Making a Successful Digital Entry in China

Jons Slemmer’s Views on Getting Started with Digital Marketing in China

By Tim Lindeman

digital market entry in china

Summary

Digital marketing in China requires a different approach than in other markets. Foreign companies looking to enter China should first investigate the unique requirements of their target Chinese customers. They must also learn to use new marketing channels to reach these customers. While China offers great opportunities, it is a fast-moving and highly competitive business environment. In order to succeed, foreign companies need to fully commit to the effort.

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About Guest: Jons Slemmer is the founder and China digital expert of Redstar Consultants, an online digital marketing agency based in Chengdu that helps international companies enter the China market. Jons is also the host of China Business Cast, a popular podcast showcasing entrepreneurs who do business in China. (see endnote 1)

China’s Walled Garden

In most countries, digital market entry is fairly straightforward: you just need to get a domain and set up a server. No one tells you what you can do or how you should do it.

Digital market entry in China is quite different. There are procedures for obtaining proper licenses. There are many rules about what you can and can’t do. Certain business industries are regulated or limited for foreigners. And certain topics are sensitive, so you need to be very careful what information you publish on the Chinese internet.

China-based Websites

Foreign companies often choose to register a China-based website. Accessing information from foreign websites in China is generally slow. In addition, some content may not be accessible through China’s firewall. Having a Chinese website with a “.cn” extension makes sure your content is fast and signals to the market that you are serious about China.

Before registering a China-based website you first need to get a license. The requirements for obtaining a license are strict and complicated. A prerequisite is having a Chinese legal entity, which is a sizable commitment for some foreign companies. (see endnote 2)

App-Based Marketing

In contrast to other markets, websites in China are generally not the most important digital marketing channel. Relatively few Chinese own personal computers, and they prefer to get content using native apps on smartphones. 

WeChat is the most important platform for marketers. Most Chinese have WeChat accounts and spend hours a day on the platform. (see endnote 3) WeChat enables marketers to publish company pages with built-in navigation. Companies can also develop mini-programs for more advanced e-commerce or service applications. (see endnote 4)

In addition to WeChat, marketers should also consider Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and the steady stream of up and coming apps such as Douyin and Little Red Book. Many of these platforms, including WeChat, allow foreign companies to register official accounts without establishing a Chinese legal entry. (see endnote 5) This makes app-based marketing a popular strategy for foreign companies looking to get started in the China market.

Content Strategy

One similarity between China and foreign markets is the importance of content marketing. In order to differentiate yourself in the market, you need a good content strategy and then put in the time and effort to deliver a steady stream of content that provides value to Chinese customers.

When a potential customer hears about your business, they will likely research you on various mobile apps to see what they can find out. In general, Chinese customers require more contact points before making a purchase than customers in other markets. So you need to keep popping up on different platforms and consistently provide valuable content to acquire new customers. A Chinese language website can be part of your overall content strategy, but mobile apps are more important. 

Remote Market Entry

In the initial stages of your China market entry, it may make sense to market your products and services from abroad. You can do this by opening official accounts on WeChat, Weibo, and other platforms, and support your social media marketing with a Chinese language website hosted offshore. This strategy may be sufficient if you have business partners in China responsible for distributing your product. And it is a good way to test the market before you go all in and set up your own legal entity and get a China-based website. 

Going All In

China is not an easy market. And in order to make the most of the opportunities, you will need to fully commit to the effort. 

After you gain some traction with remote marketing and distribution partners, you should physically spend some time in the country. Spend at least a week or maybe a month to see how people live and how businesses run. Get to know your target customers. Talk with them and learn about how they use your product. Also, reach out to local governments and visit the high-tech zones. (see endnote 6

Many companies come to China and leave disappointed because they are not able to match the speed of the market or adapt to the local requirements. Unless you are 100% committed, you will not be able to create content that connects with your target audience.

Recommendations

Adapt your playbook to resonate with the China market

Gain a high-level understanding of the China market. Get some expert advice and adapt your marketing playbook to meet the cultural and technical requirements of China’s walled internet. 

Start with remote market entry

Start marketing on WeChat, Weibo, and other platforms that specialize in different kinds of content without having a physical presence in the China market. Experiment with different content and channel strategies to gain traction before going all in.

Physically go to China before setting up a local presence

In order to be truly successful in China, you will need to be 100% committed. Take a trip to China and spend enough time to understand how businesses work and how customers use your product. Then invest the necessary resources to establish and support a local office in China.


Endnotes

  1. Other ways to get in touch with Jons Slemmer:
    1. Personal WeChat account: jslemmer
    2. Wechat official accounts:
      1. Redstar: redstarchina

      2. China Business Cast: chinabusinesscast

      3. Jons Slemmer: jonsinchina

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  2. Source: “Registering a Website in China,” Dezan Shira & Associates, August 26, 2015 (https://www.china-briefing.com/news/registering-a-website-in-china/)
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  3. There are more than one billion WeChat users and over one-third spend four hours or more on the app a day. Source: “To Cover China, There’s No Substitute for WeChat,” The New York Times, January 9, 2019 (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/technology/personaltech/china-wechat.html)
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  4. Source: Thomas Graziani, “What are WeChat Mini-Programs? A Simple Introduction,” Walkthechat, October 6, 2018 (https://walkthechat.com/wechat-mini-programs-simple-introduction/)
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  5. Source: Thomas Graziani, “WeChat Official Account: a simple guide,” Walkthechat, June 13, 2017 (https://walkthechat.com/wechat-official-account-simple-guide/)
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  6. Many Chinese cities offer tech zone with favorable tax rates and other incentives. Contact the local chamber of commerce or your country’s commercial service office and ask for an introduction.
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