China Media Landscape: Evolution, Key Factors & Trends for Brand PR
Developing an effective communications strategy in China is hard without a proper understanding of China's news media landscape. We decided to dedicate this article to a complete overview of the Chinese media landscape as we found there is surprisingly little discussion around such an important part of PR success in China. The insights in this article are based on our years of experience working with the Chinese news media and our day-to-day practices as a PR agency in China.
How is Chinese media landscape different from the west
Chinese media differs from media in other parts of the world in several significant ways due to the country's unique political, cultural, and regulatory environment.
For one, a significant portion of Chinese media is owned and controlled by the state or the CCP(Chinese Communist Party). This includes major television networks, newspapers, and online platforms.
Despite the government's strong grip on the news media, China’s media industry is massive, with over 69 media groups owning 2,500 news media channels and publications, making it one of the largest media market in the world.
Due to the strict media regulation, China also makes one of the world's most exclusive media markets, and most western media are either blocked or heavily restricted. There are few foreign media or journalists visible in the market.
As China shifts into a mobile-first economy, the news media landscape is experiencing accelerating change in recent years. In this article, we’ll get into the current state of China’s news media landscape as well as highlight some key factors play into the media evolution.
The evolution of Chinese news media from 1979 to 2021
China’s news media today is best described as “multi-format” and“multi-channel”. To understand how it evolved to such a diverse ecosystem, we need to look at some of the fundamental developments of its past.
Chinese news media development timeline
1979: Media consisted of state-owned media that focused heavily on national political affairs. The news was under strict government censorship during this period.
1979-2000: News industry opens up, with every tier 1 and tier 2 city now having a major media group. More TV & print media emerged during this phase.
2000-2010: Landscape experiences a major shift towards online media. The explosive growth of online users causes most news groups to expand their online presence, and online media starts to take a bigger share of the news landscape.
2010-2013: Social media apps start to change how people consume news and content online, threatening traditional media’s hold on information.
2013- 2017: Rapid development of mobile media and integrations of news app & social media (WeChat/Weibo).
2017-2019: Online and social media becomes the main channel users consume news.
2019-2021 (Post-covid): New mobile-native content formats like livestream and short videos become a main way of consuming content.
2021-2023: The rise of AI has sparked a technological revolution, with both new and traditional media embracing this innovation for news content generation.
Looking at the evolution of news media in China, the key development in recent years is the shift towards mobile and digital channels. This shift is by no means a coincidence, it is an outcome of rising social media popularity and technological advance. We will tap into this trend in the following section.
Key factors that influenced media landscape today
There are several factors that influenced the development of the news media industry today. They are:
Media Convergence: “Two Social Media, One App”
WeChat’s critical role as a facilitator of dialogue
The rising power of KOL
The entertainmenization of news content
1. Media Convergence: “Two Social Media, One App, One Douyin”
One of the key trends emerged during the last decade is the convergence of traditional news media with mobile mediums.
According to CCTV's data, the Chinese online population reached 940 million in 2020 with 99.2% of them being mobile users.
As a result of growing mobile users, President Xi first introduced the concept of “convergence media” in 2018: the merging of different types of mass media such as traditional print, TV, radio media with newer digital and mobile mediums like social media, short video apps, online podcasts and news apps, to achieve higher effectiveness of spreading awareness and content integration.
Since then, the “Two Social Media, One App, One Douyin” approach has been widely adopted by mainstream media; utilizing WeChat official accounts (WeChat OA), Weibo accounts, news apps and Douyin (Chinese TikTok) as new information distribution channels. Weibo and Douyin act as news distribution platform for breaking news, while WeChat and news apps are more suited for more longform news content.
According to iiMedia Research, Chinese news app users grew from 594 million in 2016 to estimated 725 million in 2020. Among these, the algorithm-based news aggregator apps "Toutiao" is the most popular news app, followed by 163 News, The Paper, Tencent News and other individual and news aggregator apps.
CCTV, the most influential TV media in China, is a leading example of this media convergence trend. By 2020, CCTV had a total of 500 million followers across omnichannel news platforms, including ~113 million Weibo followers, ~15 million WeChat followers, ~83 million Toutiao followers, and ~93 million Douyin followers.
In addition to the mainstream media, other major industry media have also pivoted to digital channels to reach their mobile-savvy readers and stay competitive.
2. WeChat’s critical role as a facilitator of online dialogue
As the largest social media platform and China’s number one “super app”, WeChat stands out as the most important digital news distribution channel.
What’s unique about WeChat as a news distribution channel is that it provides an environment for information to spread quickly among users’ close social networks and allows people to discuss and interact with media accounts.
A 2020 New Media Development Report found that 77% of netizens get their news primarily from their WeChat group chats. Unlike other platforms which use algorithms to spread content, the natural way that information passes through relationship-based recommendations makes WeChat a trusted and convenient source of information.
As a platform, WeChat offers multiple different tools for news media to create content as well. A WeChat Official Account (OA) is a subscription account that allows account owners to send content to their subscribers daily or weekly, with text and photo, video, and live streaming content types supported. Since launching, WeChat OA’s have experienced continuous growth and now is a key channel in which users receive content.
In addition to WeChat OA, news media are also exploring new functions within WeChat such as mini-programs and video account features. Going forward, WeChat will remain the most important digital channel for news media to engage their audience.
3. The Rising Power of KOL
With the emergence of social media and content publishing platforms, traditional media no longer hold a monopoly over information anymore. These platforms have given individuals the power to influence online communities with their own unique content.
These individuals, termed KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) in China, range from celebrities to bloggers to industry experts. Compared to traditional news media, KOLs usually have higher follower stickiness and their content is more vertically focused.
Some well-known KOLs include technology influencer Luo Yonghao, beauty influencer Austin Li Jiaqi, and finance influencer Wu Xiaobo, etc. They often have followings of a few hundred thousand to upwards of millions of fans across different platforms.
Today, both B2C and B2B brands regard KOLs as an important part of their PR strategy, with some even considering KOL relations equally as important as media relations.
Does this mean traditional media have less influence now?
No. Traditional media still hold trust among the public given their brand, and are still vital for leading conversations. Among the top 50 most cited sources for online articles, 95% are traditional media sources. With the digitalization trend continuing, traditional media who have a loyal readership and strong foundation will still hold considerable influence.
Traditional media and KOLs will co-exist in influencing public opinions, with each playing a different but important role. Understanding how to leverage the strengths of each will be key in achieving effective PR results.
4. The entertainmenization of news content
Short video platforms, such as Douyin and Kuaishou, started out as entertainment video platforms but have quickly been adopted by mainstream media as news distribution channels during COVID as people spent more time at home watching short videos.
Short videos by nature condense information to bite-sized pieces that are easy to digest and fun to watch, and the platforms often have algorithms that make it easy for virality.
According to the 2020 New Media Development Report, 39.02% of online netizens acquired news information from Douyin.
Compared to traditional news formats, short video news is also able to quickly inform and attract new followers: some videos posted by mainstream media accounts on Douyin can reach up to 10 billion plays, generating awareness on a level hard to achieve on any other platform.
With 5G rolling out, faster internet speeds will continue to push content into the video space, making short videos and live streaming a key content format for Chinese news media going forward.
Implications for brand PR
The Chinese news media landscape today is more complex than ever; its formats and distribution channels have expanded beyond traditional forms into a multi-channel, multi-format media matrix.
So what does this mean for brand PR? Below are our 4 pro tips.
1. Develop an integrated media strategy
With media converging towards digital channels, brands need to be more strategic in terms of their media strategies by prioritizing media that have multiple mobile/social media outlets such as WeChat OAs, news portals, and news apps. These fully digitized news media are the ones who can bring bigger and more effective business results for their clients.
However, since most news media are in the process of digital transformation, they still rely on advertisement and paid content sponsorship to stay profitable. Paid media strategy should be combined with free pitching to achieve optimal PR results.
2. Focus on building relationships with core media and reporters
In the age of digital media, the news media landscape is becoming more saturated and fragmented than ever. When building out your PR strategy, it’s important to zero in on the media outlets and reporters that truly serve your purpose and can connect with your target audience effectively. For brand PR, this means focusing on quality of your media connections rather than quantity.
3. Leverage the power of influencers
Depending on what industry you are in, working with the right who have an influence in your industry could be an extremely effective way to reach your target niche. For B2B brands, KOL relations are sometimes regarded as important as media relations. It’s important to identify the key KOLs in your industry and maintain on-going relationships with them to generate awareness.
4. Find a reliable local PR agency partner
The news media landscape in China is complicated and continuously evolving, and it requires brands to pay attention to everything from media nuances and platforms to the local news trends and sentiment to achieve ideal PR results.
Having a reliable agency partner on the ground who has the right media resources and knowledge about the news media industry is critical to start building your brand’s reputation and awareness.
Ready to get started or have questions to ask? Talk to our PR experts to learn how we can help!