Why you have to think differently when it comes to digital in China

Matthew McDougallWith more Australian companies eyeing Asian expansion Matt McDougal looks at the particular challenges of establishing a brand in the Chinese market.

We often mistakenly believe that globalisation means we all have the same tastes and consumer habits. In some cases perhaps this is true to a certain extent but never forget to localise. No brand should count on its international recognition to reach the Chinese population. Mattel, for example, paid a huge price when they belatedly realised Chinese girls did not attach the same importance to a Barbie doll compared to Western girls.Yes, for the most of us, Barbie is an uncontested icon and a reminder of our childhood but she is also a white, sexy doll that has nothing to do with what Chinese girls like. Again and again, brands pay the price for not doing their homework and understanding Chinese consumer tastes.

Whether we are talking about large brands or smaller ones, digital marketing remains a smart choice of advertising in China. The Chinese netizen population is huge and continues to increase with 645 million in 2014 compared to 618 million in 2013. Other studies show that more than 75 percent of the netizen population accesses the Internet via mobile devices. These figures reveal that China is not only a paradise because of its huge population but because it offers great opportunities for advertising online.

To ensure a strong online presence in China, brands should prioritise their local website, social media and a search engine optimisation strategy. Chinese consumers purchase brands they know and trust. They are tech savvy researchers and will look at peer reviews online before making purchase decisions. Always with their smartphone, they will regularly check comments and ads to make sure they are purchasing the right product.

Your website is a core element of your brand strategy and the absence of one indicates a Company with no credibility. As with everything else, your website needs to be localised and this doesn’t merely entail adding Mandarin pages to a Western website. Why? Because Baidu (China’s most popular search engine) gives priority to Chinese content and a Western website with tabs in Chinese would definitely be penalised. It is therefore necessary to have a localised micro-site built from the ground up with Chinese browser habits, design/UX standards and your Chinese consumer’s persona in mind.

Bear in mind that Chinese consumers tend to be skeptical about brands and would always trust fellow consumers over “official” reviews and ratings of products. In a nutshell reputation and customer-brand relationship management are key in China.

Paid search (PPC) is a powerful tool in China, but again, it works differently than in the West. One major difference is the language structure. It has a fundamental consequence on the bidding for keywords and optimisation/structure of accounts.

SEO is also quite different in China. The Baidu spider is quite different than the Google bot, and generally does not crawl deeper than three levels within website structures – sites that have thousands of pages that have been indexed on Google might only have hundreds that index on Baidu. The ranking algorithm is also different on Baidu. Many Western brands do not even have first page visibility. This issue is primarily due to a Google-centric SEO strategy that does not work on Baidu.

Google in the post-Panda [the algorithm changes implemented by Google, not the cute bear] world is looking for ‘content’ when in many cases Baidu is looking for local inbound links. These differences interfere with the standard strategies a brand would go for normally.

Western brands are aware that Facebook, Youtube, Twitter as well as Google or SnapChat has their local equivalents in China. However, Chinese users would rather post pictures on Moments (Personal wall on WeChat) than go on Instagram. Each Chinese app has its own unique functionality — there are also high volume niche social media platforms such as Qzone or Renren, which are used primarily by vast numbers of newly graduated students. Also very popular are Youku or Tudou (video-sharing sites equivalent to Youtube).

Before entering the Chinese market and building any kind of strategy, brands have to consider and acknowledge the differences they will have to overcome in order to break into China.

The sooner you understand this, the stronger your brand will be in China and the quicker you will see that ROI.

Matt McDougal is the founder of digital marketing agency Digital Jungle


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.