have started cracking down on viral marketing in an effort to improve user experience, so the old forward-my-post-to-win-a-new-car tactics shouldn’t be the core of your strategy. It's true that Weibo and other popular social media platforms still allow this, but as more companies start investing in real content for their social media communities, those that don't will get left in the dust.
Thus, your goal should be to build your community by offering real value in the form of useful content, not just giveaways in exchange for user engagement. You'll also need to moderate a potentially large community, paying special attention to user feedback that can be helpful in improving your business, and find creative ways to boost user engagement.
At this stage, rather than focusing on whether you should use WeChat, QQ, Weibo, or something else, first spend some time figuring out how you can use social media to solve the unique pain points faced by your target audience. Chinese people face many of their own unique challenges, and your social media marketing needs to reflect that. A few examples of pain points faced by Chinese include:
- Pressure to conform
- Generation gap
- Environmental issues
The point isn't to eliminate these problems from peoples' lives with social media as much as tie your brand to a theme that's relatable to your audience - in a positive way. I’ll give a few examples below, starting with Durex.
Durex, which has roughly 45% of the condom market in China, attributes much of its success to social media. It figured out early on that its target audience's problem wasn't getting information about safe sex, but rather not having a community where sex could be a playful topic. Chinese social media users essentially want a release from social norms they're expected to conform to in their everyday lives.
Thus, Durex had a very clear theme to follow in building its social media community: make sex a fun, open topic. Its colossal online community is a place where people can make dirty jokes, discuss sex related topics and share other somewhat taboo information in a safe environment.
Durex also uses creative ways to boost engagement in its online community, like allowing Chinese shoppers to customize their condom packaging before shipping and then share their designs on social media. This leads to tons of branded user-generated content.
Social media is also a great way to boost your brand's credibility. For example, if you sell a product where authenticity is a major concern, Chinese consumers will check your social media accounts before buying. Posting product information and pictures for followers is helpful, but what people really want to see is product feedback from other users. Most of all, they want feedback from people they recognize and respect, i.e. key opinion leaders.
Key opinion leaders go a long way in raising the credibility of your brand in the eyes of Chinese consumers, and social media is one of the best places to find them. With a bit of research you should be able to identify several in your particular niche.
For example, while not everyone has the budget for Fan Bing Bing, the photo on the right got more than 6.6 million likes and 1.6 million shares.
If it doesn't look useful for branding purposes, think again - everything from Fan's hair (wig) and lipstick to mobile phone were carefully picked for this seemingly random selfie, bringing massive exposure to her sponsors.
One last example. Many a Chinese shopper wants to be the first to get a coveted new product that's just gone on the market. For example, when Chinese mobile phone giant Xiaomi releases a new model phone, there's a craze among buyers to get one before they sell out.
Thus, for Xiaomi social media serves to fill an information gap - what's the latest with the Xiaomi 5, and when and how can I buy it the second it comes out? Xiaomi has followed this theme to a tee since day one, posting product updates and alerts to its massive community of followers so they can place orders as soon as a new model's set to hit the market.
As a result, Xiaomi 's been able to presell literally thousands of units in seconds, as well as create an online community of mobile phone lovers that are happy to answer questions about Xiaomi products from other members.
Takeaway: It's probably obvious by now that there are a seemingly endless number of ways to use Chinese social media. It takes a lot of effort between content creation, community moderation and finding creative ways to boost engagement, but with the right strategy it can pay off big.
The key is to identify your target audience's unique pain points, and one of the best places to start is by looking at how they relate to common issues in Chinese society. From there you can create your strategy for building your online community, as well as decide what specific social media platforms to focus on.
Let's say you want to skip the search engine and social media marketing stuff and just open up an e-commerce store on a Chinese marketplace like Taobao, TMall or JD. Is that all it takes - just setup a store and let the cash roll in?
With 100 million unique visitors per day on Taobao and TMall alone, you don’t have to worry about whether or not Chinese e-commerce platforms get enough traffic.
However, while e-commerce is booming in China, setting up a successful shop on a marketplace platform is not easy. As mentioned earlier, Chinese shoppers have a strong penchant for popular brands, so if you don’t have well-known brand or offer something that’s difficult for other companies to match, setting up a successful e-commerce store in China will be challenging.
Because Chinese consumers are so accustomed to shopping on e-commerce platforms like Taobao, TMall and JD, we generally don't recommend creating a standalone website for e-commerce, unless your brand is very well known and trusted, or you sell a product or service that’s hard to find on an e-commerce platform. There are two major reasons Chinese consumers shop on marketplace platforms:
- Deals – merchants are all competing side by side and know that offering a product 1RMB cheaper than the next person can be enough to make sales.
- Protection – Chinese e-commerce platforms offer strong buyer protection. Even if you have a nice looking e-commerce website, Chinese shoppers will be hesitant to leave the tried and true platforms they're used to buying on.
Cyril Drouin of Bysoft China, a Chinese e-commerce agency in Shanghai, gave a great overview of what a Chinese e-commerce shop needs to be successful at this year’s ad:tech conference in Shanghai. I'll paraphrase his main points below to help you decide whether or not Chinese e-commerce is a good fit for your business.
1) Branding. Having a known brand is almost a prerequisite for setting up a Chinese e-commerce store. This means even if you're setting up a shop within an existing marketplace (e.g. Taobao), you still need to have a website and social media account that tells your brand story and builds relationships with leads and customers. Many people will visit your shop and then search your brand on a Chinese search engine and social media before deciding to buy.
Another reason having a known brand is important is Chinese e-commerce platforms like TMall and JD are becoming increasingly strict about what companies they allow to setup a shop. If you don’t have a brand with a solid reputation, you likely won’t get through the application process.
2) Lots of content. If you’ve ever been to a Chinese e-commerce shop, you probably recall seeing an explosion of text, pictures, video, chat boxes and reviews as you scroll down a seemingly endless page. This is the benchmark for Chinese e-commerce sites. You'll need to invest in this content to make sales.
3) Advertising. Just because you setup a store in a marketplace doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for people to find. There may be 50 pages worth of merchants that sell the exact same type of product, so you’ll need to invest in SEO and ads within the e-commerce platform to drive traffic to your store. You can also drive traffic to your store via social media and your website.
4) Value. It’s no secret Chinese shoppers will hunt for the lowest possible prices. A difference of a couple RMB is enough to make a Chinese shopper go to JD instead of TMall.
5) Product margins. If you sell a low margin product it’s going to be hard to offset your content, advertising, logistics and customer service costs. Make sure your margins are worth it.
6) Top-notch operations. Customer reviews make or break you. Chinese shoppers read them carefully. Fast shipping, quick customer service and small gifts with purchases all make a big difference in customer satisfaction. You need previous customers to become ambassadors.
7) Offline retail. Though not critical, having a physical retail presence increases brand credibility and can help further drive online sales. O2O commerce is one area where China is moving more quickly than the West.
Takeaway: If you have most of the above things, setting up a shop on a Chinese e-commerce platform is something you should consider. But also remember that just because you're setting up a shop within a specific platform doesn't mean your search engine and social media presence aren't important.
Regardless of what marketing channels you use, you’ll need to find an agency to guide you through the process of planning and executing your China marketing strategy. While it does require more flexibility due to time zones, we recommend going with an agency in mainland China for a few reasons:
- Native Chinese speakers that grew up in the same environment as your target audience.
- People in mainland China are more dialed in on what's happening with Chinese social media, e-commerce and search engines because it's what they use every day. They also know about all the latest social trends.
- Contacts. A China-based agency likely has a larger network of contacts on the ground in mainland China, e.g. friends at Baidu or Tencent that can help with obscure new registration requirements for foreign businesses. Relationships make navigating China's constantly changing business landscape far easier for foreign companies.
1) Get references. Make sure the agency has specific references you can contact to ask about their work - the more reputable the better. The barrier to entry for digital marketing agencies is not high. Behind that fancy website may be little more than a college dorm room operation.
2) Visit their office if possible. You want to see what their facilities are like, how many people are working there, how professional they are, etc. Make sure to meet the people that will be doing the actual marketing work. Also, spend some time with your account manager. This is the person you'll be talking to the most, so make sure their English is good and they're able to work on your schedule.
If you're not able to visit their office, setup a video chat. Also, consider setting up a private meeting with your account manager outside their normal office hours (not at midnight – that’s not cool). This is a good way to gauge what they’ll be like to work with once the campaign starts and schedules require more flexibility. You don’t want someone that’s suddenly “busy” the second the clock strikes 5pm.
3) Set expectations from the start. Setting clear performance goals creates accountability. Not setting clear goals from the beginning will drag out an unproductive relationship far longer than necessary.
4) Stay involved. Responsiveness is very important. Things frequently pop up that may require assistance from someone on your end to get done (e.g. inserting a tracking code into a web page), so staying involved really speeds things up.
Beyond that, even if Chinese marketing isn’t your forte, you can still play a strategic role in things. The fact is nobody understands your products and services better than you do, so more of your marketing insight may translate to the China market than you think. Don't feel like you can't, or shouldn't, contribute to strategic discussions.
I hope this post has been helpful in providing you with a basic framework for deciding whether or not Chinese digital marketing is right for your business, and if so, how you might create your strategy.
As you can see, there's really no one-size-fits-all approach to things, but the general concepts I've highlighted in each section should help you decide how you could apply different Chinese online marketing channels to your business.
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Also, feel free to shoot us a message in the comments below if you have questions.