Chinese social networks can seem a daunting challenge for brands that are trying to expand their business in APAC.

Beyond the obvious language barrier marketers have to get to grips with new functionality, cultural behaviours and consumer expectations.

The Chinese internet population currently stands at 618m, with 81% connecting via mobile, so the opportunity is too big to ignore.

And with internet penetration at just 45% there’s still plenty of room for growth.

To find out more about social media in China and how brands should be approaching social marketing, I spoke to HootSuite’s APAC managing director Ken Mandel.

For more information on this topic, download Econsultancy’s South-East Asia Digital Marketing Trends Briefing or our Chinese Digital Market Landscape Report.

Econsultancy Enterprise subscribers are also invited to attend a free roundtable on Ecommerce in China on Tuesday 15 April. Spaces are limited so click here to apply for a place.

For brands just entering the Chinese market, which networks would you recommend that they focus on?

As with Western markets, there is always a great deal of change in social as new networks emerge or old ones fade away, so you can’t really put all your eggs in one basket.

For example, in China there’s a network called YY that is becoming hugely popular. It offers a mix of karaoke, video, virtual gifting and messaging.

That could be the next big thing or maybe it won’t. 

The on the other hand you have Renren which was very strong at one point but it’s popularity is now waning. That just shows that brands need to adopt a flexible approach.

Renren’s remarkably familiar sign up page

You also need to take into account what different platforms can do for you.

WeChat is limited for branding as it’s essentially a messenger app, similar to WhatsApp. In the various Weibo networks (e.g. Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo) there’s a lot more to play with, they have APIs, and messages can be longer.

Therefore it’s easier to publish and engage on Weibo, though WeChat is making strides as well.

Sina Weibo is probably the company we are most familiar with in the West. To what extent does it dominate the market?

One of the important things to understand is that Weibo just means ‘microblogging’ in Mandarin, so there are lots of companies that have their own Weibo platforms.

Sina Weibo has had huge success and is planning to float in the US, but then Tencent is also a massive company that has its own Weibo and also created WeChat.

Tencent is also a major player in ecommerce, social platforms, and payment solutions, it has many different interests. 

My Sina Weibo homepage

What it does very well is integrating these platforms into one another, so it has an ecosystem that’s a hybrid of all these different tools and services.

In China the main social networks have far more functionality and depth to them than we’re used to in the West.

For example, we have Instagram which is amazing for sharing photos but that’s really all it does. In China people are used to social networks that offer a broad range of services.

Which brands should we be looking at for examples of how to be successful in social in China?

There’s a sports brand called Li Ning which has been very successful on social, and then there’s also been a lot of good work done in the luxury goods industry.

Aspirational brands such as Burberry, Chanel and Coach have all built up large communities on Chinese social networks.

But really all the major global brands have a presence as it’s a numbers game. There are too many consumers online in China for brands to ignore.

What cultural differences do brands need to be aware of?

The interesting thing about Chinese consumers is that they don’t seem to mind brands being part of the conversation, whereas in the West we might find a different attitude.

Brands also have to take a more tactical approach as there is the expectation that by interacting with brands there will be some sort of value exchange.

So we tend to see a lot more promotions, coupons and contests in China.

Another notable difference is that people love to express themselves in long-form content rather than in short status updates.

The limits placed on the number of characters people can use aren’t as restrictive when you’re writing in Chinese, so people can be more expressive and post longer messages.

Burberry’s Sina Weibo page

Often they don’t seem to care if anyone engages with them, they simply want to get it out of their system.

It’s also fundamental to remember that China is huge and very complex, so you need to be aware of the different dialects and levels of development within each region.

First tier cities like Shanghai or Beijing are very modern and have high internet penetration, but then the third tier cities are less developed and have lower internet penetration.

You can’t just look at it as one country, brands need to take into account the regional differences. 

Are mobile apps as important for social networking in China?

Mobile accounts for a large proportion of internet access, and though there is a reliance on apps it’s not as utility-specific as in the West.

By that I mean the apps generally tap into an ecosystem, so WeChat has a feature that allows users to speak directly to a taxi driver and exchange messages to arrange a pick up. In the UK and US we have separate apps to do that one task.

In general the tech companies in China are way ahead of Western companies in terms of monetising their customers and innovating with payments and commerce.

For example, Tencent can connect with WeChat to allow users to put money onto a payment card.

Then at Chinese New Year it gamified the tradition of giving out red envelopes by turning it into virtual currency. Users could put money into their account, then Tencent had an algorithm that gave each person a different amount of money.

This encouraged people to pay money into Tencent’s ecosystem, and then it’s never cashed out as people use it to buy more virtual goods.

Do marketers use the same metrics to measure their success in social?

A lot of it’s the same, so brands are tracking follower counts, engagement rates, etc. 

Best practices are largely similar as are the metrics of success, but the platforms and functionality are very different.

Brands are also approaching social marketing in a similar way, so when HootSuite launched new apps recently one of the features that people most wanted to see was the ability to schedule posts.

Marketers need to be able to schedule their activity ahead of time for convenience but also to coincide with their TV campaigns and other activities.

So a lot of the methods are the same despite the difference in functionality.