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What travel brands should know about the changing face of digital China

07/30/2014| 11:29:33 AM|

As China rises to be the largest travel market in the world, brands need to understand how to participate in China’s digital media to attract and convert consumers.

As China rises to be the largest travel market in the world, brands need to understand how to participate in China’s digital media to attract and convert consumers.

However, digital tactics used outside China don’t always work and may actually inhibit a brand’s success. The following are the most important things travel marketers need to know about the three key components of China’s digital universe: platforms, communities and content.

Chinese digital platforms

A few years ago, many Chinese digital platforms looked like translated copies of platforms that existed elsewhere, but the Chinese have innovated and moved ahead, particularly in the area of social-local-mobile-commerce.

Understanding how to engage with Chinese customers and distribute messages on their platforms can be difficult because certain contexts don’t exist outside of China - at least not yet. So to cast Weibo as ‘the Twitter of China’ and WeChat as ‘the WhatsApp of China’ is outdated and oversimplified.

Weibo, WeChat, QZone, Taobao, and Tmall are platform juggernauts of Chinese social-local-mobile-commerce, each containing unique ways to engage with and distribute to Chinese consumers. They’re also evolving quickly; it’s best to review their capabilities on a quarterly basis to stay current.

Chinese netizens

According to various estimates, there are more than 600 million internet users in China. They spend an average of 3.5 hours/day online; 90% are on social media with an average time spent of 45 minutes/day. About 81% access social media from their mobile device.

Non-Chinese services like Facebook and Twitter (and now, Line) are blocked within China, so the world’s largest group of netizens is effectively captive to the Chinese platforms. To win the hearts and wallets of Chinese netizens, brands must look at things through their lens.

Four trends to watch:

From personal to national:

Proud of China’s accomplishments on the world stage, Chinese netizens won’t take bad service from outsiders.

When Chinese people are mistreated overseas, the escalation can go from personal to national quickly, as in the recent case of MH 370 where over 80% of those polled in the aftermath responded by saying they wouldn’t go to Malaysia in the future because ‘it’s like going against everyone in the country if you travel there.’

Brands that aren’t prepared for managing crises within China’s digital platforms can find hard-earned goodwill vanish overnight.

Justice served, individually:

Many media-savvy Chinese are actively involved in the ‘human flesh search engine’: crowdsourced vigilantism that utilizes netizens to identify individuals who have acted unjustly. The punishments range from public shaming to criminal prosecution.

Hit-and-run drivers, corrupt officials, unscrupulous business people, bullies, perverts, errant parents and rude people who don’t give up their bus seat to the elderly have all been outed by the human flesh search engine. Outside China, cases like #HasJustineLandedYet are similar but rare.

For brands with Chinese customers, this phenomenon may lead to similar scenarios with employees personally suffering the consequences of the ‘human flesh search engine’ whereas previously the employees were anonymous.

Review sites in China are still tame in comparison because the respective providers regulate them- at least for now.

Out of vogue - ostentatious luxury:

In addition to President Xi’s ‘frugality measures’ that affected government officials’ consumption of luxury goods, Chinese consumers’ luxury consumption also shifted in 2014.

According to the just released Hurun Report on Luxury Consumer Price Index 2014, wealthy Chinese spend their money on luxury estates (e.g. villa on a golf course), yachts, private jets and children’s education, different from last year’s top spending categories of luxury travel, accessories, skincare products, and automobiles.

Confirming the shift, Louis Vuitton, the bellwether luxury brand, reported a 5% drop in profit YOY in the first half of 2014.

The primary reason cited was: lower demand from Asia, particularly from Mainland China. In response, LVMH is ‘hiking prices and producing products with fewer logos [as] Chinese consumers have fallen out of love with flashy logos and are looking for something more subtle.’

At the other end of the spectrum, Xiaomi, a four-year old Chinese handset company that sells high-end smartphones at a low price - its Mi3 model costs about $300 vs. Apple’s iPhone 5S at nearly triple the price - has experienced enormous success and garnered ardent loyal fans at home.

Xiaomi is going abroad - after successes in expanding to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore - its most recent foray into India will be telling to see if their ‘small is big’ strategy will work in non-Chinese markets.

If so, Xiaomi will easily surpass its goal of selling 100 million handsets in 2015. The tales of LVMH and Xiaomi indicate that Chinese consumers no longer define luxury by logo branding - hence, proper branding must be accompanied by tangible benefits for Chinese consumers.

Micro Key Opinion Leaders (micro KOLs):

Different from professional KOLs who ‘endorse’ products without expertise on Chinese social networks, micro KOLs foster conversations in small clusters and keep a brand relevant due to their personal interest and credibility in the product category or knowledge of a niche topic.

Whereas professional KOLs may have tens of millions of followers and are typically celebrities, micro KOLs have fans in the thousands to single digit millions; some may even live outside China.

For example, “My Lover is from the Stars“, a popular South Korean TV drama playing on Chinese television, has two Weibo accounts set up by fans of the show. Each has more than a million followers and both are run by Chinese students studying in South Korean universities.

In fact, the number of Chinese students studying overseas has increased from less than 50,000 to more than 400,000 in the last 15 years.

Almost one-in-five international students studying in the US now comes from China, and in 2013, China itself became the top learning destination in Asia and third overall in the world behind the US and the UK.

The students inside and outside of China, almost all netizens, are conduits of information across borders, and together they form a network of micro KOLs that dissolve political and cultural boundaries. It’s difficult for travel brands to sustain buzz without the help of these special netizens.

Chinese content

China’s state media exerts influence over what its consumers hear and read, shaping popular opinion on issues. But outside the taboo topics, Chinese netizens reflect netizens elsewhere in the world.

The content they generate can be every bit as funny, sentimental, vindictive, righteous, charitable, inane, etc. as anywhere else. The one big difference is that most movies and TV shows are viewable online - so programmed content is multi-modal and accessible anytime and anywhere, vying for the same attention as user-generated rich media.

Consequently, breaking through the noise to establish brand awareness requires creativity and planning because it’s easy for travel brands to get lost in the ocean of high quality broadcast content.

Therefore, while Chinese netizens consume the most digital content in the world, brand stories need to be unusually compelling in order for the netizens to remember and share them.

Bottom line

Chinese digital platforms in social, local, mobile, and commerce are established and constantly innovating. As most Chinese netizens only have access to local platforms, brands must engage in these platforms if they want Chinese customers.

For travel brands, this means leveraging the entire infrastructure to create vibrant communities and develop profitable commerce with the right digital content. But to get it right, brands must understand Chinese netizens’ points of view, tell the brand stories in a relate-able manner, and invest to keep the content and engagement fresh and current inside China.

This means that non-Chinese travel brands will have to look outside the travel category to understand the benchmark.

An investment, for sure, but one that will certainly pay off given the increasing number of Chinese travelers.

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TAGS: digital media | digital marketing
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