Why understanding Chinese social media is important

China has 625 million active social media users and approximately zero per cent of them are using platforms dominant in the Western world, such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp.

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Understanding China’s social media realm is key, not only for reaching customers in the Chinese market, but also in order to understand something of the psychology of that market.

"China’s social media realm is key, not only for reaching customers in the Chinese market, but also in order to understand something of the psychology of that market."
Casey Hall

According to Tom Doctoroff, JWT’s Asia Pacific CEO and author of "What Chinese Want”, Chinese users have a fundamentally different relationship with their social media platforms, and the digital world more generally, than their Western counterparts.

“There’s a much more emotional relationship with digital in China. You see this in the ways people use social media in China, he says.

“I think the digital universe in China conforms to Chinese cultural imperatives – basically the need for safe self-expression.”

The relationship between Chinese netizens and their social media networks is “more emotional”, at least in part, because of the relative isolation of many young people around the country.

The youth who have embraced social media are often only children, whose families’ sole focus is academic achievement, leaving little time for real-world sport, clubs or socialising.

Social media offers these isolated young people an opportunity to connect, particularly using their mobile phones.

Mobile penetration in China is at 91 per cent, meaning the country boasts 1.24 billion mobile subscribers. Platforms are taking this desire for connection and turning it into a multi-faceted digital business.

In terms of the major players in Chinese social media, two stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Sina Weibo (129 million active monthly users) is often called China’s Twitter. Tencent’s WeChat (355 million active monthly users) could be compared to Whatsapp – in that it offers a free online messaging service – though closer examination shows these Chinese equivalents actually offer more to users than their Western counterparts.

WeChat, for example, which is currently China’s hottest social media commodity, not only offers voice and text messaging, but also features ‘moments’. This is not unlike a Facebook new feed, where users post updates, links, recommendations and selfies.

WeChat also offers the ability to book taxis, manage finances, pay for services and shop, all without ever leaving the app. The recent approval of a WeChat bank – already dubbed “WeBank” by China watchers – looks set to consolidate even more services into the platform.

According to Doctoroff, WeChat offers the “safe self-expression” desired by Chinese users because it shares information with friends and trusted groups, making it the most powerful platform currently on offer in the Chinese market.

Unlike in the West, social media platforms in China are increasingly trying to offer all things to all people, and have been much more effective at monetising their offerings than their Western counterparts – who still rely on advertising as their main source of revenue.

Like WeChat, Sine Weibo offers in-platform shopping options, following investment from China’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba, late last year.

Now users can use a “Weibo Payment” option to connect their Alipay account to their Weibo account, thereby shopping for recommended or trending brands or products on Weibo without having to leave the site.

Zennon Kapron is the founder and managing director of Kapronasia, a Shanghai-based research and consultancy firm.

He believes a broad range of Western companies, from the very niche to multi-national conglomerates, have a better chance at reaching Chinese consumers, and converting them to customers simply by having a presence on Chinese social media – particularly WeChat.

“A lot of Western companies are still focused on their Taobao and Tmall platforms, which is great, but things have moved beyond that to a different form of interacting and that’s an aspect that a lot of western companies need to grasp,” Kapron says.

He uses the example of a friend who distributes niche, high-end organic skincare and cosmetic products from overseas – including brands from Australia and New Zealand – into China.

WeChat is an essential part of communicating with her customers and reaching new consumers.  Her current buyers use the platform to recommend products to their friendship group and those friends are given the option to buy products directly from her WeChat e-commerce site.

An advantage Chinese social media platforms have in dealing with Chinese users is that there is less of an expectation of privacy than we see in the West.

Kapron says most Chinese “would just assume that everything is monitored”, which makes it easier for social media companies to compile and integrate vast quantities of data and tailor specific offerings to users in a way it would be difficult for Western sites to do.

“Facebook doesn’t know where you’re going to eat, or what food you’re looking at,” Kappron says.

“If you are WeChat and you are able to get information from Dianping [a popular website and app listing restaurants with user reviews], and consolidate that with social media information, track payments through the same platform, the different ways you can leverage that is just incredible.”

Casey Hall has worked in Shanghai for more than six years including stints as Managing Editor for Talk Magazines and as a contributor to a variety of international publications, including The Wall Street Journal Asia, International New York Times, CNN International and Forbes.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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