Julien Lapka
Mar 10, 2016

How to win China online: Beyond simplistic segments and avatars

Flamingo's Julien Lapka argues for a more human-centred approach to online marketing in China and provides a nuanced look at what Chinese 'netizens' are longing for.

Julien Lapka
Julien Lapka

Shiny and new doesn’t always make for sound strategy. As we open up this year’s marketing calendar, experts are calling for the arrival of programmatic ad buys and ‘everything must be video’ content as a means to win over Chinese 'netizens'. Staying abreast of new technologies and trends is of course important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines, who use the Internet, and a more human-centred approach is needed. With digital budgets set to increase (again) it’s worth taking a step back to think about what makes Chinese netizens click.

Offline contexts define online needs

At Flamingo, we’re often asked to conduct segmentation projects. Of course, these can be useful when done well, but when it comes to online behaviour, there are caveats to what can be concluded. Let’s start with the fact that 90 percent of Chinese connect to the Internet with their mobile phones. This has a profound impact on how we should plan campaigns, content and media buys.

Take, for example, Mr. Wang, who walks past numerous cafes on his way to work. As an upwardly mobile white collar worker for a Fortune 500 company, he might be classified as a ‘Coffee Explorer’ wanting to try higher-end blends as a way of mirroring his international lifestyle. And Wang has indeed bought single-origin beans for himself and his colleagues numerous times on the way to work. In this context, he is price elastic and keen to experiment.

However, after a long work day, Wang is now walking back to the metro past the same coffee shop. He’s tired and hungry. He sees that very same coffee shop is advertising this morning’s baked goods paired with an Americano for RMB20. He pops in to fuel up, as he missed lunch. Here, he’s motivated by convenience and a good price.

Same person, two different customer segmentations—if you believe the data. But depending on his offline circumstances, Wang might be just as interested in SMS promotions as he is in beautifully shot documentaries on Jamaican coffee growers served up on his WeChat.

Content is noisy. Have a point of view instead

Chinese once followed dozens of brands online, but time spent with branded content on WeChat has fallen from 35 percent to 20 percent. Now they‘re looking to streamline information by following media and KOLs that share their values.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Instead of creating more gigabytes of branded data destined for the trash, marketers should instead become curators. Consumers will thank you for it.

Beauty brands often get it wrong. They curate top fashion, beauty and trend lists. But so what? If a beauty brand seeks to connect with white-collar women, then it should bring together writers, thinkers and celebrities that have a point of view on women in the workforce. Create a place for debate, support and inspiration. Not everyone will agree with your point of view, but then again most brands are happy with 15 to 20 percent market share.

Two success stories from last year are Taobao’s Designer channels and beauty and make-up aggregator i-ever. Rather than creating more beauty and fashion content, these sites both synthesise tips on the latest make-up and style trends, offer commentary, and connect through to e-commerce.

Brands should also revisit their propensity for buying into the most popular online media. WeChat is not the only answer. This is not only a wasteful and expensive media buying exercise, but also misses the bigger point: buy into a point of view, not traffic size.

Offer new experiences to digital avatars

A key distinction between Chinese and American or European netizens is that while in the West people tend to gravitate toward those media channels that support their world view, Chinese netizens tend to spread their search widely.

China is experiencing an explosion in the growth and establishment of cultural institutions allowing the middle-class (the key target) to expand their horizons and find new ways of seeing and interacting with the world. Since 2012, Shanghai alone has added eight major new museums, a public art space bigger than the Tate Modern and two new entertainment areas the size of New York’s Meatpacking district.

People are also interested in what mainstream media portray as taboo lifestyles. A recent survey found that 85 percent of almost 1,000 respondents supported same-sex marriage, with only 2 percent opposed. However, no mass media brings it up or even initiates a broader discussion of the topic. Brands can help consumers explore new personae, lifestyles and mindsets by going where state-owned media won’t.

Last year, Taobao and bedding company Bliss ran a competition to fly 10 Chinese same-sex couples to California to get married. Four-hundred couples submitted videos about their relationships, and the competition received over 1 million views. Many of the comments came from netizens trying to understand the ‘phenomenon’.

Of course, creating or playing with digital avatars goes beyond taboos. There’s an opportunity for brands to connect Chinese people with subcultures and niche hobbies whose communities are difficult to find nearby. Both the government and post-90s Chinese are keen, for instance, on ‘cultural industries’. Everyone wants to become a designer, architect, photographer or writer, though no one quite knows how to go about it given these industries—and the cultures and thinking that accompany them—are so new in China.

Here, Airbnb’s collaboration with Dongliang, an influential Shanghai-based fashion brand, took seven Chinese designers abroad and documented their trips using 8-mm cameras. Through their journeys, the viewer discovers these designers’ inspirations, influences and creative processes.

Brands ought to help Chinese explore, experiment and delve into cultures that are hard to experience offline.

Teach and inspire

With all the opportunities and possibilities offered up in urban Chinese cities, little wonder consumers flock online to learn. From having a point of view to letting people into new cultures and ways of living, brands can not only open up horizons for people online but also show them the ‘how to’. This is how you’ll create your next generation of KOLs and brand advocates.

Offering the chance to learn skills, find a new perspective or gain knowledge about a category or lifestyle is something that’s very important to Chinese. Brands that not only offer the inspiration but also the tools and support will be the ones that will make the biggest and strongest connection.

NikeSB, the skateboarding line of the sporting-goods giant, has been connecting foreign skaters with Chinese ones through online events, forums and discussion pages. As a relatively nascent hobby, Chinese are keen to explore the meaning of skating and learn how to get better at it.

Brands could go one step further by not only teaching consumers the how but also offering them the digital production infrastructure needed to engage. Make-up brand SmashBox invites consumers and KOLs into its LA studios to get made up by professionals and showcase their own skills. Think about what this would mean to the post-90s who are just delving into make-up and are keen to show their own distinct looks and talents to their friends online.

In 2016, brands need to recognise their customers as more multi-faceted beings, not only eager to experiment with new purchases but also craving the inspiration and insider knowledge to help them develop and express their sense of self.

Julien Lapka is CEO of Flamingo Shanghai


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