A solid social media strategy is a critical marketing tool for companies worldwide keen to succeed in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. It’s even more important for firms that want to break into the Chinese market given the booming Asian nation’s love affair with social media.

There are estimated to be at least 889 million monthly active users on Chinese social media platform WeChat, with 96% of all social media platforms being engaged with via smartphones. The popularity of social media in China means that firms able to gain traction on heavily trafficked platforms, like Weibo and WeChat, can gain a big edge over their competitors in this lucrative market.

Chinese social media is very different

Social media in China varies markedly from the West where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram rule, according to Matt McDougal, founder of digital marketing agency Digital Jungle. Chinese authorities’ block on platforms of the giant Western social media outlets has naturally led to the growth of uniquely Chinese apps.

WeChat has hundreds of million of users

The most popular is WeChat. Unlike anything in the West, it integrates ecommerce and social media, enabling consumers to communicate, pay bills and even book taxis and buy movie tickets within the platform. WeChat has also enabled vendors to sell to consumers directly via its built-in payment system.

Weibo, often described as the ‘Twitter of China’, is the other giant on the social media landscape.
A so-called micro-blogging platform, Weibo has some 361 million monthly active users, and is a popular way for Chinese netizens to follow celebrities and influencers, as well as keep up with current affairs.

While WeChat and Weibo are the most popular platforms, there is a host of social media platforms with strong following across the country, including Renren, Youku Tudou, DianPing, and Douban.

Understand the consumer

McDougal says while it’s key for businesses to gain familiarity with these big social platforms, it’s also critical to understand the local user.

“The way that Chinese consumers use social media is quite different to the way Westerners do,” he says. “From a business perspective, Western companies can underestimate the power of social commerce because their experience in the West is that it’s not that strong.

“Critically, you have to understand who you’re trying to reach through social in China, understand their digital touch points, how they consume, and then create stories from a brand and user perspective to pique interest and curiosity.”

One key consumer difference, McDougal stresses, is that Chinese people tend only to trust brands that are verified by social platforms. The danger if your company does not get official verification, he says, is that you run the risk of being viewed as a fake.

“It’s a concept we don’t really have in the West,” McDougal adds. “Some of the businesses that I work with tend to underestimate the need for it, but then find it very difficult to get engagement because they’re not verified and no-one believes there’s a real brand behind the name.”

Start small, aim big

Another way for foreign companies to establish a robust social media presence is to target cities other than Beijing and Shanghai. China Connex’s Lewis Jones says this can help businesses test their social media strategy and build a local base from which to grow their presence.

Jones, who founded the Chinese digital and social media company with Chinese-born collaborator Minwen Huang, says rolling out a social strategy in Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities often pays dividends, for less spend.

“It might be a place where you can get a brand name established,” says Jones, who’s also a director at China consultancy Orient Partners. “If you can find that right demographic of followers, then you can go and find someone who’s a big deal in, say, Chengdu in Sichuan, and engage with them. In the greater Chengdu area alone, there are 25 million people, so you’ve just doubled your potential market from the entire nation of Australia.”

Jones says, like in the West, central to many social media successes are the influencers. In China, they are known as KOLs (key opinion leaders). A common issue, according to Jones, is that many foreign companies rush the rollout of their social push into China. He says this takes time to get it right, even with the most appropriate KOL attached.

“You can go there with one influencer who’s got a decent following in one major city, and then you might be able to start using people who are more influential in the bigger cities, which are more saturated. But
first you want that market feedback on what’s working with your brand.”

The right partner

Businesses should also be wary of consultants who promise to help their firm break into China with quick fixes, says ThoughtWorks’ Ange Ferguson. Ferguson, who’s the software development company’s Asia–Pacific managing director, says such one-size-fits-all packages usually lead to ineffective social strategies because they lack adequate creativity.

“Many businesses with ambitions to crack the Chinese market quickly and easily are trapped by one
of the many offers out in the market, such as ‘one week to have your website translated into Chinese’, or ‘get onto Alibaba and start selling’.”

A better approach, Ange says, is a social media strategy that manages what she describes as the
entire “customer loop”. This involves supporting your Weibo, WeChat and other social channels with other marketing tools. “Managing a Chinese social media channel inevitably requires a cross-functional team that includes expertise from marketing, digital, creative, retail and possibly more,” Ferguson adds.

“Building an in-house team to execute this is often a big challenge for businesses and another reason why working with a partner with the right expertise and experience is a more cost-efficient and effective option.”

Censorship is real

Meow Media Managing Director Lindsey Sun notes that any discussion of social media in China has to take censorship into account. Sun, whose digital marketing agency specialises in helping Australian entrepreneurs do business in China, says setting up on a platform, and publishing content, are both impacted by strict government rules.

For instance, in relation to the popular Tencent Video channel, she says firms must provide a raft
of documentation before they can get access. “[!it!] requires the submission of comprehensive personal details, including a photo of the creator holding the national identity card. The creator’s face and the National ID card number must be clearly visible in the photo submitted.”

Companies should also be smart about what they publish on social media, especially relating to topics that could damage the “honour of China” or disturb the social order. Sun says care should also be taken to avoid using social channels to incite “illegal assembly, association, procession or demonstrations” –
the penalty for such things can be far more severe than in the West.