This month’s roundup from the world of digital marketing in China brings us news on WeChat – from privacy fears to a study on the effects of social media detox.

Elsewhere, we look at content trends on Douyin and the state of ad fraud.

Tech-savvy users abandoning WeChat over privacy fears

It’s unimaginable for the vast majority of Chinese to imagine going about their daily routines in China without using WeChat, but that’s exactly what some tech-savvy millennials in China are doing, as noted by the South China Morning Post. Concerns over privacy and how WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, is legally required to hand over privacy data to the authorities on demand, have forced some millennials to revert to texts and old-fashioned phone calls.

The Chinese internet sector is dominated by just three companies, the so-called BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. WeChat in particular has created its own ecosystem of features, allowing users to do everything from making payments to using it as an electronic social security ID. WeChat does not utilize end-to-end encryption, which theoretically allows third parties to access messages sent.

At this point, there is a small number of individuals in China who are concerned about privacy issues. Nonetheless, brands operating on WeChat or in China should remain aware of how they obtain, secure and use customer data. It is unlikely that China would enact any legislation on par with the GDPR on BAT. However, if this nascent privacy movement gains more momentum in the coming months, brands may find themselves in a tough position to meet privacy regulations.

A third of China’s ad traffic is faked

A study by Miaozhen Systems (link in Mandarin, with a QR code to the report, also in Mandarin), a Chinese third-party marketing data and technology firm, found that around a third of China’s ad traffic is inauthentic. The study was based on an examination of 60,000 domestic digital advertising campaigns in 2018. Over 2,000 advertisers and 1,200 publishers across multiple sectors and platforms were studied.

Worryingly, in 2018, 30.2% of all ad traffic was inauthentic, a drop of 0.3% from 2017. The study also estimated that this resulted in a loss of US$3.8 tn (¥260 trillion) in 2018 alone. Video ads were significantly less compromised than display ads, with 20.4% of video ad traffic considered inauthentic, compared to 43.7% of display ad traffic. Vertical media accounted for 39.7% of all invalid traffic. The top three categories were Mother and Baby, Automotive and Beauty and Personal Care, contributing 37.7%, 36.6% and 35.9% respectively.

So what’s a marketer to do? We probably accept it on some levels – after all, ads on premium publishers cost more than non-premium publishers. However, consider incorporating technologies to detect non-human traffic and adopting Ads.txt as a standard operating procedure for all campaigns. China, traffic ad fraud issues considered, still remains a highly vibrant market for advertising and marketers – but one is well advised to go into it with eyes open.

Content is changing fast on Douyin

Social media changes rapidly, and Douyin – known as TikTok outside of China – is currently undergoing its own unique metamorphosis. In recent months, Jing Daily noted that content on Douyin has trended towards the following themes:

1. Celebrities and comedy: Celebrities posting humorous content have been attracting more new followers. The top-ranked account was Guo Donglin, a popular comedian in China, gaining 8m new followers in one month, while singer and actor Joker Xue (Xue Zhiqian) gained 3.5m new followers per month for the last two months.

2. Vertical-specific content: Though the Chinese appear to enjoy getting their laughs on Douyin, they also seem to like learning via the platform. Accounts that focus on a single vertical or niche area and provide tips or how-to instructions have become more popular. An example would be Shenzhou Laoshi (literally translated as “teacher from Shenzhou”) who teaches photography that is tailored to popular culture: if there is a hit drama, then his content would gravitate towards how to take photos similar to scenes from the drama.

3. Short-form storytelling: It’s surprising that it took this long before short-form storytelling gained popularity. Douyin’s – and by extension Snapchat and Instagram Stories – format of short videos makes it a perfect platform for episodic content. With just 14 videos posted, 灵魂当铺 (“Pawn Shop of Souls”), a show featuring a shop that would grant anyone a wish in exchange of equal value, has 6m followers. The top-ranked show on Douyin is 食堂夜话 (“Night Conversations in the Canteen”), with over 16m followers.

These changes are part of a wider fundamental shift in social media platforms. As noted in The Atlantic, the so-called “Instagram aesthetic”, with its pastels and artfully staged pictures of food and attractive people, is shifting towards “authenticity”.

Western brands and their social media strategies have had checkered success in China (recall Burberry’s “horror story” and Dolce & Gabbana’s cultural faux pas over the Lunar New Year period?). These trends notwithstanding, brands should think long and hard, and extremely carefully, before deciding whether to adopt similar measures in their social media strategies in China.

WeChat sued for blocking links from Taobao and TikTok

The struggle for supremacy in the Chinese social media arena does not seem to be letting up – and users are getting in on it. In this latest salvo, WeChat is being sued by a user who alleges that WeChat is intentionally making it difficult for users to share links from its competitors Douyin (known as TikTok outside of China) and Taobao.

WeChat users cannot share Douyin and Taobao links directly. To do so, users must download the video to their device or copy and paste a direct link respectively.

In an article (link in Mandarin) in People’s Court Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Supreme People’s Court, Mr Zhang Zhengxin, a lawyer, claims that this restriction on direct sharing of these links implies that Tencent is turning down his communication request and therefore infringing his right to communication. The case is currently pending in Beijing’s intellectual property courts.

The practice of blocking services from competitors is not new to WeChat. In January 2019, TechNode reported that WeChat blocked three competitors in a single day – Bytedance’s Duoshan, Kuairu Technology’s Liaotianbao and Ringo.AI’s Matong.

By any definition, WeChat is a superapp, a literal self-sustaining ecosystem, in China: it is possible to use only WeChat (even surviving without cash). Chinese social media firms tend to focus on building a multitude of services and features that aim to keep users firmly ensconced within its ecosystem. WeChat must therefore take even the smallest competitor seriously – in their perspective, giving up even the smallest toehold is the first step to losing users.

Taking a break from WeChat

In a recent experiment (link in Mandarin), the Tencent Research Institute attempted to examine the impact of social media (specifically WeChat) on society and the individual, focusing on individual happiness, social connections and ability to concentrate or focus on work or learning.

While involving a relatively small pool of users, the experiment uncovered four things:

  • The reduced usage of WeChat did not result in a significant change in positive emotions, but did bring about a small decrease in negative emotions;
  • There was no change in how satisfied they felt about their day;
  • Users did not report feeling any more or less socially isolated;
  • Users noted a significant uptick in their ability to concentrate on their work or studies.

The authors of the study also noted during the social media “fast”, participants reported that they started to internalize two things, among others: to reflect on things and issues that were truly relevant to them in an objective manner, and that whatever is said on social media should not be taken personally.

For marketers focusing on China or operating within China, this might represent the first step in a cultural shift in how the Chinese consume and engage with social media. As noted in the section on how content on Douyin is evolving, brands should (re)consider how they engage their target audience on social media.

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