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Social Media in China: What Global Marketers Need To Know


WeChat and Wibo marketing apps

For today's digitally native consumer, the beginnings of a shopping journey often start on a social media platform. Whether it's a Facebook post, Instagram ad, or Snapchat story, social media marketing has transformed from a niche tactic to a dominant marketing strategy that influence consumer purchasing decisions.


Similarly, social media platforms in China are also starting to influence consumer buying habits. Platforms like Douyin and RED (Xiaohongshu) are now the go-to starting points for any lifestyle or product recommendations for over 900 million combined monthly users.


But although social media plays a similar role in both China and the West, Chinese platforms and the accompanying digital population have evolved in their own unique way in the past decade, resulting in major differences in many aspects when compared to Western social media platforms.


For global brand marketers, understanding these differences and learning how to leverage them will be the key to engage their audiences effectively.


Here are the three major differences every international marketer should know before they start social media marketing in China.



Mobile Reigns Supreme


China's entire technology stack was built with a mobile first approach. Over 93% of its immense online population accesses the internet via mobile, resulting in vastly different user habits and expectations for digital products. A few of them include:


One app fulfills multiple functions


Whereas Western apps often fulfill a single function, Chinese apps start with one function, and eventually grow into a super-app to try to own the whole user. Instead of designing and launching a brand new app and advertising to drive traffic towards it, brands can build a WeChat mini-program shop and leverage the social sharing function to quickly grow followers.


Earlier adoption of short-form videos and live streams


Short videos and live streams took off in China a lot earlier than the West due to the better fit for the mobile form factor. For marketers, it means adopting new content formats on social media is not an option, even for the B2B businesses. In addition to short videos and live streams, other popular content formats include podcasts, interactive html-5 page, and infographics.


Mature user habits of buying across multiple platforms


Chinese internet users are no strangers to buying items simultaneously in Taobao, WeChat, Douyin, RED, and a variety of different platforms. Implementing an omni-channel strategy is extremely important to capture wider net and retargeting at the users across different social media platforms.


These are just a few examples of how mobile-driven user habits influence the user journey on social media. For brands, interactions with their audiences must be designed with these existing user habits in mind to effectively engage with the Chinese customers.



Algorithms Drives Content Recommendations


Most Western social platforms still use "who a user follows" as the key factor in determining what content to show the user. Even with the introduction of ranking algorithms, platforms like Instagram and Facebook still sort the feed to chronological order based mainly on your followed accounts.


In China however, almost every social media platform pushes content recommended solely by the platforms algorithm, a design philosophy aimed at capturing the maximum amount of user attention. Open Douyin or RED, and the first page shown is the "Recommended" page, determined by the users past browsing history and content popularity.


So, what does it means for marketers?


This means that optimizing their content, both in the sense of adapting advertising content to local Chinese culture and posting quality content best suited to the specific platform, will be key in driving traffic on algorithm-dominant platforms.


If brands can consistently produce engaging content that has a high % of view/click through rate and garners lots of likes and comments, the algorithm will funnel more users to the account, allowing brands to go viral and gain a significant amount of followers in a short amount of time.


The opposite holds true as well: substituting quantity for quality and blindly building up the accounts without paying attention to engagement metrics will seldom result in the outcomes wanted. As the algorithm recognizes the low quality content churned out by the account, and over time, decreases the amount of exposure given to it.



Unified Social Commerce Experience


Compared to Western social media platforms that only offer advertising capabilities (with some starting to venture into e-commerce), nearly every platform in China offers brands the chance to interact with consumers across the entire buying journey, creating a closed loop social commerce experience.


Social media platforms like RED and Douyin now have built-in e-commerce capabilities, while e-commerce platforms such as Taobao often have content sections to encourage users to discover and shop all in one location.


For international marketers, this means understanding the demographics and characteristics of each platform and crafting a seamless user engagement journey will be crucial. It is also important is to understand user habits of using different platforms. For example, a beauty brand's user journey usually starts with browsing content on Red and finishes the purchasing on Taobao while users on Douyin tend to purchase directly on platform.


As the social media platform capabilities continue to evolve, Chinese platforms will be able to offer brands a chance to integrate discovery and purchasing into one seamless journey for the consumer. Having a good understanding of these social media platform capabilities will not only enable you to grow followers and engage with them, but also converting them into customers.


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