Over the past few years, there has been a revolution in China’s digital advertising field. Until recently overwhelmingly dominated by traditional display, the space has been transformed by the explosion of online video, opening the door to seemingly limitless opportunities in content marketing.
Smartphones and increasingly generous data packages have created an intensely content-hungry populace. Yet marketers warn that media saturation, production costs and concerns about controlling brand messaging mean content is no ‘quick fix’ in the quest to engage those seemingly willing eyeballs.
Content is no longer cheap
Content marketing is often seen as a low-cost alternative to traditional TV spots, but this is an inherently flawed mindset that results in lacklustre campaigns, says Jeanette Phang, director of business intelligence for OMD China. “Doing content marketing isn’t cheap,” she says. “It seems cheap until you get involved in the production, and then brands quickly discover it isn’t cheap at all.”
It’s also not enough to simply produce the content; in a heavily saturated media landscape, brands need to invest in promoting their video to make sure it stands any chance of reaching its intended audience. “Nobody is going to watch your video if you don’t promote it,” Phang says. “Even then it has to be something fundamentally interesting to get people to invest their time in watching it. They have 20,000 other people trying to reach out to them at the same time.”
Phang says it is important to focus not on how many eyeballs view a brand video but rather on making sure they are the right ones. “Content marketing is not a mass reach thing, it is an engagement thing,” she says.
Vineet Arora, managing director of Havas Media Group China, agrees and says that brands need to be prepared to “sacrifice reach for amplification”. “People have finally stopped saying, ‘We are going to make a viral video’,” he says. “You can’t make the decision about whether a video is going to go viral or not, as that’s a thing which just happens. But if your content can genuinely spark their interest then people will talk about it.”
“Web users in China have a vast digital content appetite.”
The challenge of honesty
Ben Cavender, principal at China Market Research Group, says brands are learning to engage more honestly with consumers and recognise the importance of developing genuine connections rather than a hard-sell approach.
“Brands are increasingly connecting with consumers in groups through more unofficial channels, and less through official ones such as brand pages,” he says. “It is more cost effective to reach out on social media and through WeChat, and it also can result in more genuine engagement.”
To succeed at this, Cavender adds, brands need more clarity about what their message is and how they should communicate it through content.
“Brands need to be putting out content continuously. They can’t just have anyone doing it as a rogue person. Things can go badly really quickly.”
An insatiable appetite
There is no denying the value of content when done well, not least due to the size of the potential audience. “Web users in China have a vast digital content appetite,” says Steven Chang, corporate vice-president of Tencent. “The number of activities performed by over half of internet users was long, and included streaming films, streaming live TV programming, accessing online news, streaming music and reading digital books.”
He points to recent statistics showing 57.3 percent of Chinese movie-watchers view them on mobile devices.
“Content marketing has become mainstream brand communication,” Chang says. “Consumers have a positive response to content marketing.”
He says Tencent advises brands to try to keep three things in mind when they approach content marketing: convert celebrity fans into brand lovers; make brand-valuable IP with content co-creation; and use emotional content to activate social ecommerce.
Knowledge power, star appeal
Mead Johnson aimed directly at the concept of starting a conversation by using content to position its brand as a reliable source of expert advice on families and parenting. Partnering with Tencent’s online video talkshow Are you normal?, the brand put forward a well-known doctor, celebrities and opinion leaders to engage with over 10 million internet users to investigate a range of parenting issues.
But to create a buzz in China, it is still hard to beat the tried-and-tested use of star appeal. During Michael Jordan’s visit to Shanghai last October, Tencent seized the chance to get some to-die-for content with a multiplatform livestreaming event. A huge audience logged of for an to watch a famous sports commentator interview Jordan, while Tencent Video broadcast a retrospetive of the basketball star’s career highlights and interviews with home-grown sports stars including Liu Xiang and Li Na.
L’Oréal is another brand which has successfully leveraged celebrity. Brand ambassador Fan Bingbing called on her fans to follow the brand’s WeChat account to catch all the latest news from the Cannes Film Festival. The account featured interactive Q&A sessions with a host of other stars and updates from the red carpet. This boosted in the brand’s youth appeal, with the number of followers born since 1990 jumping by 42 percent.But it is clear that simply throwing money at the market will not produce results. More than ever, marketing in China needs to be strategic, innovative and evidence-based.