China has more e-commerce activity than any country in the world today. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, Chinese consumers spent $750 billion online in 2016—more than the US and the UK combined. That is a jaw-dropping number, but even more interesting is how differently China’s digital marketplace, technology platforms, and online behaviors have evolved compared with those in Western markets.
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 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 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.
The Chinese New Year Travel Rush, known as ‘Spring Movement’ (春运 Chunyun), usually begins 15 days ahead of Lunar New Year’s Day and lasts for about 40 days (usually from mid-January to late February).
This year an estimated 450-500 million Chinese citizens are expected to travel to their home towns to spend China’s biggest and longest holiday with their families.
This huge holiday presents a great opportunity for savy marketers tapping into the largest consumer market in the world. The mass uptake of transport orientated advertising, e-hongbaos, Chinese tourists making trips overseas and novelty items that cash in on ‘the year of the Rooster’ are not to be under-estimated in a country prioritizing this time of year and the unique Chinese cultural practices surrounding it. For international brands it is important to stay ontop of these trends.
Advertising on public transport
CNY sees the largest mass migration of human beings on the planet, it is the longest and highest annual period of transport usage anywhere in the world. In 2016, it was estimated that Chinese travelers made around 2.9 billion trips in total during the 40-day period.
This widespread use of public transport, particularly the bullet train network, represents a huge opportunity for advertisers. The modern CRP train network now boast digital screens, placed in the back of seats. Digital ads are screened between content played with interactive QR code based ads encouraging users to scan and interact. Whilst on long journeys across China (which can be up to 15 hours), there is a relatively captive market with a lot of time on their hands.
Metro systems in the larger cities see increased usage as they effectively act as the major transport hubs. The metro in both Beijing and Shanghai are now implementing LED ad boards which are built into the tunnels and spaced out correctly to create moving, digital displays. The footfall and exposure will be much higher at this time of year.
Vehicle usage increases by four times on the roads so large physical billboards are erected at busy intersections, although this is costly it certainly results in high levels of traffic, if you excuse the pun..
‘Hongbao’ is the infamous ‘red envelope’ that is traditionally presented at this time. It is an envelope filled with cash and reflects good will and prosperous fortune for the year ahead.
In the digital age e-versions are now hugely popular with Alipay, the largest third party payment system in China encouraging users to send their red envelopes via their APP. Users then receive the money into their account. To incentivize users last year Alipay gave away millions of dollars in free prizes for users who used their e-hongbao service.
WeChat are also hot on their heels with their e-wallet service. Users send hongbaos via personal chat or they can be posted in a group with a random or equal allocation of the total figure shared to everyone who opens it. It has not surprisingly been a way of motivating users to engage with brands on the social network by sharing their posts and attracting followers.
This is such a popular phenomenon that Alipay are now launching a ‘Pokemon Go’ style augmented reality game where users interact with the physical world and locations around them (based on GPS) to locate hongbaos. This presents huge opportunites for O2O, that is online to offline based marketing and vice versa.
E-commerce, users with spare time shop online.
Alibaba, the largest e-commerce player in China have developed the largest e-commerce infrastructure in the world. This includes reaching to smaller 2nd and 3rd tier cities. In the run up to CNY shoppers will order to deliver to their homes in more rural areas and the smaller cites. Alibaba will typically see an increase in orders before the festival begins, with the improved road network, delivery fleet and internet penetration rate China has become more connected than ever before. Digital ecommerce facilitates shopping for consumers across the country, not just those in the large, 1st tier cosmopolitan cities. This also benefits cross-border ecommerce which has become the key infrastructure for sales for international brands. With large families giving gifts in the form of hongbaos e-retail also typically spikes just after the CNY period.
Then of course with this being the longest holiday there is the opportunity to travel. Ctrip, the largest travel provider in mainland, reported there will be 6 million outbound trips this year. Catering for Chinese visitors at this time is important, many destinations now offer special New Year dinners and events in hotels and destinations around the globe.
The most popular destinations for tourists are South Korea, Thailand, Japan, US, Singapore, Australia and Indonesia. The focus still tends to be on Asian countries that are closer and more convenient in terms of location. Having said this, as disposable incomes keep rising you expect to see the Chinese middle class choosing luxurious destinations further away in the western hemisphere.
‘Year of the Rooster’ products
This is the year of the Rooster, many novelty product variations around this sell very well. Limited editions versions or packaging is a good move. Features and games based around this theme can also be launched to drive traffic online and up-promote Rooster related content. The symbolism of each animal is important with the Chinese being associated with an animal from birth based on which year they were born. Special offers or rewards for those born in this animal year remain popular with brands.
To conclude it is important to capitalize on such seasonal trends as CNY. The Chinese greatly appreciate such tailored marketing whilst the mass movement, travel trends, hongbao culture and large gatherings of families in their home towns can be tapped into by savy marketers operating in China.
Benji is a digital specialist based in Shanghai, for more information see his website here.
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.
China, is the world leader in e-commerce:
In modern China a significant level of growth of China is fueled by e-commerce. It has become the largest e-commerce market in the world and with the rise of Alibaba at the forefront of online shopping developments in terms of both user experience and technological advances.
Foreign goods remain popular with Chinese consumers compared to brands from home. They are often seen as a byword for quality. By 2020 forecasts suggest that a quarter of the total population of China is expected to order items through cross-border e-commerce. That is a projection of 291.8 million online buyers.
The main reason for this continued growth is an improving delivery infrastructure. Alibaba now have the most extensive delivery network in the world, with all 1st, 2nd and third tier cities in China being catered for. They are also expanding out to more rural area’s. Third tier city populations becoming more connected online to e-commerce services will be a key growth area in the next five years.
It is also a case of ease, congested Chinese cities and pollution has been dissuading shoppers and encouraging them to go online, in hectic modern China the digital environment dominates and consumers are looking towards online shopping in order to utilize their time more effectively.
Chinese trust foreign brands:
There is a greater confidence in the quality of foreign products than Chinese brands, especially regarding luxury items and food products such as powdered baby milk. Both Alibaba and JD.com (the two largest platforms) are attracting many foreign brands. 82.8 % of Chinese e-commerce market is dominated by two local players : Tmall (Alibaba) and JD.com. Foreign brands therefore must enter the market through these domestic platforms in order to gain visibility.
Tmall Global :
Tmall global was specifically designed by Alibaba to host ‘stores’ for international brands, it is the largest online outlet for western products in China. JD.com are also launching a similar foreign section service. The guarantee of authenticity in a market full of counterfeit products is the reason for the growth and appeal in this western branded sector.
Changes in policy:
Recently, the Chinese government introduced new tax policy to effectively raise the price of goods over 2,000 RMB (USD 308) from abroad. This new policy of value added tax (VAT) imposed on the import will particularly impact on e-retailers that sell luxury goods as only goods under the value of 2.000 RMB (USD $308) will be subject to tax relief.
This new tax is not however surprising and will largely effect luxury brands whom can afford higher taxes due to the high cost and return on their investment in China in terms of sales. For the vast majority of imported products this new tax will have little effect.
A host of Chinese E-commerce channels:
It is important to familiarise yourself with the variety of e-commerce channels. Alibaba and JD.com dominate the market but there is growth in smaller, niche stores that are attracting consumers looking to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. Many fashion brands now set up their own stores online.
Growth of the micro store on WeChat:
Micro stores within the WeChat (the largest social media platform in China) are growing phenomenon. Users link their WeChat accounts up to their banking and can now browse e-stores within the application making it easy to purchase goods in this manner.
This is an example of how China is at the forefront of combining social media and e-commerce in one integrated service. This means quality content promoting your goods on social media can lead directly to sales within the same platform. You can also utilize ‘apps within the app’ on WeChat where you fully customize your own page, offer customer services, present your product range and then allow purchases too.
Benji is a digital marketing and e-commerce specialist based in Shanghai, China. For more information see his blog and website here.
If you don’t know about JD.com, think of it as China’s Amazon; a B2C ecommerce platform where you can buy just about anything. And now thanks to a fantastic analysis from Richard at Value Investor, you can learn just what they’re about today (and tomorrow).
The world’s largest middle class will create as many new retail giants in China and Asia at large as there are in North America and Europe combined. Despite the fact JD.com is already China’s largest B2C retailer, it still has enormous room for growth.
But the question for merchants outside China is going to be how can we take part? If you are selling to Asia (or more likely buying from) let us know what your future plans are for taking part in Asian ecommerce opportunity.