The world’s most populous country and the second largest economy as of this writing, China is exceedingly difficult to ignore. To many Westerners, the nation is still largely a mystery and widely misunderstood behind antiquated perceptions of their government, censorship laws, outsourcing and many others. For hoteliers, all this can perplex to the point of noninvolvement.
Lest you forget that where there are people, there are eager travelers, and this bastion of humanity is no exception. Outbound tourism from China has already risen significantly in the past 20 years since they reopened their borders to the capitalist world. Given the causal relationship between prosperity and travel as well as the nation’s stable economic forecasts, this trend is bound to continue. However, a broad rallying cry does not preclude the hard work and tact you’ll need to penetrate China’s curtain, never mind the startup costs of adapting to the nation’s internal social networks and hiring Mandarin-fluent personnel.
At first glance, it may seem as though China is a segment best left for the big boys, the major chains with enough disposable cash to set up dedicated teams for this task and go through the obligatory trial-and-error learning curve. However, it doesn’t take a marketing guru to see that reaching over a billion people can be very lucrative, and for this platitude alone, independent operators and management firms should consider methods of heightening brand awareness in the heart of Asia.
Plant the Seed
With a teeming population that is increasingly affluent and a booming technology industry, it makes sense that China has the most social media users on the planet with over 300 million citizens accessing the internet for this purpose. The nation is also considered to have the most active ‘netizen’ base per capita with a nationwide average of 46 minutes per day spent online and over 95% of metropolitan Chinese people who traverse the online sphere also involved in social networks. Moreover, it’s indicated that this isn’t a millennial phenomenon; adults within the prime, cash-laden demo of 55 to 64 are equally if not more active online than US users between the ages of 25 and 34.
Even with these astoundingly favorable stats, it still begs the question: Why bother? For one, staying away is a lost opportunity to grow your business in this emerging and diversifying market. But will your efforts and resources actualize a numerically positive ROI anytime in the near future?
The answer to this will, of course, hinge on the product you offer, its unique appeal to Asian travelers and your marketing strategy. What I advocate is a long-run seed-planting mission. China will continue to grow and so will both its netizen activity and the influence of social media over purchasing behaviors. You can play a role in educating this keen population about your hotel and why they should visit you, whether for business or for leisure. If you hit the ground running with a solid team devoted to increasing your brand awareness in this market, then results will be forthcoming. But first, you have to know the terrain.
A Note on Censorship
As you probably already know, the government polices the internet in China very scrupulously. There’s no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube so that external influences can be better managed through their own internal equivalents where individual posts, searches or blogs can all be censored, banned or deleted with ease. If you’re not comfortable with this ethical quandary, then this country might not be your cup of oolong tea.
If, however, you are open to a moral outlook that doesn’t completely kowtow to the Western ideals of transparent free speech, then there are still some fairly standard rules and asterisks to get comfortable with. First, watch your language. Promote your property and steer clear of all political mumbo-jumbo, especially in and around the country’s ‘blackout’ dates where certain internet activities are suspended. This caution also extends to SEO, metatags and any jargon you hope to use to promote your property.
Nor are the Chinese blind to these censorship activities; skepticism towards news agencies and formal institutions is a common trait (although this should not be confused with a lack of patriotism). As such, citizens increasingly trust personal recommendations and peer-to-peer channels overtop of government-sanctioned advertising portals – all the more reason to put your stock in the country’s social media.
An Overview of China’s Social Media
Don’t be imitated by the unfamiliar names; the nation’s spectrum of social networks fills the same diverse niches that apply elsewhere around the globe. As such, we’ll keep this discussion to the basic and currently most-in-vogue sites. Read through this introduction to get a sense of what their social media landscape is like.
A caveat: like the metrics accrued for Facebook, Twitter and their ilk, we rely on the number of registered users, which doesn’t necessary correlate with the exact number of actual users because some people may have multiple or now defunct accounts. Also note that people may own accounts for different networks, so the total registered user stat for one site may have sizeable overlap with another.
Tencent QQ and Qzone - The Chinese national company Tencent has been an incumbent in the online realm since the late 1990s when they developed an ICQ-like instant messaging program commonly referred to as QQ (www.qq.com). Working in much the same way as Windows Live Messenger (which, for reference, currently has over 330 million users worldwide) and relying heavily on banner ads for revenue, QQ also has an international portal called IMQQ for a combined total of just under 800 million registered accounts, with daily usage frequently exceeding 100 million.
This platform is valued first and foremost for its simplicity of utility, but also because peer-to-peer communication is a good means to circumnavigate government censorship actions and manipulations, making it very important for younger generations. Aside from the core instant messaging function, QQ allows users to play games, access blogs and use a virtual currency amongst others.
It’s also a vehicle for Tencent to cross-promote its other platforms, free and paid, which can all be accessed via a person’s QQ account, thus helping maintain Tencent’s status as the largest social media community in China in terms of total registered users. One other such service is Qzone (qzone.qq.com), which lets individuals write personal diaries and share visual or audio media, with many features overlapping those of Facebook or MySpace. Qzone is especially popular amongst teens and young adults with over 150 million users who update their profiles at least once a month.
Wechat - Another Tencent creation, and also known as Weixin, this is a mobile voice and text app with over 100 million users. It’s also one of the fastest growing channels, trickling out from an educated base in first-tier cites and spreading throughout the country as smartphones continue to proliferate. Wechat also incorporates location-based, dating and media-sharing services with Instragram filtering abilities.
Sina Weibo - Sina is one of Tencent’s largest competitors within the Chinese social media landscape, especially when it comes to mobile. Their Twitter-like Weibo network controls nearly 60% of the micro-blogging realm with a total account base of over 360 million as well as millions of new posts per day largely drawn from educated people in first-tier cities. The other 40% of this space is primarily filled by Tencent’s and Baidu’s Weibo products as well as Fanfou. (It should be noted for Baidu, a vast web services corporation, their Weibo network is but a small portion of their business when compared to their search engine and pay-per-click streams.)
The common uses amongst all three micro-blogs are to read and share breaking news, product information or gossip as well as images and videos. Much like Twitter, this platform has public messaging, retweets, favorites, URL shortening and hashtags. It also features verified accounts for celebrities, pundits, companies and media organizations to talk directly with fans. Accessed by more than 20% of China’s netizens, Sina Weibo is a big driver of consumer activity as well as social discourse. Its functionality has recently been expanded to include a location-based service akin to Foursquare along with international versions in other languages including English.
Renren - Regarded as the most direct analogue to Facebook, Renren (www.renren.com) started in much the same way with a fervent base of university students followed by rapid expansion to other demographics, especially those with a college-level education, for a present total of over 145 million registered users. This platform not only provides a very similar blue-on-white layout as its American counterpart, but also houses most of the same features including personal profiles, wall posts, commenting and media sharing. Renren is the leader in this social media category with direct competition from Kaixin001 which operates in a very similar manner.
Douban - Significantly smaller and appealing to a more niche audience, Douban’s open forum network has over 60 million registered users. Primarily designed for connecting fans of music, movies and books, this specialized service also allows unregistered netizens to access most pages with 80 million active users per month. Along with the likes of Diandian and P1.cn, these blogging sites can be thought of as the Chinese equivalents to Tumblr.
Youku**** and ***Tudou - These two websites (www.youku.com and www.tudou.com) function as video-hosting services like YouTube and Hulu. Following a merger by these two companies earlier this year, their combined worldwide traffic is ranked just behind that of the Google-owned counterpart. Both sites allow users to upload such content as music videos, personal videoblogs, candid amateur movies and professional clips from films and television. As well, there are fewer restrictions on content length and copyright infringements than for YouTube, although monitors screen every video for censored topics and phrases.
This range of networks presents many opportunities both for direct advertising and brand awareness creation. It has been widely noted that for Chinese consumers, social media has a much greater influence than it does elsewhere. This alone might be enough to convince you to get involved.
However, as these networks reach maturity through second-tier and rural areas in China, the authority that social media has on purchasing decisions will likely follow the same model as their Western equivalents – fad then fact of life. In the end, it comes down to personal recommends and creating an experience that allows an individual to identify with the brand, before, during and after services rendered. Hence, all the same general rules apply – use quality content along with timely posts and interactivity to develop fans.
Developing a social media strategy for China, like that in any other territory, boils down to targeted awareness promotions, monitoring and understanding your demographics. Even though it’s primarily a ‘young person’s game’ and aligning yourself with the next generation should be a foremost objective, it’s also crucial to realize just how active the older and more established members are in the online sphere. People of all ages love to discuss recent purchases and share personal reviews as well as use social media for product research.
If you plan on venturing into this lucrative market, definitely budget for higher average costs. First, maintaining a profile page on many of these popular networks requires a monthly fee. Second, not only must you have a team fluent enough to converse in real-time with potential customers and maybe even those whose opinions may not suit your goals, but in order to gain that peer-to-peer traction, you’ll likely have to parlay with key opinion leaders (KOL).
Think of these people as critics or cyber-celebrities with paid-for services or gift-giving eliciting sponsored micro-blog messages or recommendations on their public pages. They operate as pundits for specific ranges of products as well as for self-promotion. KOLs also interact extensively with other KOLs, and given the influence that such bloggers have on data-gathering customers, this means that a few well-placed subsidies can go a long way to disseminate your message and get that initial burst of followers.
The Bottom Line
I researched and wrote this piece to give you a flavor of what social media is like in China. Whether you choose to involve your hotel or not is entirely up to you. If you feel as though this might be a beneficial move, there are two vital considerations.
First, you must ensure that your existing social media department is operating competently and that all your present campaigns are producing noticeable and actionable results. There’s no point to extending your reach if it won’t be executed with efficacy. Get your house in order before you expand your cost structure.
Next, how does your property actually appeal to Chinese travelers? Along these same lines, ask whether your hotel is fit to handle guests from this market? Do you have the appropriate translations for your menus and pamphlets as well as Mandarin-speaking staff? Do you offer a semblance of home with some traditional Chinese dishes on the menu and perhaps a few customary services? An honest and thorough appraisal of the answers to these questions will act as the kernel to your marketing approach as well as a justification of your intentions.
(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky on Hotel Executive on February 11, 2013)