Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing State of Content series. The full State of Content report will publish January 2016 on Content Science Review.

As Senior Content & Marketing Managers for Alibaba’s international e-commerce and cloud computing platforms, our mission is to help Alibaba Group expand overseas. To do so, we must be well-versed in the latest trends in both China and our local markets. As competition becomes ever-more global, we believe that effective and localized content strategies are essential for international success.

More than 3.2 billion people around the world now use the Internet. Of that population, one out of every five – 668 million people – come from China. They represent the new face of the country’s aspiring middle class, searching for entertainment, information, social interaction, and goods and services. Indeed, China’s e-commerce sales now exceed the total turnover of its top 100 physical retailers combined. Online sales are estimated to rise 42.1% this year to US $672 billion. That is nearly twice the size of the US e-commerce industry.

Brands and retailers are eager to tap the massive potential of this growing market, but creating content that can engage Chinese netizens requires a deep understanding of the country’s diverse, dynamic, and highly competitive digital space. It also requires companies to adopt new tactics and strategies for online localization.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the unique aspects of the Chinese Internet as well as the content strategies utilized by successful local and international brands to engage Chinese netizens.

Content with Chinese Characteristics 

One of the first differences which foreign content strategists will notice in China is rooted in the language itself. As most Chinese words consist of only one or two characters, much more information can be communicated per pixel than alphabet-based languages. One example revealed that although both Twitter and Weibo – Twitter’s Chinese equivalent – set a 140-character limit for user posts, the density of the Chinese language allows Weibo users to include about five times as much information as their Western counterparts.

Even more differences are apparent in the way Chinese netizens interact with content. To start, Chinese users are not passive consumers of content – they are among the world’s most active creators. Nearly 75% of Chinese netizens provide purchase feedback at least once per month. In the US, it’s less than 20%.

User generated content is not just important for online reviews. Brands hoping to engage with online users must cater to their desire for self-expression. According to one study, 73% of Chinese netizens agreed with the statement “I feel free to do or say things online that I wouldn’t do or say offline.” Less than a third of Americans agreed.

Netizens in China – searching for reliable information, interaction and self-expression – are prolific users of social media. Indeed, 91% of Chinese Internet users are reported to have a social media account. In order to engage them, many brands rely on key opinion leaders (KOLs) – influential bloggers, social commentators and celebrities. Information from these sources is considered more reliable and authentic than information from company channels.

Finally, the platforms on which Chinese netizens interact with content are highly localized. It is well-known that China boasts domestic alternatives to Facebook (Renren), Twitter (Weibo), Google (Baidu), YouTube (Youku), WhatsApp (WeChat) and other major Western Internet services. While censorship certainly plays a role, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Even before Google pulled out of China in 2010, for example, Chinese search engine Baidu already dominated nearly 60% of the market. These local services prevailed over their larger, more experienced competitors because they understood the needs of Chinese users. Brands and retailers trying to engage Chinese netizens with content must do the same.

Navigating the Fragmentation

The ‘rules’ for creating great content are universal – good stories and engaging content win. China’s fragmented online market, however, presents unique challenges for foreign brands.

The Chinese social media sphere is saturated with chat apps, video sharing sites and social networks. More than 80% of Chinese social media users possess multiple accounts (compared to just 39% in Japan). Social networking has also given birth to a fierce competition, which was demonstrated earlier this year when Tencent blocked Alibaba-affiliated social media.

This competition holds serious implications for companies looking to engage customers online. One recent example can be found in a trend known as socialized purchases – incentivizing customers to forward official notifications of purchases in return for coupons or discounts. As the trend in rewards has become more and more popular in China, the competition has heated up. When the taxi app phenomenon first emerged in China, for example, users of the Tencent-backed Didi taxi app were unable to share official notifications on Alibaba-affiliated Sina Weibo. And vice versa – users of the Alibaba-backed Kuaidi taxi app were unable to share on Tencent-owned Wechat.

As a result, brands venturing into China should consider how to ensure their content is compatible across multi-social media channels.

The Durex brand serves as a useful case study. They use Weibo to create awareness and spark conversations through their humorous and sometimes racy posts. And on the other side of the marketing mix, they drive sales and interest through their product-driven WeChat store.   

Learning a New Language

Chinese netizens are known for their ingenuity – memes and new Internet slang are constantly being created. Brands which are nimble enough to tap into these cultural trends can make themselves part of the conversation.

This year, for example, a meme which mocked Kung-Fu legend Jackie Chan for a shampoo commercial he filmed in the 90’s where he over-emphasized the sound, ‘DUANG’, exploded on the Chinese Internet. Those Chinese brands which were quick enough to join the conversation were able to increase brand awareness and exposure.

brand engagement

brand engagement

 

Even Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has gotten in on the act. He generated tremendous media buzz by using Internet slang during a Chinese New Year address to describe the hard work of government employees.

Gamification and Interaction

In an environment where it is common for online shoppers to play games for prizes and special deals, Chinese netizens have become accustomed to interacting with brands online.

Therefore, adding elements of gamification to your content strategy can help drive user engagement. The Alipay and WeChat wallet apps, for example, have been hugely successful at combining gamification with online remittances. During Chinese New Year in 2015, Alipay Wallet users sent a total of US $642 million to their friends and family members in a single 24-hour period.

User engagement is essential. In fact, some of the most successful content marketing strategies have allowed netizens to drive the conversation.

Looking to re-brand and appeal to a younger generation, for example, Taiwan’s 50-year-old Peacock biscuit company utilized star appeal and social media to engage their customers. With the help of a famous young star, Yang Youlin, the brand charged netizens with one task – come up with unique ways to eat their biscuits. Peacock then had Yang Youlin act it out. The quirky viral videos transformed the image of the biscuit company and showed the power of engaging customers through social media.

Content Is King

In China – like the rest of the world – content is king. To be successful, marketers and strategists must understand how to navigate a fragmented, dynamic market and how to engage users, whether through conversation, gamification or interaction. Above all, they must localize.

The importance of localization is a lesson that many domestic firms have taken to heart. As successful Chinese companies look to expand overseas, they plan to avoid the fate of firms which failed to localize in China by learning about the needs and habits of users in their target markets. Indeed, as we create content and marketing strategies for Alibaba’s overseas business units like Alibaba.com, AliExpress.com, and AliCloud, we are constantly seeking new ways to engage and attract users based on the needs of each market.

China’s digital space is highly competitive but the potential payoff is tremendous: the country’s 668 million netizens are increasingly turning to the Internet to search for, interact with and learn about products and services. These online conversations are ones that global brands cannot afford to miss.

The views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of their employer.

The Authors

Kyle Smith is a Senior Content Manager for the International User Experience & Design department at Alibaba Group. Based out of the company headquarters in Hangzhou, China, for the past three years he has led teams to create and manage content for the products and services on Alibaba Group’s two international e-commerce platforms, Alibaba.com (B2B), and AliExpress.com (B2C).


Based out of Hangzhou, China, Gavin Marcus is a Marketing Manager for Alibaba’s Cloud Computing business, AliCloud. His experience rests in lead generation marketing and content strategy across B2C, B2B, and startup environments. As a member of the Alibaba Philanthropy Foundation he also works closely with Chinese grassroots NGOs.

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