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.

Declining Online Advertising ROI

Anyone in ecommerce – particularly those selling third party brands or running marketplaces – know the important of online advertising. Without Google Adwords or Facebook Ads, many remaining pure-play ecommerce websites would be doomed. And offline counterparts would struggle growing their online business. But ad placement has become extremely automate these days and it’s destroying any kind of ROI from online advertising. So as a online merchant, do you increase online ad spend or focus on ‘organic’ customer acquisition? (or dare I say it, offline advertising!?)

Below are five companies who provide some details about their online advertising budget: Ebay, Amazon, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Priceline. Combined, they have spent over $10 billion on online marketing in FY2015, mainly on digital ads. Their ROI of online advertising is declining: businesses need to spend more for every additional dollar of sale.

Change in advertising and sales, from 2010 to 2015 (source: SEC 10-K filings)

online ad 2

Since 2010, their online ad spending outgrew their online B2C sales. This is a general trend in e-commerce: Google’s revenues are up 156% from 2010 to 2015, while online B2C sales roughly doubled. This is clearly not sustainable.

Now one might say online advertising (and advertising in general) can always be improved. However, the marketing departments of these huge online businesses are already well versed in online ads, true insiders to the market, and even their advertising efficiency is declining. One can only imagine the dreadful returns for outsiders, companies like Verizon or Walmart. Very few companies are transparent in their ad spending, so it’s impossible to really know what’s going on in their marketing departments.

The decline in bang for every ad dollar spent is proof that the expansion of online advertising is being done to the detriment of customers, in ever less productive campaigns.

Automation

The growth of ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and programmatic buying has removed much of the need of human intervention in the process. User tracking enables advertisers to identify in real-time who is visiting any given website, and to match the visitor with an ad, instead of relying on the website’s content to draw an approximate profile of who might be viewing the webpage.

Automation has brought down the cost of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to place an ad, and user tracking has made websites’ content less relevant. It has become economical to place ads on low-end websites for cheap, because the marginal cost of placing an ad has become so low.
This means that the growth of online advertising has happened on subprime ad space. The industry’s argument is that it’s still worth their customers money, thanks to algorithms that check everything about the user, his browsing history, the cookies on his browser, his hardware data. This is a compelling case, because the prime as space on the Internet (websites such as The Economist, the New York Times) are very expensive. However, customers paying for their ads to be displayed have practically no way of making sure their ads are being displayed to the right people.
Brand

Moreover, the industry has been pushing for more advertising budgets to be allocated to “display ads”, particularly on mobile, where Internet users click on ads much less than on desktops. The huge red flag with this practice is that customers have no means of knowing if their ad dollars are being spent efficiently. With pay-per-click, at least someone is coming to their website. With display ads, they are merely paying for exposure and such vague concepts as “brand awareness”.

It’s not even clear if a visitor actually sees a “display” ad, and the industry is trying to set up a “viewability” standard for this type of ads. Currently, it is assumed that an ad has had a “reasonable chance of having been viewed by the visitor, if at least 50% of its pixels were displayed on the visitor’s browser for at least one continuous second”. This definition alone lets you understand how murky this type of advertising actually is.

“Display” caught up with pay-per-click in 2015, and is projected to reach $32.2 billion in the US in 2016, vs $29.3 billion for PPC. But the bigger question is, has time caught up with online advertising as a whole? And if so, as a merchant, what do we do about it? Is brand the solution and future of marketing period? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Future of Ecommerce According to Bill Gurley

Prominent VC BIll Gurley comments on the future of ecommerce at the Sailthru conference. In their words:

In this chat, Bill examines the future of ecommerce and provides his perspective on the future of the unicorn market, how “funnel reversal” is impacting marketer’s focus on google, and why retention is critical to profitability over acquisition’s hold on growth.

Worth watching this video if you’re thinking about your site, third party marketplaces and so-on.

Selling on Amazon? You Compete with Amazon

As Wired notes:

Compared to the other industries Amazon is competing in, diapers can seem like a fairly small thing, and yet, this move signals a much larger shift for Amazon, because Elements positions Amazon as a competitor to some of the very brands who sell their goods on Amazon. If Amazon were to expand that approach to other consumer products, it could be very bad news for the millions of merchants who treat Amazon as their own storefront.

This has been the case for some-time actually; essentially since the year 2000 when they formally launched ‘zshops’. We know this today off course as it’s third party marketplace and sellers; folks who list their goods on the website alongside Amazon sku’s.

This announcement that Amazon is now selling diapers, coupled with KindleFire, as well as less well known AmazonBasics products, is possibly pointing to the fact that the private label strategy they’ve long ignored is coming to fruition.

What does it mean for suppliers as well as third party sellers? No different from selling to Walmart or any other mass merchandising outfit; it’s a channel, and you compete.