Taking your first steps in China? What makes this market unique?

The Chinese market place is, in my humble opinion, the most fascinating in the world. I have had the pleasure of working in and studying this digital eco-system in China for a number of years. For western businesses looking to expand into the most lucrative [in terms of sustained return on investment and lead generation] yet different marketplace in the world it is important to understand what makes it so unique and why..

China is contradictory in many ways, the country has opened up to foreign investment and business opportunity like never before yet still remains a very separate and distinct proposition for business.

In China digital is king

In China EVERYTHING is now digital. The digital revolution has been unprecedented in the last decade and now become the absolute norm. The country boasts a 58% internet penetration rate which is expected to grow to 65% by the end of 2017. This is relatively low compared to many countries in the world but consider China’s population of 1.4 billion, this therefore equates to 800 million netziens.

Consumer culture is increasingly orientated around digital engagement, online to offline, and e-payment. The growth of Alibaba, WeChat and Baidu as the key online giants has helped facilitate such consumer trends.

You don’t need to spend long in China to realize the prevalence of digital. Chinese citizens are glued to their smartphones, in-fact, latest figures show there are approximately 550 million smartphones in China. Even physical adverts [without exception] embed QR codes into the images whilst e-payment in stores via Alipay or WeChat has become common practice.

The digital advertising and marketing industry is worth $320 billion in China, the future is digital. But so is the present. You have to understand that whilst offline methods still exist they are old news, you have to be where your target market is, and that is online on search engines, e-forums, social networks.

The key fact to digest is the scale of China’s internet penetration, typically it was the east coast of the country with the largest 1st tier cities that had the largest online communities but of course most of the population of China live in  tier 2 and 3 cities, the growth of internet access here is increasing at the fastest pace, in part because of the success of Alibaba’s e-commerce infrastructure.. but more  on this later.

The market is different, Chinese platforms dominate.

The market developed under a unique and different set of conditions. What you have in China is effectively a closed intranet, rather than the open source web we are used to. The online sphere has been shaped by state regulation, policy and Chinese cultural trends. This has produced a market place where Chinese, home-grown platforms dominate. State regulation shut western competitors such as Facebook, Google, Youtube etc out of the largest market in the world, in this vacuum Chinese specific adaptions evolved to cater more specifically for the Chinese user. Instead therefore we have WeChat, Baidu and Youku.

Western brands, products and services need to utilize this Chinese infrastructure for growth in order to succeed.

Chinese platforms are world leading

Chinese platforms are not just unique but also world leading, innovative businesses in their own right. They may have started out as western ‘copycats’ but have now evolved into very different, multi-faceted creatures.

Baidu is the largest search engine in China with 70% of all online research conducted here. For any business a strong presence on Baidu is vital but takes time as you need to appear in the natural results based on Chinese keyword searches. Baidu’s intelligent system named ‘the spider’ prioritizes websites hosted on a local server which are optimized for Mandarin character searches. Like Google, the engine rewards fresh content and backlinks from other sites to increase visibility in the search results.

Baidu are investing heavily in virtual and augmented reality with aim of incorporating this into their searching services as well as facilitating their wider uptake and commercialization in Chinese society.

WeChat is arguably the most integrated platform in the world with 750 million active user accounts. It is designed as a ‘one stop shop’ for everyday life with a host of their own and third party apps on offer within the network. WeChat functions as a browser, app store, instant messenger, is used for sharing video’s and pictures, a taxi ordering application, voice messaging, an e-payment system as well as providing services in dating, financial investment and geo-mapping location.

Weibo (akin to Twitter) is a micro-blogging platform with 250 million users. Users can see posts from anyone, they do not have to be connected first. This makes it an ideal place to work on branding or for spreading a message with articles often the subject of posts. User interactions remains high on Weibo with posts up-ranked based on the number of likes and comments from the community. If content is going to go ‘viral’, it will most likely be on Weibo. Many online influencers and celebrities also use Weibo as their main network for posting and interacting with followers.

In China you have to start over again.

Regardless of your status outside of China, because the internet has been ring-fenced, you need to build a reputation and visibility from scratch to generate leads. Baidu, the largest search engine presiding over 70% of all online research, is based on Mandarin Character keyword searches, English optimized keywords are redundant.

This does present a great opportunity too, the barriers for entry also result in fewer international competitors, and this is what sets you apart. Being first to market in China is vital, I have seen time and time again that, if you brand yourself and grow your online presence ahead of the competition you are far more likely to succeed.

Everything moves fast

In China everything moves quickly, part of the frantic pace of modern life as the country hurtles into the future. This results in large scale investments and innovations being made quickly and decisively. You need to move fast to get ahead of competitors. Take the ‘mobile biking revolution’ as an example. The leading player is ‘Mobike’ who launched an app where you scan their branded bike to start riding and scan to finish, leaving it wherever you want. Using mapping services users can locate the nearest bike. Mobike launched and within two weeks had placed over 30 000 bikes in the first tier city centres. The app launched and within a single month boasted over 200 000 registered users. Digital growth is fast paced, decisive and exciting..

The behaviour of Chinese online

Chinese ‘netziens’ are arguably the most engaged online users in the world. They spend on average a whopping 2.5 hours per day online. 1.5 hours of this is spent on social networks. The Chinese user see’s the internet as their greatest resource for researching, and this is their key trait, the Chinese research online like no other nation.

This is due to a number of factors. Many Chinese have been cheated or let down by poor quality products and services. This makes them more discerning in their purchasing habits and sceptical of new brands without a reputation.

The other factor is that Forums remain wildly popular, in search engine results forums will often appear above an official website. The ‘forum’ is unfashionable now in the west but remains vital to any marketing strategy in China. I would suggest this is due to the Chinese reliance on peer based reviews and shared opinions, perhaps because of their more collectivist nature.

The importance of mobile

There are now 550 million smartphones in China. This is because of mass market, affordable models from brands such as Vivo and Xiaomei. It has led to a mobile-centric digital market place and underscores the importance of mobile optimized content, app development and mini-sites.

Mobile has produced a type of ‘on the go’ engagement. WeChat was built as a mobile app with users spending an average of 1.5 hours a day on the platform. This is because of this culture of instant gratification, frequent usage and mobile interactions.

With the dominance of smartphones comes the proliferation of apps. The largest app store is Tencent’s ‘My App’ with a 24% market share, in second is ‘360 mobile assistant’ with a 16% coverage. WeChat are also launching their own internal app store which will tap into their 750 million active user accounts.

E-payments

E-payments are the norm in China now. The largest third party payment app is ‘Alipay’, part of the Alibaba group. Users can simply scan a QR code to make instant payment from their e-wallet, this is linked to their banking. E-finance services have developed with users able to transfer funds to each others accounts, make investments and manage accounts. WeChat also launched an e-wallet service to compete with Alipay.

‘Hongbaos’, the traditional red envelope given at important Chinese festivals and life events, has now been updated in our digital era. E-wallet services allow users to send and receive hongbaos with either a fixed or random allocation of money inside. Alipay spent millions in offering ‘lucky dips’ on red envelopes to incentivize users to give digitally. The search for envelopes has even been integrated into the physical environment with new Augmented Reality based games, users through geo-location services and their camera on a smart phone can find and open envelopes. Think ‘Pokemon Go’ but there is a financial inventive.

QR Codes

QR codes really took off here and have created strong opportunities to drive traffic from offline to online. By scanning a code, users can be linked to a company website, wechat page or some specific content. QR’s are now featured on most ads, in magazines and newspapers and on physical products. This highlights the nations pre-occupation with digital engagement. It is commonplace to see someone scan the code from an ad in a metro station because this links to the bulk of the content. The take home message is that even with offline activities, the main goal is to drive the prospect online, especially as paying via digital wallets is the best and easiest method for payment.

 

China is a fascinating market, especially because of its uniqueness coupled with its profitability. Nowhere else on earth will you find a closed system with such a vast user uptake of digital services and as a passionate marketer this captivates me.

Benji is a digital marketing specialist focused on the Chinese market, for more information see his blog and website here.

Nasty Gal Bankruptcy Ecommerce Takeaways

A shocking story to outsiders but perhaps less shocking to people in the know, Nasty Gal, the poster child of Fashion Ecommerce to many has filed for bankruptcy protection. The full story is here and it’s worth reading to consider what this – and the many other ecommerce failures – teach us today.

1) Firstly, it’s a rocketship. Nasty Gal like most Ecommerce success stories had grown like crazy from a small Ebay store to ‘International’ retailer. This growth is not typically experienced with other businesses. It means they hired aggresively, built structures and systems as well as financed the venture all at extreme speed. Ultimately, this contributed to their downfall.

2) Fast growing revenues don’t equal fast growing profits. In fact, the opposite is usually true and losses are deep for a long-time..even perpetually. The model of ecommerce as pioneered by B2C giants like Amazon, JD.com etc is all based on two things; scale, and secondly, ways to make money other than shipping merchandise i.e marketplaces, payments, digital goods and so-on.

3) You need all the channels. Ecommerce, at least stand-alone, is not viable. We’ve seen time and time again pure play ecommerce companies go out of business. Who is winning in ecommerce? It’s multi-channel. That means you have to integrate stores and other channels to maximise your customer retention (stickyness) and sales. That’s hard.

4) Really consider your goals. Nasty Gal was a founder led business that was quote ‘successful’ ie they had real revenue, real customers and a real brand. But that still wasn’t enough to save it. Perhaps if the company didn’t take venture funding or had grown at a more realistic speed then it would still be on track. When you’re starting, you should consider your goals. Not everyone can be lucky but you can be good.

Have you learned any Ecommerce lessons you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.

Alibaba’s 11.11: E-commerce on a huge scale!

The E-commerce giant Alibaba’s 11.11 online sale or ‘singles day’ has become the biggest day in the Chinese shoppers’ calendar reflecting the giant Chinese e-commerce market and its growth on an unprecedented scale. This is indicative of the largest e-commerce market in the world with 800 million Chinese now connected online, they are embracing western style consumerism in a way they never could before throughout China’s tempestuous history.

What does Alibaba’s 11.11 represent? It is the biggest online shopping day in the world where on November 11 Alibaba slashes prices on all their online platforms but most notably Tmall and Taobao. In 2015 the Chinese spent $9.3 billion dollars in a 12 hour period on November 11th. This figure is only set to increase this year with a growing internet penetration rate, up from 45% to 55%.

The Alibaba Nov 11 sale is a tradition that started in 2009, when 27 merchants on the company’s Tmall site offered discounts to increase sales during a usually slower period for e-commerce. It has since been promoted year on year to become a huge shopping phenomenon in the world of e-commerce.

The Chinese e-commerce giant cleverly utilized the existing (but less established) Chinese tradition of ‘singles day’. This tradition started in Universities where students would celebrate their single status on this day because the figures ‘11.11’ were thought to be aesthetically representative of single life.

With the growth of consumerism in China it was a logical step to link this expression of single identity with the purchasing habits of Chinese citizens. This e-shopping festival is ultimately enabled by Alibaba’s established e-commerce infrastructure across China and it’s strong digital marketing strategy which established 11.11 as an ‘anti-valentines day’ whereby consumers are encouraged to assert their independence through purchases.

The event has received strong support from the government at a time when China’s economic expansion is slowing and Beijing is trying to transform the Chinese growth model into a more sustainable one driven by consumption and technological developments rather than manufacturing. Alibaba as an innovative Chinese e-commerce platform are arguably the greatest domestic success story for the state.

How has Alibaba, which developed a host of platforms linking buyers and sellers, achieved this? Crucially, it has been able to tap into China’s changing market demographics, marketing to the emerging middle class and its increasingly affluent younger population. It also positioned itself as a wholly digital company at the cusp of China’s internet revolution. This is a time where traditional brick and mortar retail no longer dominates in the aptly named ‘mysterious orient’, everything has moved online, especially with the wide-scale adoption of smartphones.

These developments and savy business practices have allowed the company to go from being a small start-up to the largest retail giant on the planet in the space of 15 years. It’s platforms now carry some 80% of Chinese online commerce. Forbes has named Jack Ma, its charismatic founder, as the richest person in China, with an estimated fortune of over $20 bn.

What we care about is what is behind the numbers,” Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma told reporters at the company’s headquarters. “Behind the numbers we can see the power of the market.” He said more competition and diversity in e-commerce would help strengthen this burgeoning industry in China.

Alibaba when speaking about singles day the previous year said its logistical division and its partners would utilize more than 1.7 million personnel, 400,000 vehicles, 5,000 warehouses and 200 planes to handle deliveries on this epic scale. China can be thought of more as a continent than a single country and this scale of infrastructure is necessary for the delivery to Chinese tier 1,2 and 3 cities as well as more rural areas.

With so many Chinese buyers looking for products online this is a key time to develop your business in the Middle Kingdom. Tmall the platform which kick-started this online shopping occasion boasts a whole division of its business ‘Tmall Global’ dedicated to providing online stores for western brands and companies. In these major sales the Chinese are often looking for western products, which have become a byword for quality in a market flooded with counterfeits and fakes.

Alibaba has strong global aspirations that are in line with this trend. 200 overseas merchants from more than 20 countries have confirmed participation in its Singles’ Day sales this year, with many multinational brands taking part in the “11.11 shopping festival” for the first time.

Looking to develop your e-reputation and online visibility in China is absolutely vital for you to succeed in E-commerce and tap into this lucrative market. The most powerful thing about selling your products on Tmall or Taobao is that suddenly you are exposed to the largest consumer market in the world where you can benefit from Alibaba’s existing infrastructure for sales and delivery. The scale of online shopping and deliveries for singles day represents this.

Benji specializes in Chinese e-commerce and tailoring digital campaigns to this market enabling companies and brands to make that first step into China. See here.

Amazon Starts Prime Service in China. Competition For Alibaba?

Amazon.com have now started offering their prime free-shipping service in China, ratcheting up their attempts to compete with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. for the increasing number of shoppers desiring overseas products.

Chinese Prime subscribers will now be eligible for free shipping on orders exceeding 200 yuan ($29.50) on millions of overseas products, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Domestic goods will also be delivered free with membership costing 388 yuan a year, lower than the U.S. fee of $99.

This is a strong move and incentive by Amazon China for Chinese consumers. It is indicative of the demand for western products online in the Middle Kingdom, the market is so lucrative that Amazon can still find room to compete with the e-commerce behemoth that is Alibaba.

Amazon, which has so far made little headway against Alibaba, is focusing on the demands of a growing middle-class whom are seeking better high quality goods from abroad. Amazon as an American digital platform are well placed to emphasize the authenticity and quality of the products from outside of China’s borders, this will help them stand out in a market flooded with counterfeit, fake products. The target market for Amazon is the more discerning, wealthy Chinese consumer.

Amazon’s global logistics network will manage shipping and final delivery to Chinese customers. Packages are estimated to arrive within five to nine days in 82 cities across the country, with single orders of more than 2,000 yuan requiring additional time, the company added.

Amazon must utilize the extensive and increasingly developed infrastructure across China for delivery whilst focusing predominantly  on the east coast where the most developed cities (Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai) and the majority of the population live. Large 2nd and 3rd tier cities are also important as the road networks continue to improve for e-commerce delivery.

Amazon will have a fight on their hands to build up a significant presence and compete with the domestic Alibaba, they have to understand the market and different behaviour patterns of Chinese consumers in order to tailor and attract them to their e-commerce platform. It will be interesting to track their development in the future.

 

Benji is an e-commerce specialist based in Shanghai, China. For more information see his blog here.

 

 

 

The E-commerce Subscription Model in China

Subscription based e-commerce platforms are a growing phenomenon in China. As cities become increasingly polluted and congested more Chinese consumers generally turn to online shopping. When you consider the size and scale of China it is unsurprising that the convenient online, subscription model is proving to be a success. 50% of the Chinese now have access to the internet with over 600 million potential online customers to target.

One company making waves in China with this subscription model is the ‘French Cellar’. For a monthly subscription fee they deliver premium, bio-dynamic, French wines selected by “Nicolas Rebut”, a prestigious sommelier, directly to the customer’s door.

In a nation where fake products are rife, the Chinese consumer wants to guarantee authenticity and quality. Therein lies the key appeal of a subscription model, the consumer can trust the quality and over time becomes loyal to the brand. It is also convenient as the selection is made by an expert, (China is renowned for many things but high quality wine is not one of them), and affluent consumers now expect the best from outside of the orient.

The whole process becomes more exciting and a surprise for the customer with lesser known yet prestigious wines being showcased. The concept has also proved popular in other Asian markets such as Singapore. In China the consumer is especially concerned with ‘keeping face’, they wish to present themselves in a positive light with greater specialization, quality and variety reflecting positively on the customer themselves.

This subscription model approach for high quality, niche, European products (that are a rarity in China) is set to become increasingly popular. This is potentially a very lucrative market for selling western products in the middle kingdom. Online shopping is in vogue in here with variations such as the monthly subscription becoming attractive to the wealth of middle/upper class Chinese consumers whom are more interested than ever in western cultures, in this case the refined wines that nations such as France produce.

Benji has lived and worked in Shanghai, China for 5 years and specializes in E-commerce in China. For more information see his website here.

Chinese E-Commerce Giant Alibaba’s Shopping Festival Breaks Online Sales Record.

Chinese E-Commerce Marketplace Alibaba Records $5.78 Billion in Sales, Topping Last Year’s Sales in Half a Day.

The country’s biggest online shopping day of the year, also the biggest on the planet, have set another record.

After only about half a day, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. said sales on its online shopping sites had topped $3.1 billion – last year’s total for the one day 11.11 Shopping Festival.

The company recorded 35.19 billion yuan ($5.78 billion) in transactions by the end of the day. Chinese online shoppers spent more in 24 hours than the $2.5 billion that Americans spent online on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This is a strong reminder of how lucrative the e-commerce market in China is, surpassing the US in terms of consumer numbers and total spending. In the first six minutes of the 11.11 shopping festival transactions exceeded an incredible one billion Yuan.

The Alibaba Nov. 11 sale is a tradition which started in 2009, when 27 merchants on the company’s Tmall site offered discounts to increase sales during a usually slow period. The concept was then subsequently developed and intelligently marketed alongside China’s ‘singles day’, a celebration of independence, now defined (in part) through one’s purchases at discounted prices.

This year’s sales record demonstrates the rising power of the Chinese consumer and the increasing presence of e-commerce in a country where the physical, retail infrastructure isn’t as well-developed as it is in the U.S. It also shows the rising power of Chinese brands, with smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc. and electronics and appliances supplier Haier Electronics Group Co among the top sellers.

In the opening three minutes, Xiaomi said it sold 110,000 of its new Mi 3 phone and another 110,000 of its Hongmi phone, totaling 178 million yuan in transactions. After half an hour, the company’s Tmall store had 300 million yuan in transactions. Chinese brands such as Xiaomi are flexing their muscles with sales figures such as this. This also demonstrates that China is no longer simply a factory for the rest of the world but a rapidly developing country that is modernizing at a head spinning pace. This whole venture was engineered and executed by a Chinese e-commerce firm with domestic, Chinese technology brands thriving.

As a direct result of such Chinese sales figures the number of expats and business people learning Mandarin is also dramatically increasing, an understanding of the language has become a pre-requisite to succeed in E-commerce here. Language specialists ‘Tailor Made Chinese’ have stressed that it is ‘vital for expats to learn and speak Chinese to succeed in business’.

Examples such as this reflect the vast potential for Western brands in China, for more information on marketing and expanding your business into China see Benji Lamb’s marketing website and blog.

10 important tips for e-commerce platforms on Baidu marketing in China

Understand Baidu

Baidu is the largest and the most dominant search engine in China. The influence of Baidu on the Chinese digital market is unprecedented. If you want to enter the Chinese market it is vital for any e-commerce platform to have a strong presence here.

Baidu is not simply the “Google of China”

If you want your e-commerce sit to be present on Baidu, you have to understand how it is works.  Baidu cannot in reality be compared to Google as it uses different searching algorithms and different systems. For example if you want to book a movie ticket on Baidu, you can even choose the specific seat, which you cannot do on Google. These additional services have contributed to the Chinese giant’s success.

More than a search engine

Baidu is offering multiple services including; “Baidu Baike” (akin to Wikipedia), Baidu Maps, Baidu Yi (a Chinese mobile platform) and ‘Baidu Tieba’  a popular social community where content is ranked, the higher the rating the more that content is shared and seen by the community (much like on Reddit).

Ad Space

Baidu TV is an established search engine advertising space for companies wanting to post their promotional videos on selected websites.

From PC to mobile

Baidu has expanded its market from PC to the mobile device by offering a wide range of functions and digital services on the smart phone.

There is certainly big potential for expansion in m-commerce.

Baidu’s display

On Baidu, there is an interesting way to promote a brand. Baidu attracts more customers by offering a creative display for brands with pictures, videos, and interactive content. For example if you search for cosmetic brands such as L’Oreal you will find pictures of many featured products alongside the usual search results on the first page.

Chinese domain

Baidu is a website that is hosted locally so it can be wise for companies to have a local domain with .cn. This way, it will be easier to rank highly on Baidu and to generate more traffic in China.

Chinese keywords

If you have a Chinese version website, it would be interesting to use Chinese keywords in your SEO strategy. You can easily translate the keywords that you have in Chinese.

Content

Be careful about the content on your website. If you share or feature content that is deemed to be inappropriate by the Chinese government, your website might be taken down or restricted from Baidu.

Avoid JavaScript and Flash

Baidu cannot interpret your JavaScript pages, you should use alternatives or non JavaScript pages for your website. The same goes for flash, Baidu cannot feature your flash contents, so better avoid it.

Benji is a digital marketing specialist based in Shanghai, China. For more information see his marketing website and blog here.