Social Media in China – A completely different ball game!

Social Media in China

It is surprising how uninformed we Westerners are about Chinese social media channels. One year ago I confess to having been in the same boat!

I had several fellow Chinese students in my bachelor’s program of International Business Management at HFU in Germany. Even though they were studying in Germany many of them were not on Facebook, which is quite unusual. Whilst I have European friends who choose not to be on Facebook as a personal statement, this was definitely not the case for my Chinese colleagues. The very first application they introduced me too was WeChat, a powerful mobile communication app by Tencent Inc..
For the duration of my studies in Germany I only used WeChat to chat with my Chinese fellow students; that was about it. It seemed way too complicated to be a simple app for messaging and I had no reason to take a closer look at it.

I spent a 6-month study semester in Xi’an in 2015, a city in central China with a population of over 8 million. Xi’an is still a very “Chinese” city as it is quite far away from the more “westernized” special coastal economic zones such as Shanghai and Xiamen.

Xi’an also has a very “Chinese” internet and I am not trying to say this in a biased way, it is just that you have to use the internet differently over there!

To start with, all Google services except for Gmail do not work in Xi’an. That means no YouTube and no Google Play Store (If you have an Android phone based on the Google Play Store this basically kills it). Facebook also does not work; neither does Instagram; also some of the big German news pages; Dropbox; and if you want to write a blog or create a website on WordPress, you will also have a hard time trying… BUT WhatsApp works!

There are obvious reasons why our “western” social media and other internet platforms are not accessible in China. These are the Chinese government’s strict regulations and restrictions. Google Inc. is an extreme example as censorship was the main reason for the company to shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010.

Of course you can access all of these services by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which you can either purchase or which in my case was provided by my German university. Though this is an option, you need to understand that the average Chinese person has no intention of paying money for something other Chinese people do not use. Therefore, by using these “westernized” social media platforms you will not reach the average Chinese citizen!

At my Chinese university I began asking around and was not at all surprised to discover that the Chinese market has a substitute for every single app I could think of. Some of their platforms were better than those I use in Germany.

For example:

  • YouTube is substituted by pages like Soku and Youku, which are very similar and are linked to each other.
  • Twitter is substituted by Weibo, which also allows you to upload multiple pictures and has similar features to Facebook.
  • Spotify, the music streaming service which is not available in China, is outdone by QQ Music, which allows you to download music tracks straight to your phone and save them forever without the need to sign up.
  • Amazon is building up a small presence in China but is beaten by lengths by Taobao, even though you can never be sure you will receive the real thing.
  • The Google search engine is mainly replaced by the Chinese-owned Baidu and Qihoo 360 search engines. The Baidu search engine dominates the Chinese market and automatically serves as the Chinese version of the App Store, which is based on search engine and not on an app.

This was all completely new to me!

Coming back to business, one application which really hit the ground running is WeChat. WeChat, as I already mentioned above, is owned by the Chinese Tencent Inc. and I found this application to be incredibly powerful!

WeChat has all the features of WhatsApp and more including online payment services; booking cinema tickets or doctor appointments; finding people near you; uploading photos with personal comments (similar to Instagram) on your private profile that includes personal details and interests just like Facebook. Every company can open up its own company app within the WeChat app allowing customers to contact them directly. Even the small local gym I went to sent me updates on training courses straight to my Smartphone whilst allowing me to ask for their opening hours via a simple chat window.
All you have to do as a new user is to scan the individual QR code of the respective company through your own WeChat account, upon which you receive the link to automatically follow the business account.

Have you ever scanned a QR code with your phone? It is probably due to WeChat that QR codes are widely made use of in China as you see them everywhere and you also see people actually scanning them all the time! I guess many of us “westerners” probably do not even know what a QR code is even though more and more companies make the effort of including them on posters, newspaper articles and even on the back of trucks or busses!

A good example which demonstrates the power of WeChat is LinkedIn. LinkedIn was looking to enter the Chinese market and found a very clever way to do so in 2014. LinkedIn allows WeChat users to link their personal profile to their WeChat account and had more than 13 million users by the end of 2015; more than tripling the number of Chinese LinkedIn users within 2 years.

After being shocked on arrival in China at how difficult it was to keep in touch with people back home, I realised it was exactly the other way around for western companies trying to reach their Chinese target audience. China has its own social media world and language is only one of the barriers keeping foreigners out.

If you are a company that has its sights set on China, it is therefore vital to understand your customers’ social media behaviour in order to reach out to them; a different branding strategy and online presence are indispensable… China is a completely different ball game!


Robert Bruessler

Robert Brüßler