Digital Marketing In China: What You Need To Know

Post submitted by Benji Lamb.

The Chinese digital marketing ecosystem is a unique one, much different from what we’re used to seeing in the US and Europe.

The first step for marketers seeking to adapt their brands to the Chinese digital market is understanding the broader context before developing your strategy.

Digital Marketing In China - What You Need To Know

A couple stats to start this off with a bang:

  • China’s population is approaching 1.4 billion.
  • China’s Internet penetration rate is 55 percent.

That makes China the largest online marketplace in the world with around 700 million “netizens” to be reached…

…but only if you have an understanding of the Chinese digital landscape and a proper digital strategy in place.

Let’s take a dive into nine important features of the digital market in China.

Domestic, Chinese Platforms Dominate

The digital landscape in China developed under a very different set of conditions than the US and Europe, with state regulation and censorship creating what is known as the Great Firewall.

This effectively blocked access to the majority of global digital platforms.

  • No Facebook
  • No Instagram
  • No YouTube
  • No Google

And the list goes on.

The Chinese State has historically encouraged the growth of domestic platforms by using state restrictions to create a vacuum.

So, instead of the successful global digital platforms we’ve all come to know, you’ll find WeChat over Facebook, Youku over YouTube, and Baidu over Google.

With no established Western competition, these digital companies and social networks have grown largely unhindered through aid by the Chinese State.

This has produced a whole series of intelligent, perfectly adapted platforms that Western businesses must use to market themselves in order to be successful in the aptly named “mysterious orient”.

China’s Digital Platforms and Social Networks

With a lack of digital brands and social networks we’re accustomed to in the US, where exactly do Chinese users hang out?

You came to the right place with that question…


Baidu is the largest search engine in China, holding over 80% of the market.

Optimizing a Chinese-hosted site (with a .cn domain extension) to appear on the first page of organic search results, combined with a paid advertising campaign, is the most effective method for generating leads in China.


WeChat is the largest social network with over 700 million active user accounts. It is primarily used as an app, but there is also a desktop version.


Weibo boasts 500 million users and is akin to Twitter — the name literally means “micro blog”. It is a popular marketing tool as it is an open network allowing any user to see content from anyone, even if they are not connected.


QQ is a forum, email, and streaming service that also has an instant messaging function. It’s a useful forum for communities based around certain interests in China.

Other notable but smaller platforms include Nice (a photo sharing app) and Baidu Tieba (a forum where content is upvoted, similar to reddit).

Most lead generation efforts for brands are focused on Baidu, WeChat, and Weibo due to their high volume of users.

The Chinese Digital Space Is Vast

Marketing your brand in a digital space with over twice the US population can be a daunting task.

Internet access is growing year-over-year with more third tier cities in the west of the country becoming connected.

Improving WiFi hotspots in urban areas, combined with better quality Internet, is indicative of significant growth in the digital sphere.

China has embraced digital in a relatively short time span and there is still a sense of newfound optimism and innovation due to this novelty.

China Embraces Mobile

With growing wealth comes increased consumption of smartphone technology and, therefore, engagement on the move.

As of 2015, a staggering 75% of Internet users in China preferred mobile access and that trend is expected to continue.

Chinese Internet Usage Mobile

Mass market, affordable smartphones such as Xiaomei, Vivo, offerings from Huawei and even Apple have also helped facilitate this trend.

Due to this trend, Chinese specific, mobile-optimized content has become a necessity.

Chinese Social Media Users Are Highly Active

Chinese users spend on average two hours per day browsing online and 1.5 hours of this time is spent on social media — most often WeChat and Weibo.

A large population online leads to a higher number of interactions, presenting an opportunity for more exposure to content.

Chinese users on social networks share content regularly and view the presence of brands on social media positively.

They want a relationship with a brand, expecting them to be socially active and responsive.

When searching online via search engines, Chinese users traditionally will actively scroll through more content and are discerning when it comes to content. With a strong and active sharing culture ‘going viral’ is not impossible if you understand the demands of the market.

Chinese Platforms Are Innovative, Market Leaders

The idea that Chinese platforms are merely copycat versions of their Western counterparts is outdated and incorrect.

In many ways, Chinese digital platforms are pushing existing technology to its limits, sometimes beating their Western “rivals” to the punch.

For example, WeChat is a world-leading application and arguably the most integrated and well-designed social network in the world, offering a wide range of integrated services.

WeChat users can now connect their banking with their WeChat accounts to make payments online and make purchases through WeChat micro-stores. The network is quickly becoming a one-stop-shop for everyday life in China.

This combination of e-commerce embedded in a social platform, alongside the ease of payment using eWallet, presents a whole new model for monetizing social networking.

This progress isn’t only limited to social networks either.

Baidu is also a well-designed search engine offering community forums, email, advanced mapping, live feeds, news, dating and e-commerce add ons. Baidu are also investing heavily in virtual reality.

QR Codes and Offline to Online (O2O)

QR codes came and went in the US, without much of a fuss.

However, QR Codes are a huge phenomenon in China, with WeChat utilizing them as an integral component of the platform. A QR code reader is downloaded with every install of the WeChat app.

This adoption by users allows digital content featuring embedded QR codes to be used for cross-promotion between platforms — either from a website to a social network or between social networks.

More importantly, brands in China commonly feature codes on physical products, buses, and outdoor adverts offering incentives via promotions, special offers, or exclusive content.

The point of difference here being that Chinese users actually scan QR codes, whereas most users in the US and Europe found them pointless due to poor initial execution by brands.

Offline to Online promotion is very effective in China, helping businesses drive traffic and generate leads via well placed QR codes.

The Chinese Are Strongly Influenced by User Reviews

Strong family and social units in Chinese culture lead to a focus on mutual trust, and this sentiment naturally extends to the digital sphere.

For this reason, forums/message boards remain very popular in China.

When users search on Baidu’s engine, they expect to see an official Chinese website, as well as forum results related to their search. So, it’s very important for brands to be active on forums and cultivate a positive reputation in order to attract leads.

Developing your reputation in forums is about starting the right threads and conversations based on keywords you are optimizing for, highlighting positive comments, and minimizing negative sentiments.

On principle, not much different from how you would manage your online reputation outside of China.

Influencers Offer Brands a Path for Growth

Influencers — digital personalities who have established huge followings on social media — are every bit as powerful in China as they are in the West.

Foreign companies can tap into this by recruiting influencers to represent their brands via product features, endorsements, and so on.

Think about paying Instagram influencers for a sponsored post for a better vision of how this works. The model in China is similar.

This more personalized form of marketing is popular in China since, as is typical, people-to-people recommendations are the most highly valued.

Adapting Digital Content for Chinese Users

This is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s plenty more to discuss regarding such a gigantic, vast foreign market. From SEO to social networking, it’s apparent that digital content needs to be adapted to meet the specific demands of the Chinese market.

A few other interesting points to note:

  • The most shareable content in China tends to be short and video-based.
  • Humor and cartoon-stylized graphics remain popular.
  • Chinese consumers and Internet users need to see the product has been adapted to their tastes and aesthetic.
  • Online consumers desire quality and a clear identity from a brand, which is why understanding this unique market is the first step to effectively positioning yourself online.

Overall we can see that the Chinese digital landscape is a unique and fascinating market, often functioning more like a large scale “intranet” compared to the open source web we are used to in the West.

Previously that intranet was cut off from global interests, but as China’s economy has slightly shifted, so too have digital opportunities in this potentially vastly lucrative market.


About the Author: Benji is a digital marketing specialist based in Shanghai, China. He is passionate about providing solutions for western brands seeking to enter the Chinese market. For more information, see his blog and website.

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