|China's netizens hooked on social media.|
Monday, 28th June 2010
Source : By Jens Thraenhart | Web in Travel 2010
With over four million Internet users in China, representing 29% of the population by the end of April 2010, the Internet is quickly replacing traditional media as brands and companies seek to connect with their consumers in new and different ways.
According to China Internet Network Information Center, the country's official domain registry and research organisation, that's an increase of around 50% over 2008, and a staggering increase of 1,500% since 2000.
The rise of the power and popularity of the Internet is despite China’s tight controls over Internet content. In face, according to Trendspotting, the country's online users do not seem to mind – 85 % of them actually approve of Internet censorship. Some 93% of them feel that "much of Internet content is unsuitable for children".
The online landscape in China is vastly different compared to North America, Europe, or other parts of the world which explains why international platforms many times fail and often get banned. Popular sites such as Facebook, Youtube, Flickr and Twitter have fallen victim to the Great Firewall of China.
Even though young innovative Chinese Netizens can find ways to get to these sites, there is no real need to. In China, local Internet companies rule the digital space, and the numbers are staggering. Local BBS (Bulletin Board System) was launched in 1994, marking the beginning of the Chinese Internet Community. Currently, it is home to over 384 million users who are online for an average of 16 hours per week, the same amount of time they spend watching television. There are 111 million people managing a social network profile, and these numbers are growing daily.
Online engagement in China is twice as high compared to the US and Europe, according to Forrester Research (2008), where a high %age contribute content by uploading videos and pictures, as well as writing and commenting on blogs.
The Internet in China is dominated by long-running, local multi-service portals like Sina, QQ and Sohu that have been offering social networking, discussion forums, blogs, instant messaging and other “socialised media” long before Twitter and Facebook. As the nationally preferred form of social media, bulletin board systems (BBS) are available in every imaginable topic.
In these forums, Netizens can be extremely vocal, resourceful, risk-takers, subversive and sometimes a little worrisome. The power of the Internet in China has never been stronger and has not even begun to be realised fully ¬- the penetration rate is now only at 28% as compared to 70 to 80% in North America and Europe, according to World Internet Stats (Note: Cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou have Internet penetrations of up to 60%, according to CNNIC).
The workings of the online travel market in China
Chinese consumers heavily use the Internet to make their purchase decisions, while still using travel agents for final transactions, for the most part due to convenience. Travel agents in China generally recommend travel packages they have either known for years or which offer them the greatest incentive, if the consumer has no specific destination or hotel in mind. This is why it is vitally important for brands to be top of mind with Chinese consumers BEFORE they contact a travel agency.
The Internet in China is extremely influential, according to CIC Data. 81 % of BBS and blog users check online word of mouth before purchasing a product. Some 56.3% of users said they “got to know brands” through online channels. About 58.7% actually made purchase decisions based on user-generated online info (compared to only 19 % in US. Even when not making a purchase, 89.9% of users still pay attention to online word of mouth.
The Nielsen Outbound Travel Monitor found that travellers will search for conventional destination information ahead of their trips (61% of leisure trips taken), and then turn to online travel discussion forums (48%) to fine-tune their plans. This suggests that opinions and comments about travel experiences posted to online forums are nearly as likely to influence travellers' decisions as the destination websites themselves; in addition, travellers were much more likely to recall seeing Internet advertising for travel destinations, compared to seeing travel advertising on other mediums. Conventional travel agents were approached on only two in five travel occasions in China.
Twenty-five % of travellers who leverage social media and travel reviews in the decision making process, purchased travel online. This marks a notable shift in travel buying behaviour, as cash still remains the most popular payment gateway to purchase travel in China. (PhoCusWright FYI newsletter October 2009, October 2009).
In addition to the rapid increase and penetration of the Internet in China, the online engagement in China is incredibly high with over 40% sharing travel reviews or uploading photos and videos online, compared to just under 20% in North America and Europe, according to a research report by Forrester Research "Chinese Technographics Revealed 2009". Ninety percent of the Chinese Internet population actively read internet blogs, and a huge 81% are now actively writing blogs (Source, Wave 4 UM). This is a higher rate than in the US (66% read blogs, 33% write) and the UK (58 %read blogs, 25% write blogs).
Among Chinese broadband users, 46% used a search engine to make overall purchase decisions, compared with 25 % of US broadband users. (eMarketer, March 2008). Last July 2009, Comscore announced that Baidu is the second largest search engine in the world, and in March 2010, Google announced its departure from China. Baidu had, by far, the largest market share in Q4 of 2009, and is expected to further increase its position.
One of the ways to rank well in Baidu is to have websites that are optimised in Chinese. While Baidu has many non-China hosted sites in its database, it is very beneficial to have a .cn domain or to host the Chinese website in China (over 80 % of all Chinese websites have a .cn domain compared to only 15 % spotting a .com address, according to CNNIC).
Online travel booking in China in 2009 saw rapid development and has become a highlight of the tourism market. China's online travel booking users in 2009 reached 30.24 million, an increase of 77.9 % from the previous year, according to a report released by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).
PhoCusWright reveals that China's online travel space currently totals approximately US$6.9 billion, accounting for about 11 % of the country's entire travel market. Due to a variety of factors, the online channel is expected to continue on a strong growth trajectory, and by 2011 will account for about 20 % of the total market. China's online tourism market is booming as an increasingly wealthy middle class travels for leisure, while the use of credit cards and the Internet soars, according to Chinese internet research and consulting firm iResearch.
Localised social media strategies needed
China is one of the world's great untapped markets. Sheer market size paired with increased wealth and consumerism is what started the original travel boom in China.
The emergence of new local entrepreneurs and increased global attention spurred by the events like the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo (2010) will serve as a catalyst to grow China’s domestic and outbound travel. This upward trend continues despite a lack of standardised distribution, visa issues, the dominance of a few big travel agents, as well as lack of credit cards, all of which provide challenges.
Internet penetration in China is only at 28% and yet, even at this low rate, there are more Internet users in China than in the US. Leveraging the Internet to get brand insights and to connect with Chinese consumers is nowhere as powerful as in China. However, since the Chinese online landscape is so different, it is impossible to take a social media campaign from the West and plug it into China.
To be more effective, companies should consider the qualities that make Chinese netizens the perfect advocates of social media. For instance, social media campaigns should play on the individual’s susceptibility to shared opinions and values, by making the campaign as interactive as possible around the brand/product. The campaign should aim to make the Chinese netizen feel liberated by offering them opportunities to express themselves within the campaign: this could be done via profiles, avatars, BBS and blogging elements within the campaign.
The social media campaign should also be able to measure the impact using the unique qualities that indicate success, based on the extremely impressionable Chinese Internet audience.
Creating social media campaigns in China may be trickier due to government red tape and less freedom to express the brand message. However, properly strategised use of social media to increase brand awareness is extremely powerful in China.
For this reason, it is important to adopt your campaign to fit closely with the terms and conditions of whichever SNS you execute it on, and to understand the online behavior of Chinese netizens, in order to be able to listen, monitor, moderate, and engage.
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