Chinese & Western Marketing Channels Don’t Match Up (or Why You Need a Chinese Marketing Manager)

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 04:32

I’ve had the chance to see a lot of different organizations expand their marketing reach to China, and I’ve carefully watched the different organizational structures they use.

The two most common structures I see are functional and geographical.

By “functional”, I mean that the organization is broken down by marketing channel. The organizational chart may look something like this:

  • VP Marketing
    • Director of Search Engine Marketing
      • US SEM team
      • European SEM team
      • Chinese SEM team
      • Etc.
    • Director of Social Marketing
      • US social marketing team
      • European social marketing team
      • Chinese social marketing team
    • Email Marketing Manager
    • Etc.

A geographical structure is broken down primarily by country and region. It might look like this:

  • VP Marketing
  • Americas team
  • Europe, Africa team
  • China team
  • Asia team (other than China)

When it comes to projects for China, I’m a big fan of the geographic structure.

What’s wrong with the functional structure? Why can’t we expand to China channel-by-channel?

The Chinese marketing channels don’t match up with the Western/global channels.

Let’s say a company is US-based and they want to expand abroad. In most other countries of the world, they can use a similar approach. They can use Google AdWords in other languages in regions. They can use Facebook & Twitter.

In China, they face a totally different set of platforms. And these platforms aren’t just “clones”, they change the game on a deeper level.

Here’s how I see channels used by our Western clients, and how we usually use them in China.




Paid search

More transactional searches (ex: “buy widgets”)


Drive highly targeted traffic to site (ex: “blue widget model 8293”)

More informational & navigational searches (ex: “widget basics”, “widget site”)

Drive somewhat targeted traffic to site (ex: “blue widgets”)


Brand awareness

Consumers trust their friends, businesses, influencers, the government.

Facebook, Twitter


Brand awareness!!! (with emphasis)

Consumers trust their friends and influencers, but distrust businesses  and the government

Weibo, WeChat

LinkedIn (works in China, but not as popular), other B2B platforms

Best place to share great original content

Organic search

Share great original content via social, do well on SEO. “Content is King”.

Smaller sites can compete quickly in their niche

Share tons of hastily written or copied content


Big-spenders have a bigger advantage



Sales emails

“Email? No thanks. Give me WeChat, phone or live chat.”


Pre-roll ads.


Live streaming! (Your Western team isn’t ready for this…)

Several YouTube-like video platforms

Display advertising, programmatic

Techies win

Tough negotiators win


The way we use various marketing channels in China is quite different to how I see it being used outside of China.

If your marketing department is split into functions, you’ll likely have people with technical skills running these channels.

Let’s imagine two examples.

Imagine you have a three person team for content marketing lead by Bob. Bob helped you build a killer industry-leading blog that gets 30K visitors/month. He worked on learning these tactics for 5-10 years and his time-tested methods always work in USA. He wants to try doing the same thing in China…

So you hire a Chinese SEO expert (call her Liu) and she tells them “we’ll need to post 8 times daily and do link building via some links networks. Bob says “Oh, that sounds spammy, we can’t do that, let’s try what works for us in other markets.” At this point you’ll likely have a disconnect, because Liu won’t know how to make their plan work, and Bob won’t really get what she means either. They’ll move ahead trying to push that functional marketing channel, and it will almost certainly flop. I’ve seen it happen.

There are a host of reasons this won’t work – 1) Baidu is slow to pickup new sites, 2) other sites will copy the content (and even have it indexed before yours), 3) Baidu won’t be able to determine which content is original, 4) the “user-friendly” site design might not be favourably viewed by Baidu, 5) other companies may copy your entire website and even claim to be you, etc, etc.

Some of those issues can be remedied by a Chinese SEO expert. But to really fix the problem to the root, we’d need to go up a level and think strategically…

So, let’s instead imagine that you hired Sherry instead of Bob… Imagine Sherry is a not really an expert in SEO or many other marketing channels, but she has some marketing strategy chops, and has some experience with foreign cultures. (Sherry loves dim sum too… FYI). Sherry hires Juanjuan, an account manager at a fictional company called Ninja Marketing Group.

Instead of focusing on channels, Sherry focuses on 1) her companies goals and values and 2) adapting to the ways that Chinese consumers do things. The end goal, she states to Juanjuan, is to drive B2B leads. Sherry knows that her company wants high-quality leads and thinks that consumers will require some education about their products. She also thinks that she might be able to leverage some of the great content created by the US team, but doesn’t quite know how. Just like Bob, Sherry believes in the power of great content.

Given the freedom to escape the rigid marketing channels, Juanjuan is likely to propose another plan. Something like:

  1. Translate and adapt the US content.
  2. Share via social media.
  3. Amplify with ads that will spread the word socially.
  4. Drive more leads directly on social, rather than sending to a website.

This will likely work… I’ve seen it happen.

So (sorry to people named Bob), but how do you get a Sherry instead of a Bob? How do you setup your marketing team’s structure to succeed in China?

  1. Scrap your channel-specific budgets, set a China budget.
  2. Hire an in-house marketing manager that has marketing skills that are strategic and people-focused, rather than technical or channel-focused.
  3. Give up on trying to understand the intricacies of all the Chinese marketing channels. I see so many technically-minded Western marketers try to get down to the nuts of bolts of Chinese marketing and hit a dead end. It takes a long time, believe me, I’ve been doing it for over ten years and I require a team, so you will you too.

So how should you structure your team?

In most cases, I think one of these three tips should point you in the right direction.

If you’re a small business with a lower budget, hire a scrappy quick-learning Chinese-speaking marketer, and put them in charge of all China marketing. Do NOT have your SEM manager manage Chinese SEM, your social media manager manage Chinese social media, etc.

If you’re a bigger business, assign somebody as VP China. And leave the rest of Asia to somebody else, because China is different. The VP needs to have authority to redefine how marketing channels will be used in China.

If you don’t want to hire somebody in-house, hire a marketing agency that can assign a great account manager. Engage with them about results, consumers, competitors & strategy; but stay away from trying to fit the Chinese promotional channels into a Westerners’ marketing framework. This has worked very well for us, but only when we have a very strong focus on monitoring end results and we also have a high degree of freedom to do our work. This approach works for the type of small businesses that say “We just care about results. You handle everything with regards to our China marketing.”



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