Understanding the Chinese social media & e-commerce space
One of the giveaways of a newbie to China is the bafflement about being unable to access Google, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter – unless they’re chewing through their data roaming quotas or have planned ahead with a VPN. It quickly becomes apparent that China’s digital ecosystem is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Those same newbies are likely to try and make sense of it all by making direct comparisons of Amazon with Alibaba, Facebook with WeChat and Twitter with Weibo. Yet the Chinese platforms aren’t just different by appearance and namesake; their features and, more importantly, the purpose they serve in the consumer journey are often quite disparate from platforms in the West. In many cases, they are functionally more advanced (often by years) than overseas apps, which has seen companies like Apple, Amazon and Facebook replicating features from Chinese apps.
Many brands understand these differences and focus on localising tactical campaigns to take advantage of Chinese platforms’ rich and engaging features online and offline. Yet a number still miss the bigger picture of how China’s tech giants differ from the West: their touch points with consumers are far deeper, wider reaching and offline than those overseas.
One of the important growth strategies executed by China’s tech companies has been to expand beyond their core industries, even if links seem tenuous to outsiders. We saw this in 2014 when Alibaba began purchasing brick & mortar stores and then again in 2018 with their investment in screen advertising.
There are a number of reasons why this type of expansion has happened much more in China than other countries:
1. In most countries when companies get too large and dominant, they are usually forced to split. In China there is barely a whiff of this;
2. Most of China’s bigger companies with real money to invest are tech firms and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As SOEs are comparatively more conservative, there is less competition for big tech companies when making major acquisitions;
3. Traditional channels are less mature and more fragmented in China, enabling lower acquisition costs for market leaders and much more scope for disrupting tech giants to break in;
4. Accumulation of user data is far more liberal in China, providing significant scope for tech companies who already have the data. This enables them to utilise data synergies across new acquisitions, which can help justify paying a higher price for them; and
5. Consumers are much more open the commercial use of their data and appreciate the convenience it brings.
The approach hasn’t just been adopted by China’s famous tech giants though. We’ve also seen lesser-known tech companies utilising their presence, channels and data from their category. For example, mid-sized travel portal Tuniu has tapped into the nuptials industry, launching a marketplace just for wedding photography.
What does this mean for brands? Brands should understand just where Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance, Meituan and other niche platforms are playing, even if they don’t appear to have an obvious connection with their industry. Awareness of their reach and subsequent opportunities can help determine how best to partner with and leverage them. Even the biggest brands in China rarely attempt to approach the market alone and will buddy up with one or more of the tech giants. Similar to the many brands who have co-located marketing staff close to Walmart or Carrefour in the West, close proximity to China’s tech leaders is likely to be an increasingly common strategy in China.