Anne Costello
Nov 28, 2016

Emotion the key for marketers on Chinese social media

Consumers in China are more interested in finding a personal connection than being talked at about price.

Anne Costello
Anne Costello

Most brands seem to be doing social wrong in China. Less than 2 percent of the country’s social-media users share offers from brands on their social networks. With social-media spending set to hit new records this year, brands and marketers need to adjust how they engage with Chinese consumers. The secret to doing so? Aim for the heart.

Discounts and promotions may no longer resonate with China’s social-media generation—but emotional and personal connections do. More than 50 percent of Chinese social-media users share content about their personal feelings and emotions, while more than 35 percent will share articles that they’ve encountered online. 

If we can create stories that affect how Chinese consumers think and feel, rather than trying to woo them on price and convenience, we can not only amplify our brands’ content, but build far greater loyalty amongst our customers.

Don’t sell a product—tell a story

First and foremost, brands should invest their social-media dollars in either developing emotionally and intellectually engaging narratives, or leveraging those that already exist. Rather than making the brand the focus, as promotions and special offers inevitably do, give social-media users a story which reflects their own experiences or aspirations. Whenever the brand does appear, it should do so in a way that naturally fits with the themes of the narrative itself, answering the questions and emotions that such stories might evoke in their audiences.

Digital marketers have taken this storytelling approach for years in China. In 2008, Unilever partnered with Ugly Wudi, the Chinese equivalent of the Ugly Betty TV series. Unilever incorporated its ‘Real Beauty’ message—encouraging Chinese women to be confident in their appearance, despite intense pressure to conform to traditional standards of beauty—into the show’s storylines and a range of online tie-ins like blogs and chat groups. 

Doing so saw Unilever boost sales of one product by 21 percent, generating four times the ROI of a standard TV media buy. That same ethos—narrative first, brand second—needs to percolate amongst today’s social-media marketers if they want Chinese consumers to buy into their brands.

Brands shouldn’t, however, try to force the emotional issue. Content that seems inauthentic or superficial is likely to be filtered out by Chinese consumers: around two-thirds of them pay little attention to ads on social media, for example, regardless of what those ads contain. To stand out, brands need to not only tell a good story, but know which channels and partners will give it authenticity amongst their target markets.

Can the medium be the message?

To make those decisions, brands need to consider what sort of value their stories offer to consumers. Will their narrative alert Chinese netizens to a pressing social or environmental issue, evoke sentiments of romance or drama, or teach them how to improve some attribute of their personal or professional life? Once brands know what value they’re providing, they can better gauge where to launch the story and how to kickstart its spread through the social-media sphere.

Social-media marketers need to remember that for consumers, value is often something intangible—especially when speaking to people’s emotions. The value of Oreos’ set of customisable emojis for WeChat came not from their novelty or humour, but the emotional connections that they helped Chinese consumers to express. For such a campaign, emojis make perfect sense: after all, their value comes from representing the very emotions that Chinese netizens share so often on social media!

Whether developing custom emojis, partnering with social-media influencers or vlog stars, or creating a series of blogs about a social issue, brands’ choice of medium should be derived from the story they’re aiming to tell, not vice versa.

Brands must also remember that to achieve the most exposure and sharing of their stories, they shouldn’t restrict themselves purely to social-media channels. Many WeChat users first found out about Oreos’ emojis, for example, via numerous outdoor banners and advertisements encouraging them to try out the new features.

For most brands, connecting with customers through these stories will take time. But focusing on relationship, rather than raw sales, will inevitably pay off in the long run—particularly as consumer brands face more and more competition from all around China.

Building an emotional connection through stories that speak to the Chinese consumers’ everyday thoughts, feelings and experiences will take sustained time and investment. But to stand out and gain real currency amongst Chinese social-media users, brands need to show that they share the same heart.

Anne Costello is APAC regional director at Text100

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