Chris Dobson
Jan 26, 2015

Chinese New Year goes digital

Chris Dobson, executive chairman of The Exchange Lab, explains why marketers need a programmatic strategy as we welcome the Year of the Goat.

Chris Dobson
Chris Dobson

This Chinese New Year offers brands in APAC phenomenal online access to their most valuable customers, and a programmatic solution can deliver never-before-seen levels of digital marketing ROI.

Last year, APAC became the largest regional ecommerce market in the world, overtaking North America (NA). Although China itself currently has the second largest ecommerce market after the US, rapid growth means the country is likely to lead ecommerce spending by 2016. With a population of 1.6 billion and 632 million internet users, internet penetration is only increasing—opening up significant opportunities for brands and businesses to connect with customers as they migrate online. The growth and success of Alibaba, which increased its profits by 42 per cent (more than the combined profit of Amazon and eBay in the second quarter of 2014) is just a glimpse into what we can expect in 2015.

As the Chinese New Year approaches it is important for marketers—particularly those in travel and retail—to have a programmatic strategy in place that identifies and engages consumers in real-time as online spending peaks. So what is the significance of Chinese New Year for these sectors and how can they ensure their digital strategy is ready?


Chinese New Year creates the world’s largest migration of people, with 3.6 billion passenger trips expected, as travellers journey to be with family and friends. This year, the event also coincides with Valentine’s Day, fuelling its popularity even further for consumers wanting to spend time with loved ones. Travel agencies in Singapore are seeing a 20 per cent increase in planned overseas travel, compared with Chinese New Year in 2014.

Asia-Pacific’s online travel industry is expected to drive global growth as consumers spend time researching on the internet to get the best deals, with its online travel sales set to double from US$90 billion in 2013 to US$180 billion in 2018. The emergence of WeChat, Ctrip, and Didi Dache Apps has enabled travel companies to be more accessible, responsive, and customer friendly, engaging the ‘always on’ consumer.

For marketers looking to target users interested in travel, engagement needs to focus on identifying and inspiring consumers when they search terms such as ‘sandy beach vacation’ or ‘city getaway’. A compelling creative strategy that delivers high levels of user engagement is essential. Formats that complement strong creative content include cross-platform rich media executions, native advertising placements, and dynamic creative optimisation. These are effective tools for driving awareness and engagement when combined with precision audience targeting. When geo-targeting China, working with Baidu data is a successful way to define new audiences.

Programmatic marketing creates infinite opportunities for brands to reach their customers. Two tactics that work particularly well for travel clients are:

  • Destination-based targeting, an approach that gathers the interests of consumers that brands have previously connected with and re-engages them online based on a specific area of interest. Once the transport element of a trip has been booked, ads may focus on accommodation—perhaps through video formats—and then on destination-based activities. For example, a consumer who has booked a flight to New York could be targeted at a low frequency with ads of the Statue of Liberty and other icons of the city over a one-week period.
  • Seasonal re-targeting, an approach that identifies customers who—over the past year—have engaged with a brand and re-establishes the relationship. This may include offering incentives during prime holiday booking periods, which is a powerful conversion driver.

Online retail

Online retail is surging in China and B2C ecommerce sales were expected to rise by almost 65 per cent last year. Alibaba’s ecommerce site generated $9.3 billion in sales in 24 hours for its ‘Singles Day’ event in 2014, with spending doubling that of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. The weeks leading up to Chinese New Year are particularly important, as buying new clothes and household goods, along with gifts for relatives, is a traditional part of the festival. According to iClick, there are three high-spending Chinese demographics that marketers should target during this period—expats, luxury travellers, and students studying abroad.

A programmatic digital marketing campaign can help online retailers make the most of this popular shopping season. Combining a multi-platform digital strategy with data optimisation, based on time-of-day targeting, sets up a basic framework. Once marketers start layering other key tactics on top, retail campaigns are pushed to the next level of commercial transcendence.

One such tactic is social syncing. This takes social content in real-time from brands and their brand ambassadors, and then streams it onto a banner ad, displaying the consumer-generated endorsement in cross-device ad units. Social media is the most dynamic and reactive consumer environment, and it is incredibly important that content and context are constantly monitored. This is especially key when targeting mobile users, as Asia is a mobile-first market.

Whatever the customer profile or industry sector, digital marketing—and more specifically programmatic—has never been more important. The rapid growth and adoption of digital within China and APAC creates opportunities for brands and marketers to identify current and potential consumers, engage them, and convert them. Most importantly, it creates the environment for the ultimate CRM strategy, which that provides information and data as well as transparency, along with ROI measures that hold suppliers accountable through results.

Having a programmatic strategy in place leading up to and during Chinese New Year is essential when consumers are ready to spend and are more likely to resonate with a brand’s products and services than at any other time of year.

Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, believes China has reached the tipping point: “We’re going to see I think some big changes in consumer media habits, particularly internet and mobile,” he said recently. It is all about following the eyeballs.

Finally, wise words from Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba: “Forget your competitors, just focus on your customers,” – a great piece of advice from an internet titan who was home-grown in China. 

Chris Dobson is executive chairman of The Exchange Lab



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