Zhong Ming
Oct 14, 2014

Friends as information infrastructure

CHINA INNOVATION 2014: High-speed information synchronization within consumer groups.

Friends as information infrastructure

Smartphones and social media are a daily part of life in most of the world and China is no exception. Smartphone penetration in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou exceeds 90 per cent, according to Hakuhodo’s 2014 Smartphone Survey, targeting people aged 15–54 with monthly household income of over Rmb5000. At the same time internet developer Tencent reported in March 2014 that the number of active users on its WeChat mobile messaging app had grown to 360 million. With these changes, getting information from the general public online and communicating one’s own thoughts and experiences via the internet have become common practice.

However, if we compare the way information about products and services is sent and received, we find two major differences among countries when it comes to frequency and the target of those communications.

Compared to sei-katsu-sha in Japan and the US, Chinese sei-katsu-sha overwhelmingly see friends as a critical information source and the primary target of their information output.

 “Sei-katsu-sha,” literally means “living person,” and stands in contrast to the word Japanese marketers typically use for consumer, “shohisha.” “Sei-katsu-sha” expresses the holistic person — an individual with a lifestyle, aspirations and dreams. When the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Shanghai asked survey subjects in China, Japan, and the US about the routes by which they obtained information on new products and services, nearly half of all Chinese respondents (48 per cent) said they get it from “friends (online or offline),” compared to 16 per cent in Japan and 25 per cent in the US. When asked about information output routes as well, open social media sites like Facebook, blogs, and Twitter topped the list for Japanese and Americans, while Chinese respondents tended to share information via closed social media routes like WeChat and QQ. In other words, the survey found that they overwhelmingly communicated information only to their friends.

sei-katsu-sha graphic

Far from a select handful, nearly half of Chinese sei-katsu-sha actively send out and receive information on new products and services.

 The same survey then asked about the frequency with which respondents sent out and received information on new products and services. The percentage of sei-katsu-sha classified as high sharing/high contact frequency (those who sent out and received this information twice a week or more) was 55 per cent for all Chinese respondents, compared to 44 per cent of Americans and just 10 per cent of Japanese. In fact, a solid majority of Japanese sei-katsu-sha (about six in ten) fell into the low sharing/low contact category, sending and receiving this information less than twice a week.

sei-katsu-sha graphic2

The survey also found that these high sharing/high contact sei-katsu-sha do not skew by age, gender, or income—and instead are scattered rather evenly across all demographic groups. These results suggest that these sei-katsu-sha do not fit in such classic segments as opinion leaders, early adopters, and so on, and that high frequency and density of information sending and receiving is instead part of a broad-based trend.

Another question asked on the survey was, “Do you like to get information on new products and services before other people do?” to which nearly 80 per cent of respondents said yes. For most people, getting information ahead of others was an important value. When asked, “Among your friends, are you more the type to get information or share information?” more than half said that they were the sharing type. This reveals that respondents tend to see themselves as information sources, rather than mere receivers.

China’s unique personal networks, linking people with similar lifestyles and preferences (called quanzi), played a major role in these findings. As sei-katsu-sha start coming into contact with truly massive amounts of information—particularly in an enormous country like China of over 1.3 billion people—the amount of information that is either irrelevant or untrustworthy to any one individual increases in both relative and absolute terms. We can see this situation as having boosted the significance of these quanzi, which perform a critical filtering function that allows sei-katsu-sha to identify information that is both reliable and of use to them personally.

We can picture a situation in China where sei-katsu-sha seek out valuable information from a variety of information transmitters and media sources outside their quanzi (TV, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, offline retailers, word-of-mouth from acquaintances and friends, and so on) and then bring that information back to to share it with their quanzi.

 sei-katsu-sha graphic3

In this way, each quanzi functions as a kind of hive community, with many members acting as information-transmitting bees that go around the wider world in search of valuable information that they can bring back to enhance the quality of life for the hive community as a whole.

We’ve labeled these information transmitters, unique to China, as Xin Feng, or “Information bees.” The term refers to the large numbers of sei-katsu-sha who flit about trying to be the first to pick up new information, which they share with their quanzi for the mutual benefit of the group’s members.

sei-katsu-sha graphic4

Smartphones and social media have changed the worlddrastically. And this change is often said to be an equally global change. However, in China as people fit into the unique information and cultural environment of the quanzi, there emerged a very social group— Xin Feng. We believe that this kind of sei-katsu-sha will remain regardless of technological changes and represents a major force in our current era. When seen in this light, it also suggests possible innovations that brands can pursue in the Chinese market.

One example would be frameworks that reward group participation. Xin Feng behavior is in part driven by the desire to strengthen bonds within the quanzi. This is one factor that contributes to the high-speed synchronization of information within the quanzi­—and the idea would be to offer systems or platforms designed to coordinate not only information, but behavior and experiences as well. A good example of this is a quanzi membership service offered by one of China’s local department stores, in which members of a quanzi register as a group and the benefits of each of their purchases can be shared by the entire quanzi.

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In addition, if we look at service trends in China (such as the smartphone apps that frequently become popular), we commonly see those that generate manga or icons using images of the user and/or their friends as well as other social data. One of the key benefits of these services is that they make users want to share within their quanzi and are designed in a way that is highly tailored to the Chinese market. This approach is a hint, not only for the development of interesting apps, but for product development, shop design, branding strategies, and more.

 Marketing and branding in China can be tricky. Foreign firms, in particular, often struggle with how to approach a Chinese market that doesn’t seem to resemble those of other countries. Success in this endeavor requires that we take another, closer look at sei-katsu-sha themselves. The concept of the Xin Feng is one that the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Shanghai has discovered as a result of probing, in-depth investigations in China, and represents a fundamental change in sei-katsu-sha, and a window to life in the future.

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