There is an old saw about advertising that only half of it works, but one never knows which half. And one suspects that despite all the data gathered and statistics generated, the online counterpart remains more art than science. Digital marketing involves navigating, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, a number of known unknowns: things that at least one knows one does not know. For Westerner marketeers, however, China is largely a haze of unknown unknowns, things one doesn’t even know one doesn’t know.
A new book from Hong Kong-based social media marketing expert Ashley Galina Dudarenok is a clear, analytical guide to digital marketing on Chinese social media. As becomes evident early on in the discussion, merely projecting Western e-marketing onto the Chinese market and platforms is unlikely to work particularly well. Dudarenok explains in readable detail why not and what to do about it.
One of the strengths of the book is that it describes China both in the ways it is sui generis but also as it contrasts with markets, platforms and procedures that reader is likely to be familiar with. No book can cover everything, so the introductory sections with Chinese market overviews are by necessity a series of extended bullet points; these are however clear and to the point.
There are of course any number of cultural differences between Chinese consumers and those in the so-called West. Whether these have a substantive effect on the effectiveness of any given marketing strategy is a subject of considerable debate. What is however less debatable is that the Chinese digital landscape is structurally different that the one prevailing in the United States, and which has been exported to much of the world. Companies and channels that are essentially ubiquitous elsewhere are largely absent from the Chinese market; the Chinese digital environment doesn’t map well onto the familiar Facebook-Google-Amazon triumvirate that most businesses are used to.
Thus, while WeChat, for example, superficially looks like a Chinese analogue to the WhatsApp messaging app, it has developed into its own ecosystem, incorporating a widely used payment system (and hence e-commerce) and, more recently, an actual app store. “Inside China,” notes Dudarenok, “it’s used to do everything from ordering food and hailing taxis to paying for international flights.”
Although there has been integration and consolidation in the US digital industry as well, the combinations are different. Dudarenok calls WeChat, with only slight hyperbole, “China’s operating system”: the description takes up almost half the relatively brief book.
The book also covers Weibo, whose “basic function is to display short posts like Twitter”, but which, like WeChat (and rather unlike Twitter), also developed and expanded considerably beyond this relatively simple function. There are, indeed, “Weibo personalities” whose views can move markets; Dudarenok includes here a discussion of these “Key Opinion Leaders”.
One of the problems faced by social media marketing professionals is that once one has adapted to what is going on, the situation changes: whether because a company changes an algorithm or because a new feature captures the zeitgeist. China is, in this way, little different.
The title, “Unlocking the World’s Largest E-Market”, perhaps promises somewhat more than a single publication can quite accomplish. But readers are likely to come away suspecting that whatever keys they may have to the US and Western markets probably won’t fit the Chinese lock. At least the unknown unknowns become known unknowns.