So, you’re going to crack the Chinese market, huh?
Grab yourself a 0.0001% slice of that pie and be set for life… Yeah well, that’s the dream.
Trouble is, there are a few steps between deciding to expand your business into China, and fulfilling that dream.
One of the very first steps is understanding the internet landscape. Today’s internet has become inextricably linked to our lives, both personally, and for business. In saying that, the difference between Chinese and Western internet is apples and oranges—that is, there are still a few basic similarities, but once you get down to their core, they’re completely different.
What we understand about Western internet
In the West, our internet has largely evolved to satisfy consumers’ consumption desires.
If you’re anything like me, you mainly use the internet for browsing Facebook, searching on Google, ordering food and comparing products… All functions which are essentially about consumption. Not only that, but the large majority of these uses are ‘luxuries’—I’m chasing entertainment, pleasure and satisfaction with my internet consumption, not trying to fix any real problems.
Think about it: What problems have Western internet companies really solved? You can watch cat videos and tweet now. Great! At its core, even Google isn’t really about providing a useful service—it’s about advertising. It just so happens that providing a valuable service is the only way they’re able to create this advertising platform. And when it comes to the internet’s most valuable company, Facebook? At times it creates more problems than it solves.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this consumer trend. It’s just if you take this consumption-based understanding of the internet into a Chinese context as you try to set up your business, you’ll be dead wrong.
The driving force behind Chinese internet
In China, the internet has evolved purely out of need. It exists to solve problems—not to allow more cat videos to be watched.
Why? Sheer population size.
The scale of the issues that China faces demand innovation, and the internet has become the medium through which these problems can be solved. While Western internet evolved as a nice, add-on to facilitate our existing consumption, Chinese internet has been commandeered as an essential tool to fixing mass issues of distribution, inequality and access to resources.
Naturally, this means that the government is much more involved in the internet than in Western countries. Yes, partially in a regulatory function, but also to back successful internet ventures and solve social issues.
Take transport, for example. During China’s Spring Festival, over a quarter of a billion people travel an average of 17 hours, most of them by train. Several years ago, travellers would wait hours just to board a train, and significantly multiply their travel time.
Courtesy of the internet, tickets can now be purchased through WeChat, and AI has optimised routes. Even though 100 million people may be riding the train over the period of a few days, it feels no different to ordinary traffic. Can you imagine Auckland implementing a similar solution? Unlikely—the approach is completely different.
There’s massive opportunity in the Chinese internet, but it’s not because of the market’s size. It’s because of the market’s need. Rather than focusing on capturing that 0.0001% of the market, focus on meeting a need.
Understanding the digital ecosystem
Making it in China’s digital ecosystem, while not impossible, requires some navigating.
Practically speaking, there are plenty of logistical issues to work through. You’ll need an ICP (Internet Content Provider) which has visible assets in China—this means a registered business, with a business number, an address, and no overseas ownership or interests. Might sound straightforward, but there are a few layers to this requirement, and one of the biggest mistake new operators make is assuming this can be navigated all in one fell swoop.
Looking beyond the logistics of the digital ecosystem, there’s the semantics. Marketing in China is a fine art—you have to walk the line between creating your brand, and selling the way you want to be perceived, but doing it in a way the Chinese market will accept. Straight off the bat, that means no aggressive marketing techniques—those will get you nowhere.
Remember that time you laughed at the attempt of a non-English native trying to market their business? Yeah well, the shoe is on the other foot now, because to achieve any semblance of SEO, you’ll have to put out content in Mandarin. Don’t even think about trying to do this yourself—it’s so much more than simple translate, it’s about whether or not your message soundsright. For example, here’s what happens when you take a marketing message and translate it to Mandarin, then translate it back to English:
“Come in and check out our latest offer – we guarantee your mind will be blown, or your money back!”
“Please come in to check out our latest offers – we guarantee that your thoughts will be blown away or returned!”
Not quite what your marketing team will be after, I’m sure. The Chinese internet landscape is possible to thrive in, but you need to be willing to have patience, and do it right—which more often than not, involves partnering with someone with local understanding, so you can focus on your business.
After all, it’s apples and oranges. If you’re a professional apple seller, you won’t automatically be able to start selling oranges without a little help.