A brief exploration into China’s digital space (Part 2)

(This is a conclusion of Part 1, but can be read as a standalone.)

For many Chinese people today, everything they need is in their hands- untethered by desktop PCs, landlines, or hardwired internet. As internet infrastructure improved, China fully embraced mobile technology without looking back- even using it more robustly than the West.

A study released in 2014 revealed that mobile usage grew to 83.4 percent, surpassing its desktop counterpart for the first time (80.9 percent). The same study also showed that the country gained 27 million new mobile internet users in just six months. That’s a growth of a fifth of the U.S.’s population every year.

That’s a lot of potential Snaps (Imagechina)

The mobile-centric shift

The current generation and growing middle class’ increased buying power has driven a shift toward mobile-centrism that is unlikely to slow down. How closely tied are Chinese people to their phones? Kendra Schaefer, a tech writer in China, counts the ways:

  • In China, your mobile phone number is nearly as important as a social security number in the United States. If you lose access to your mobile number, you may also irrevocably lose access to e-commerce accounts, digital wallets, social network accounts (which are tied directly to the mobile number) and much more. Because of this, people take great care to go through the process of officially associating their number with their government-issued state ID to prevent identity theft and to ensure easy retrieval in case of SIM loss or damage.
  • Most websites in China use a mobile phone number instead of an email address as the primary identifier for logging in and as the primary password-recovery tool — particularly relevant since email doesn’t have nearly the saturation in China that it does in the West.
  • For certain Chinese digital wallets that let users scan a QR code to instantly pay for anything from a city cab ride to a fancy dinner to a pay-per-view movie, payment is a single step. They don’t even require password input or verification for purchases under 300 Chinese yuan (CNY) or so (around $50 USD). That being the case, a stolen phone is just as bad as a stolen pocketbook.
  • World Bank data indicates that in 2011, China was rocking 69 motor vehicles (cars, trucks and buses) per 1000 people. Compare that with the US’ 768 per 1000 in the same year and you can imagine how many non-car-owning Chinese ride public transportation to work every day — which means long periods of staring at a mobile screen, trying to ignore the lady picking her earwax across from you.

Mobile-only mindset

So where does this leave desktop experiences? If you ask many Chinese designers today how they are supporting responsive design, they’ll look at you a little funny. Saber Zou, head of creative at Logic Design, a Beijing-based digital studio, revealed that “we don’t really relate to the web in that way; we don’t think of the desktop website as a mothership, or even as a scaled-up version of a more streamlined mobile website. Actually, a significant number of Chinese companies are bypassing the desktop experience entirely.” This realization is, as Schafer puts it, a total paradigm shift. Here we are in the West, creating strong mobile-first approaches whereas in China, they view the desktop as a separate and increasingly tertiary and optional platform. No wonder companies have confidently eschewed creating desktop experiences altogether, opting to create mobile-only experiences called “light apps”.

Light Apps

They are condensed mobile-only, hyper-targeted mini-sites typically built and animated in HTML5. Their aim is to inform or prompt a specific action from a user (usually to share with friends). Their life is limited, as Schaefer explains they are single-page, single-message and intend to be single-use. It is not uncommon to view the light app once, pass it along to friends via mobile sharing, and never see it again. They take on a variety of messages.

A recruitment flyer for mobile manufacturer Xiaomi. URL
Celebrating Lenovo’s 30th anniversary. URL
Trivia-related light app drumming up hype for an upcoming Jiang Wen movie. URL

The “unconvential” way of opening a light app would be copying the URL and pasting it onto your phone’s browser. Most Chinese users are likely to scan the QR code with their phone instead, which auto-loads the site. Yes, that’s right. The optical barcode that never fully took off in the west is alive and thriving in China, easily connecting people to these mini-sites.

In terms of what platform users prefer to share light apps and otherwise socially connect, there is no dispute. Only one reigns supreme. And the breadth of this centralizing, nearly ubiquitous umbrella network comprises 83% of China’s mobile internet community. I’m talking about WeChat.

From latmultilingual.com

Known by its Chinese name WeiXin (微信), WeChat holds 438 out of the 527 million mobile internet users. That’s a solid 100+ million more than the number of monthly active Twitter users. And in terms of software design, WeChat has been traveling in a different direction than the West. Whereas tech giants like Google split their apps into constellations of ever more streamlined and task-focused apps (How much of your home screen is inhabited by Gmail, Chrome, Drive, Photos, Play Store, Keep, Hangouts, Docs, etc?) WeChat is a “walled garden” of ever-accumulating features all housed within one monolith of an app. What kind of features? Here’s a brief summary by Dan Grover:

“Besides messaging, it does phone and video calls, has a news feed, a wallet with a payments service, a Favorites feature functioning more like Evernote, a game center (with a built-in game), a location-based people finder, a Shazaam-like song-matching service, and, in accordance with Zawinski’s Law, a mail client. Its official accounts platform (described later) goes as far as providing a layer to allow hardware devices to use the app to communicate with services, instead of requiring custom apps.”

One notable feature is its native browser and API for developers, which ties back into light apps. Du HaiHang, digital creative designer and developer at Activation Nodeplus, a cutting-edge web design studio in Shanghai explains the shift to creating light apps for the WeChat browser back in 2015:

“Three or four years ago , brands spent large budgets on Flash campaign minisites, but not today. Today, these budgets have been moved to WeChat on smartphones. The change started with the death of Flash and the start of the iPhone boom, and the web design trends in China naturally followed it. If your website here sucks on WeChat, it’s meaningless to the marketplace.”

The fact that Chinese developers need only test their sites on one browser speaks to how universal the platform has become. But what’s in it for the companies? What does this platform offer that competitors may not?

The “more is better” methodology that WeChat has embraced means they have a competitive edge in terms of the amount of user data they can gather. Thomas Graziani, founder of Beijing-based social marketing firm Walk the Chat explains:

“Companies are happy to build experiences that operate exclusively in WeChat, because they get so much more data on their users than they do from standard mobile websites. When a user accesses your website via their WeChat browser, you see their WeChat ID, and if they follow you on WeChat, you get to see seven points of data about them: WeChat ID, nickname, profile picture, location (city), primary WeChat language, gender and date when they started following the account. This enables companies to tightly target their marketing right out of the gate, especially in terms of the gender and geographic variables. On top of that, “WeChat Sign-Up” enables HTML5 game developers to customize the experience for users, with their nickname and profile picture.”

Think of WeChat as the one-stop-shop app version of Google in terms of user data at this point.

WeChat Official Accounts

Let’s look at how companies utilize WeChat to connect more closely with their customers. Similar to how brands we are familiar with set up verified Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, or Twitter handles to interact with followers, Chinese companies create WeChat official accounts (OA’s). And seeing how pervasive WeChat has become in Chinese society, not many organizations can ignore it. Even local businesses have some kind of presence on the platform.

There are 3 main types of OA’s: Subscription, Service, and Enterprise.

Subscription accounts (订阅号 — ding yue hao) are similar to daily news feeds or RSS. They can send one daily update to their followers and this can be either a singular article or multiple articles bundled into one update. As you can guess, if a user follows many Subscription accounts that push daily updates, it will become difficult to read all of them. This is where Momentscomes in. Similar to Facebook posts, WeChat users can share photos, sights, messages, and links to their Moments which is essentially a group or friends circle a la Google+. Most articles are widely read once they are posted on users’ Moments, which means the most interesting articles rise to the top and are noticed more often.

Example of a user’s list of subscription accounts. From chinachannel.com

Service accounts (服务号 — fu wu hao) have access to more functionality on the WeChat platform than Subscription accounts, like taking payments, “shake”, using coupons, booking taxis or ordering breakfast. And this is all within the WeChat OA, no need to download a separate app.

Dundian Breakfast lets users pay and set up pick up all within WeChat

Enterprise accounts (企业号 — qi ye hao) are company accounts meant for internal processes and secure communications. Many companies already use WeChat for internal communications anyway, as it’s the default message app and few have issues over the mixing of personal and business communication on one platform. Enterprise accounts just let companies structure and manage this better.

A different market than the rest

Let’s take a second to focus more on e-commerce.

To foreign companies trying to break into this quickly-evolving, massive market, it is not as simple as translating your site or app into Chinese and pushing it out the door.

A 2013 CNN interview with some of China’s leading e-commerce leaders revealed how rarely their foreign counterparts find success. Companies like eBay, Groupon, Yahoo, Google, etc have entered the Chinese market without fully understanding the culture and consumer, and simply copied over their existing business strategy. Another reason is their management scheme. Due to the ever-evolving nature of the Chinese market, decisions need to be made dynamically, quickly, and often locally. However, the global organization structure of many foreign companies do not allow them to move fast enough to make those critical decisions.

The interview included Yu Gang, chairman of Yihaodian.com, one of China’s biggest online grocery stores, David Wei, former CEO of Alibaba.com and Oliver Rust, senior vice president of Nielsen. From cnn.com

These pitfalls have actually helped Chinese companies strengthen their own consumer strategy. David Wei, former CEO of Alibaba.com (China’s Amazon) and one of the participants in the interview recalled how their strategy was “100% different” from whatever eBay did in China.

  • eBay required listing fees, Alibaba did not.
  • eBay’s ranking algorithm was auction-based where the longest sitting items floated to the top. Wei argued that as a retail model, the freshest products should top the rankings.
  • eBay had a closed communication model between buyers and sellers, again following the auction process. Alibaba launched an instant messaging feature encouraging merchants to talk to consumers.

These, Wei asserts, are a few of many decisions that led to eBay’s demise in the Chinese market. As he put it:

“Their winning recipe in the states actually became the poison, killing their business in China.”

Know the culture, win the consumer

I’ll end the post on a strategic note. The same CNN interview dived into methods for how multinational brands can successfully establish themselves online:

  • Find a solution provider that is already familiar with the Chinese market. Yihaodian.com, one of China’s largest online grocery store, launched a service that provides merchants with logistics, marketing, platform, and data services.
  • Build a flagship store to establish an offline presence. While this may seem counterintuitive, many Chinese consumers still expect to see brick-and-mortar stores where they can interact with store clerks directly and get to know their products.
  • Define a strategy based on an understanding of the product or service being marketed and how that would be perceived differently to a Chinese consumer.

These strategies all circle around the main takeaway that all foreign/western companies need to understand the culture. China has a unique consumer identity influenced by its cultural past and current values.

In a future post I’ll explore where these trends are heading in the future, and how they may be affecting Western tech and design.

(Note: Kendra Schaefer’s article on Chinese web design trends has been a great resource in the insights found in this post. Do check out her website.)

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