With their focus squarely on China’s usual social media suspects of WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and others, global brands often dismiss Instagram as irrelevant to their Chinese marketing strategies.
Chinese Instagram users are coveted by brands because they have the same mentality as iPhone users in China: higher-tiered customers, recognized as international, affluent, educated, and seemingly more open-minded.
Western brands have missed an opportunity by overlooking the Instagram segment, as it is widely used to research and browse before purchasing, even coining the popular online term “Instagram style.”
In July, Instagram launched a new translation tool in its Instagram Stories feature that offers a “See Translation” option if it detects a foreign language. Available globally, it currently supports over 90 languages, making the social media platform more inclusive for its international audience. With this in mind, will the new translation tool help win over Chinese consumers? And will it make Instagram rises to relevance for Western brands targeting Chinese consumers — despite its nationwide ban?
With their focus squarely on China’s usual social media suspects of WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and others, global brands often dismiss Instagram as irrelevant to their Chinese marketing strategies. For perspective, China-based Weibo recorded 230 million daily active users (DAU) over the first quarter of 2021 compared to Instagram’s 500 million DAU globally. Yet, despite the censorship of Western social media outlets, over 30 percent of Chinese consumers reportedly use VPN to access banned apps and websites, in addition to those living abroad with access beyond the firewall.
Is Instagram still relevant in China?
Though neglected, Chinese Instagram users are coveted by brands because they have the same mentality as iPhone users in China: higher-tiered customers, recognized as international, affluent, educated, and seemingly more open-minded.
Collectively, Chinese students make up the largest cohort of international students abroad, where they get exposed to foreign social media platforms and brands — and they bring that knowledge and habit back home with them. In fact, data from the Ministry of Education of China (MOE) shows nearly 90 percent of Chinese students return to China after studying abroad.
Instagram often gets portrayed as a platform for elites in China, from celebrities to socialites. Many affluent Chinese students also organically become micro-influencers due to their tuhao (ostentatious) lifestyles during their overseas studies and travels. The annual disposable income of Chinese overseas students in the UK is currently $37,500 (£28,236), signaling high spending power.
Given that, many Western brands have missed an opportunity by overlooking this segment. Instagram is used widely to research and browse before purchasing, becoming influential by helping to coin the term “Ins风” (Instagram style), which is tagged on marketplace listings (e.g., Taobao) for those looking for cult items “as seen on” Instagram.
NEIWAI, the infamous Chinese direct-to-consumer lingerie brand, has amassed over 28,000 followers since creating its account in 2017 in preparation for its US entrance. Its posts are primarily user-generated content with images localized for the US market that feature more diversity and inclusiveness across all ethnicities and body sizes and not just the Asian faces regularly seen on their Chinese social media outlets.
Celebrities and influencers with a mass presence in China, such as Angelababy (@angelababyct) and Tao Liang (aka ‘Mr. Bags @mrbagss), have also built profiles on Instagram. However, their content on the platform differs from their main Weibo accounts, featuring less active posting while still attracting engagement and support from loyal Chinese fans.
The format of Instagram is strikingly different from other Chinese social media platforms, where users favor a lengthy descriptive format that resembles mini-blogs within each post. Instagram, meanwhile, has traditionally been more focused on imagery and an overall feed aesthetic. Over the years, though, Instagram stories have overtaken the feed in popularity, with over 500 million users consuming this short-form content daily.
As the translation tool is currently only available on Instagram stories, this might only be effective for independent creators and influencers sharing personal life stories and not structured, designed content, which is less applicable to Instagram Stories. Moreover, the reach rate for Instagram stories only ranges between 1.5 and 6.2 percent, and that number further varies based on the type of account and follower counts. In contrast, feed posts can gain an organic reach between 12 and 25 percent while allowing accounts with smaller followings to receive even more visibility through the current algorithm.
While translations can open up opportunities for many to tap into new markets across the globe with improved accessibility, market specificity is far more effective than just simple translations. Designing the perfect Chinese name alone has always been a challenge, and translation tools at their current ability cannot depict cultural nuances to relevantly and effectively reach the Chinese market.
Penetrating the China market will still require a separate social media strategy. But Instagram could become important for a brand that wants to get its overarching message to a broader Chinese segment of HNWI, such as overseas students and Hong Kong or Taiwan residents. This translation tool alone cannot bring Chinese consumers over to the platform. But there are benefits for both Western and Chinese brands that maintain a presence on Instagram, including exposure to a wider international market and greater engagement with online Chinese consumers.