MT EXPERT: Top tips on digital marketing in China

From dealing with state censorship to grappling with local social media platforms - digital marketing in China is a different beast, argues Ben Dansie, chief executive of communications agency Omobono.

by Ben Dansie
Last Updated: 28 Nov 2013

Standing on the Bund in Shanghai, looking across the Huangpu River, we have the feeling that we’re looking at the centre of the world. Shanghai is an angry teenager. Strong and fully grown but not entirely in control of its direction.

Omobono was in town to train 30 business marketers in social media. We knew the market and social networks, but we weren’t expecting that less than half of our audience would speak English. We threw away our presentation. It was high time to extend our What Works Where in B2B Digital Marketing research to China.

Here are the top tips from our report:

In digital, generational differences are huge.

The vast majority of China’s 591 million internet users are under 39 (81%). While this gives digital marketers a clear idea of who they’re targeting, it is likely the decision-makers in business are from an older generation – one which is not ‘digital native’.

Face-to-face time is more important than thought leadership.


Unsurprisingly, customers are a top priority for business marketers in all three countries, but thought leadership – high priority in the West – is less important in China. Instead, the focus is on building personal relationships and trust. This requires plenty of face-to-face time to cultivate connections. Of the traditional marketing channels, our respondents consistently rated meetings, conferences and customer referrals as the most effective techniques, all of which involve a strong personal element.

Two important Chinese concepts are a driving force in business relationships:

‘Guanxi’, which refers to a person’s ability to call upon a connection for a favour. These relationships are reciprocal and form obligations. This is what makes guanxi different from the western idea of ‘networking’, since failure to repay a favour is seen as an unforgivable offence. The more you ask, the more you owe.

‘Face’, a measure of social status that’s closely related to outward appearance and behaviour. One can gain ‘face’ by being a good host, publically displaying wealth, and honouring guanxi agreements, or social obligations.  These acts are best done in person, which explains why the Chinese place a great emphasis on face-to-face meetings and events (and why we were so well looked after by our impeccable hosts).

Social media doesn’t replace real world interactions – it facilitates them.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the importance of personal connections, social media is hugely popular in China. A staggering 91% of internet users visit social networking sites (compared to 67% in the US). Chinese social networks dominate – the most popular is Qzone, with 712 million registered users, whereas Facebook has just 0.6 million users in China. And the same is true of professional social networks. So global marketers who want to do business in China can’t just rely on the social networks they already use in the West – they must join the local networks.

Mobile and instant messaging are the channels to watch.

75% of the 591 million internet users are accessing the net via mobile devices – outnumbering desktop users (at 71%) and laptop users (46%). 83% use instant messaging, which represents a huge opportunity for digital marketers. China’s instant messaging apps are more hybrid than major western ones. Tencent QQ (with nearly 800 million registered users) offers instant messaging, online social games, microblogging and other services. So marketers in China should not just dedicate extra resources to instant messaging services, but also treat them as full-blown social media utilities.

The key challenge is measuring ROI.

Analytics capabilities are fraught with difficulties, the main issue being obtaining clean data. State censorship and monitoring are real barriers. This struggle to prove ROI explains the low spend on digital channels, with the average budget allocation close to 25% (compared to around 40% in the UK and US).

If business marketers in China are to make the most of the opportunities presented by social media, mobile and instant messaging, the analytics must improve. Only then will they be able to persuade the older generation of business owners and budget holders to invest more in digital.

Ben Dansie is chief executive of communications agency Omobono

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