Understanding the Social Media landscape in China

The difference between the social media landscape in China and, say, the UK goes beyond which apps are popular in the different countries. Sure, it is important to know that customers based in China won’t be able to access YouTube and, therefore, provide another way for them to access your “How To” videos. And it is good to know that the leading e-commerce platform in China is Taobao, not Amazon, so that you can place your wares in the former not the latter.

But it’s not just the apps that are different. It’s also how consumers use them as part of their shopping journey.

The podcast “The Future, This Week”, episode from 18th September 2020 offers a very useful insight into these differences. The first part of the episode discusses some apps, particularly Xiaohongshu (Little RED Book). Then, from around the 22 minutes mark, the presenters abstract from specific apps to draw some lessons about the social media landscape in China. I warmly recommend that you listen to it.

Here is an overview of the key points raised in that episode.

In the West, the Internet emerged from the world wide web, and is based around the web browser. Other internet experiences – e.g., mobile internet or apps – emerged later. So, in the West, the web browser still shapes the way we use the internet. That is not the case in China, where internet use took off on mobiles, not desktop; and where internet users interact directly with specific apps, as opposed to accessing websites via browsers.

Another difference is that, in the West, internet users tend to interact directly with a corporation’s website. For instance, if you want a product, you might go directly to Amazon. Find the product that you want, and then read about the product’s features, and check customer reviews. However, in China, you are more likely to go to specific apps to interact with other users, and learn about their experiences of the product, and then proceed to buying from there. So, for instance, you might go to Xiaohongshu to enquire about make-up for your skin type, and arrive at a “consideration set” of possible products from there. That is, you start with other people’s recommendations, not the manufacturer’s information.

An additional difference is the prevalence of live product demonstrations or reviews, via streaming, which bring together commerce with the social dimension and with entertainment. For instance, farmers in China use live streaming in Taobao to showcase – and sell – their products. Musicians can live stream performances and lessons, and receive financial gifts in exchange. Another example mentioned in the podcast is the case of a vintage store from Shangai which has daily live streams, of around 3 hours each, every evening. Instead of watching a film, customers can tune in to the live stream, and see a presentation of various products. During the session, key opinion leaders and individual customers can comment on their experiences of the product; and customers can purchase the product during the session. 

Yet another unique feature of the social media landscape in China concerns how innovation happens. We tend to look at apps in terms of their features – photo sharing, messaging, etc… Whereas in China apps are thought of not in terms of features, but in terms of uses. This means that features are not judged in terms of whether they are original features or a copy from another social media app. Rather, the focus is on how well they fit specific goals – e.g., decide which movie to watch – meaning that they end up having a lot of additional features (messaging, content archive, live streaming payment…). That’s why popular apps in China are so much more inclusive than their Western counterparts; and why it doesn’t make sense to compare Chinese vs Western apps based on features. I.e., comparing WeChat with Western chat apps misses the point of how WeChat is used in the daily lives of its users.

Enjoy the podcast, and let me know of any other useful resources on the differences between social media / digital marketing in the UK / West vs other regions of the world.

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