For first-time visitors to Shanghai, what hits you the moment you leave the airport is the sheer number of people. Combine the huge population with the growing global popularity of the Internet and it’s not surprising to find that the number of Chinese citizens online (or Netizens) stands at approximately 500,000,000 - more than the population of Europe - with a further 10,000,000 new users added per month.
In the same way that Google represents the Internet for many in the West (my mum still visits Google and then types www.Facebook.com into Google’s search box), social media has become the portal to the Internet for Chinese Netizens. Of the Internet population, over 50% are social media users (CNNIC) rising to a 95% penetration of those living in Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 Chinese cities (McKinsey).
This concentration of Netizens in cities points to the reason that many people initially accessed the web. The one child policy and migration from rural to urban areas have meant that social media is the main channel for keeping in touch with families and a way to make and connect with new friends. In fact, an MTV survey in 2008 revealed that China is the only country in the world where people have more friends online than they do offline.
With government control over what media stories are reported, social media has also become a trustworthy source of information. Despite what people say, Chinese citizens have not been brainwashed by the government. Most people I spoke to (albeit primarily young and well educated), do not pay much attention to government messages, instead putting up with them like they would perhaps put up with any other form of noise. Because of this attitude they are more willing to research their own opinions on the Web.
This huge growth is an exciting time for any digital marketers in China. However, anyone hoping to communicate with Chinese Netizens needs to be aware of a number of local differences.
“I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh with you on the back of a bicycle,” has become a well-known phrase in China. It was first mentioned by 22-year-old Ma Nuo, a female contestant on a popular TV dating programme called Fei Cheng Wu Rao - basically the Chinese version of Take Me Out.
The phrase has become synonymous with the perception of the shallow nature of Chinese youth culture. Whilst it would be precarious to tar 1.5 billion people with the same brush as the Chinese equivalent of Jodie Marsh, some personal observations do support the idea that the Chinese place an undue amount of emphasis on their self-image, locally known as 面子 (Mianzi).
Walk along the streets of Shanghai or travel on the Metro Underground and you will see throngs of people glued to their mobile phones; playing games, taking pictures but mainly instant messaging or checking their social network feeds.
Significantly, there are a huge number using iPhones. Considering the cost of an iPhone is approximately two months’ wages for many people, it’s not unreasonable to think that many Chinese will go without eating properly just to ensure they can obtain the latest ‘must have’ gadget.
For further evidence of youth culture, take a look at any China-based social media profile. It’s a shower of duck faces and pouts. The Chinese love taking pictures of themselves. The only thing they love doing more is taking pictures of themselves with Westerners.
Indeed, everywhere my Caucasian friends and I went, we would be stopped and people would ask to take pictures with them. Whilst they were very polite in doing so, they had literally no qualms about telling me to move out of the picture so it was just with the Western looking people.
Another point to note is that the demographics of Chinese social networks are very fragmented. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pretty much dominate the Western markets. In China however, which social network you are on largely depends on who you are. If you are from one of the lower tier cities then you are likely to be on 51.com, whereas if you are a teen then QZone will be where you spend most of your time.
While the likes of Metcalf’s Law and the idea of preferential attachment (i.e. the rich get richer) suggest that Facebook et al will only increase in popularity, in China social networks come in and out of fashion on a regular basis. This is due to the fact that many social networks are owned by a handful of large media companies that are able to put their financial weight behind any new project.
Indeed, this transient nature is very similar to the Chinese culture in general. People do not seem to worry about cracked roads or buildings falling apart. A bit of sticky tape will hold it together until they need to build a new one, which only takes a few days anyway.
Other motivations for Chinese social media use are similar to those in the West. News and special offers, discounts, etc. are very popular among this audience. However, while there are many cultural points to consider when targeting the Chinese market, the basic principles of marketing still apply; knowing your audience, knowing where they are and what makes them tick should be a priority.
Ultimately telling a compelling story in a creative and interesting way will resonate with audiences, whether they are one of the 1.5 billion Chinese or a British born Chinese guy who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese (like me).
Tim Hoang is the Social Planning Lead for Razorfish London. He is co-author of the book, The Social Media MBA, and one of the founding members of Twestival. Recently, Tim, who is British-born Chinese, spent two months working out of Razorfish’s Shanghai office, studying the language and culture and researching the Chinese social media market.