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Beyond the Great Firewall of China: China online

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Where do you find the largest number of internet users in the world? America? Europe? China? At the end of last year, it was estimated there were 457 million internet users in China, overtaking the USA as the world’s biggest online market. It’s an industry worth 3.14 billion in 2010-double the revenue collected in 2009. Chinese internet users are gaming, messaging, downloading music and videos, reading news (especially financial news) and shopping online. McKinsey Quarterly recently calculated that in China’s 60 largest cities, citizens spend 70 percent of their leisure time on the internet. It’s no surprise then that Chinese is rapidly catching up to English to become the most prominent language on the web. English web pages account for 27.3 percent of the internet, and Chinese pages lag behind at 22.6 percent. But considering Chinese internet use is growing by 36 million new users each year, Chinese pages are expected overtake English pages in three-to-five years. The internet also has less penetration in China than it does in English-speaking countries, meaning its capacity to grow is greater. These are impressive figures. China is well and truly online. But what are exporters with goods and services destined for China doing about it? Not a lot, by all indications. Technology is changing so quickly and in such a way that Australian brand owners are absolutely clueless when it comes to their China web strategy. It’s commonly thought that simply translating their existing web offerings into Chinese will suffice as an online presence suitable for the Chinese market. Think about that for a moment. That’s a market where the biggest and best brands in the world are competing to engage the elusive audience of potentially 1.3 billion people, of which just under half are online. If you are exporting to China, it is time to start exploiting the web. Who can argue with these figures? A good export strategy should include a serious focus on developing a Chinese web presence. This includes setting up a culturally adapted site suitable for the China market that takes advantage of China search engine optimisation. It is equally important to have a web marketing plan and a social media strategy that has been specifically developed for China. At the present time, only big multinational companies seem to be playing in this space. For an example of just how serious the big corporations are about interacting with an online Chinese audience, look at the Chinese Johnnie Walker web campaign called ‘Sentiment Road." Johnnie Walker employed Han Han as a frontman for the campaign. Han is a famous Chinese racing car driver and a ‘welebrity’, probably better known for his own blog than his on-road victories. This campaign includes blogs, tweets, online polls, photo albums, discussion forums, media articles and news with online video style documentaries. This campaign is so elaborate it was created in collaboration with one of China’s most famous film directors Jia Zhangke. This branding strategy is a huge departure from more traditional marketing efforst such as print media or television airtime during sport. It also highlights the reality that Chinese consumers are sophisticated, engaged web users. Johnnie Walker gets this. (Check out johnniewalker.blog.sina.com.cn to look at the campaign.) Social media can work alongside Chinese culture to huge success. Sister Feng (or Feng Jie) is a microblog that has become hugely popular. Ask anyone you know from China and they will all know the story. Feng Jie was an internet phenomena brought about with the advent of social media, tapping into the Chinese love of ‘critiqueing’. The theme was about an ordinary looking girl with ridiculously high expectations for finding a husband. While Feng Jie’s story was orchestrated, the blog’s popularity is testament to the power of social networking in China. An unknown ordinary girl now has a cult following of millions of online fans plus media and promotional opportunities that have been very financially rewarding. So once you know this, how do you choose what to spend your marketing and social media dollars on? It is simple to start by looking at what others have done. Choose a brand operating in China that is in-line with your product or service category, find someone who speaks and reads Chinese and have them research what that brand has done in China in the online space. It is not an exact science, and naturally, the best advice would be to use a consultant specialised in this field. It’s important not to leave this until your product is already in stores. The Chinese online road map looks very similar to the one you’re (hopefully) familiar with at home, despite a couple of obvious differences such as language, culture and preferred aesthetics. For example, while websites in the West are starting to strip back to the clean feel pioneered by internet search giants Google, flash, moving animation and anything ‘more’ is better in China. The big Chinese search engines can give you an idea of this (try Sohu and 163). Social media is also a different game in China. While Facebook and Twitter are blocked, free social media channels can be found on Sina Weibo. Popular, but paid social media services include Kaixin001 and Renren. IT’s also worth looking at QQ (Chinese MSN), Baidu (a Chinese search engine), youku (Chinese YouTube) and Taobao (Chinese eBay). Free social media channels can be found on Sina Weibo. Popular but paid social media includes Kaixin001 and Renren. It’s also worth looking at; QQ (Chinese MSN), Baidu (search engine), Youku (Chinese Youtube) and Taoboa (Chinese ebay). Like Australia, Groupon or ‘deal of the day’ promotions are also popular; in fact there are more than 300 sites to choose from offering group-buying discounts. An example is meintuan.com. China are not behind when it comes to innovation and adoption of web technologies. The industry is alive and buzzing. If you are planning to take your products or services there, it is imperative you take a serious look at how you intend to gain brand recognition and conduct your marketing campaign. The internet needs to be a big part of a sales and marketing strategy. Don’t overlook it because it seems a little confusing. You’d be making 457 million mistakes.

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