Marketing

WeChat and you: How your business can get started with the social platform used by millions of Chinese consumers

Dominic Powell /

Australia has sometimes been referred to as the “food bowl” of China, an apt title given our high amounts of exports to the superpower. China also provides Australia many opportunities, as the 1.3 billion strong country has many consumers hungry for Australian products.

However despite this, not all Australian businesses are taking advantage of the vast amount of consumers that live on Mainland China. Moving beyond the shores of Australian marketing and selling can be a daunting task, but the potential advantages are significant.

WeChat is a Chinese social media platform, and it began its life as a project from Tencent’s Research and Project Centre in Guangzhou. It was created by engineer Xiaolong Zhang as an all in one service to chat with friends and family.

‘Hybrid’ might be the best word to describe WeChat, as western markets have no real direct comparison to the service. If you combined Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter in a Frankenstein-style application and then gave it a coat made from PayPal, you might come close.

In the five years between its launch in 2010 and 2015, WeChat accrued 600 million active users, and expanded it’s scope to include payment services, appointment booking, and ‘Moments’, a hybrid of Instagram and Snapchat stories.

In contrast, 15 million people in Australia currently use Facebook, which is far beyond any other form of social media; Twitter comes in at 2.8 million users.

WeChat is now estimated to have over 760 million active users worldwide, or over 50 times the user base of Facebook in Australia. The majority of those users reside in Mainland China, and Australia does have a much smaller user base of around 1.5 million people.

While the millions of Chinese WeChat users represents a valuable opportunity for Australian businesses, getting into the Chinese WeChat zone is difficult and requires significant knowledge of Chinese culture and users.

Ophenia Liang, director and co-founder of Digital Crew, has worked in Chinese marketing for over five years, and started up Digital Crew to help Australian businesses get a foothold in the Chinese market. Liang told SmartCompany that comparing WeChat to other social platforms such as Facebook is largely inaccurate, calling it instead “something between WhatsApp, Twitter, and a mini-Facebook.”

“WeChat has worked out how to connect millions of users in a very easy way, and they’ve also made the app very easy to use,” Liang says.

For Australian businesses, creating an “overseas account” is quite easy, but the drawback is the account won’t be visible to the 700 million strong users in Mainland China. To create an “official account” on We Chat, a business requires the Chinese equivalent of an Australian Business Number.

This is difficult, but certainly not impossible to set up says Liang, but businesses can’t arrive on Chinese shores and market their goods and services in the same way they might in Australia. There are a number of things that must be taken into account.

Culture shock

Liang says in order to successfully market in China, businesses need to first understand the cultural layout and consumer mindset.

“Chinese who were born prior to the 1980s were born into a totally different environment to modern day China. They have more of a concept of what rich and poor look like,” says Liang.

“Those born after 1990 haven’t experienced the bad parts of Chinese economy, and they’re not worried about saving. This makes them much more prone to spending.”

China’s prosperous past years has seen many consumers reach adulthood with a great deal of disposable income, says Liang. This is exacerbated by the single child policy, which often means children will benefit especially from their parent’s property and income.

“If you marry another single child, you can sometimes have $10 million worth of property between you, which means you don’t have to take a mortgage,” she says.

“It also means that young couples have a lot of disposable income, and a want for foreign goods.”

Australian goods are coveted by the Chinese market as being “high quality and clean”, Liang says. Also some products, such as milk powder, are imported due to Chinese not trusting locally produced brands.

“The Chinese have a prevalent perception of Australian goods being of high quality and having a guarantee of quality, due to our industry standards,” Liang says.

Language and layout

One of the many things that throw western businesses off marketing in China is the difficult to overcome the language barrier. Although the number of Chinese speaking westerners are increasing, many businesses often lack a bilingual employee.

Liang highlights the importance of correct translations for copy on Chinese websites, which also applies to content shared on WeChat. Liang stresses that businesses “can’t just do Google translations”.

“Chinese websites tend to be a lot more crowded with a lot more information on them, so if you want to appeal to Chinese customers you need to give them something familiar,” Liang says.

“Work out who your customers are and get some copy that is well written by bilingual writers.”

Mobile compatibility and interface is also very important, as Liang says 50% of online transactions are done through mobile on services like WeChat.

“The penetration rate of online shopping is phenomenal in China. Out of over 650 million internet users, approximately 314 million of them use it for online shopping,” Liang says.

Promoting your brand through daigous and KOLs

One of the greatest driving factors in Chinese product sales are what’s known as KOLs, or Key Opinion Leaders. These can include celebrities, industry leaders, or just normal people with an immense amount of followers on WeChat, known as a wang hong. 

These influencers have the potential to drive an immense amount of sales in the space of a second, some having well over one million followers. Tasmania’s Bridestowe Lavender Estate managing director Robert Ravens experienced this effect firsthand with their popular Bobbie the Bear product.

“We’d been producing and marketing Bobbie for eight years, but we weren’t prepared for what happened in 2012, it blew a hole in our business strategy,” Ravens told SmartCompany.

“None of our family had any real retail experience.”

Bobbie is a purple, fluffy, lavender smelling teddy bear, which originated as a way for Bridestowe to use the excess dried lavender from the estates other products, such as lavender oil.

Bobbie Bear

“We always had a focus on using celebrities as a way to sell our product, we found that customers liked having famous people associated with Bobbie,” Ravens says.

“We were trialling our product in Thailand, which was going well. Then a Chinese media personality picked up our bear in Hobart and took it back to Shanghai.”

That media personality was Zhang Xinyu, a Chinese actress and model, who posted a photo with Bobbie on social media. Within hours, Bridestowe was swamped with orders.

“We had to take down our online store, we had no spare production capacity,” Ravens says.

Since then, Bridestowe has worked on its Chinese marketing and now uses WeChat as a way to promote the brand in China.

“Before the interest, we were on all forms of social media in the west, but we weren’t ultra pro at that, you cant force it,” Ravens says.

“After the interest in Bobbie we moved to align ourselves with our customers, and we now use WeChat as an information platform, and we use it to promote our brand.”

Liang says that the Bobbie the Bear case was an exception, but agrees that KOLs have the potential to drive immense sales. Connecting with one is difficult unless you go through an agency, so Liang says that Australian businesses can look a little closer to home.

“In Australia we have daigous, Chinese who reside here and send products back home. Employing one of them to advertise your product can be a good way to test the Chinese market before you dive in,” Liang says.

A premium on authenticity

Finally, the Chinese market puts a high value on authenticity of the product they are purchasing, harking back to the aforementioned focus on quality and standards.

Ravens found this out first hand, as after being unable to keep up with the demand for Bobbie, fake versions of the bear popped up within days.

“The fake industry is so huge around our brand and product,” Ravens says.

“We’re still working through it, we’ve spent a lot of energy and money on protecting our brand.”

Bridestowe uses WeChat to help circulate information about Bobbie, so Chinese buyers know they’re getting the real thing.

“Chinese buyers will go to great lengths to get the real thing. We have many daigous come to Bridestowe and we don’t discourage it, you have to make sure what you supply is authentic,” Ravens says.

“WeChat is a great broad based discussion platform, and we use it to make sure there’s information widely available about Bobbie.”

Ravens’ advice for businesses looking to expand into China is to always reinforce your brand image and authenticity.

“Registration of brands and intellectual property in China is much harder, and the people who make fakes are almost cavalier about it. We had our website entirely copied, and there wasn’t much we could do,” he says.

“It’s a vast industry, protect your brand.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is a journalist at StartupSmart and a tech and music geek. When he’s not writing, you can find him reading or browsing record shops.

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