Everybody wants to go Digital. Nobody knows what it means.

Momo Estrella
Jun 8, 2016 · 12 min read

You’re at your desk and your boss walks in with a huge smile on his face. He wears a scent labeled epiphané, and a wristband with a usb stick that holds 12 photos in TIFF format. He is clearly on top of what’s #trending and regularly shares links to Gizmodo.

Nick, we have to go Digital.”

Cuts to a close up shot of his grin. Cuts to black.

The year: Doesn’t matter.

Just kidding. The year is 2016.

Note: This piece was written for Shanghai SMEs, based on specifics the Chinese market.

If you got the 4 jokes in the first paragraph, you’re probably going to nod your head in agreement a couple dozen times through this piece. My sole intention is not to point at the obvious or poke fun at it, but rather than that, my purpose is to bring some clarity and guidance to the rapidly changing landscape of small and medium businesses in Shanghai, particularly the ones that are eager to go digital.

I’ll try to don’t use terms like SEO, CRM, QR, KOL, Tmall, although I’ll be basically talking about it. One big concept I won’t talk about (so we save it for the next issue) is localization. And I don’t mean language-localization, I mean culturally-relevant content localization. This is a big, wide topic, and it deserves its own study. Most of the following piece, however, can be applied to both English and Chinese content.

There’s simply no easy way to describe what digital means, because it’s connotation depends entirely on what kind of context you put it on. As a creative, I constantly fight the urge to answer every question with “Well, it depends” — but in this case, there’s no escape from it. To structure this piece, I’m gonna explore the diverse meanings of the phrase “Going Digital” according to different industries. I’ve had my dose of experience for a decade or so, and the friendly advise ahead comes from quite a bit of struggle to survive the digital change that showered the world in recent years.

So, if you are part of a business that really wants to go digital, below is an excerpt of some of the steps you could take to help you on that transformation. Some of the advise in other categories will fit yours too, so read thoroughly.

Case 1:
If you run a small workshop on the lifestyle area, going digital means you need Wechat marketing.

Register a Wechat Subscription Account. It allows you to send daily messages to your followers, although it buries them in a ‘folder’ called Subscriptions on Wechat’s active chat list. Alternatives further below.

Write to your followers and talk to them as if they were an audience, physically present in front of you. Don’t blog. Just talk to them, by writing in a more natural language. Prompt questions, encourage tip sharing, share interesting images or pieces you find online. Be careful with the frequency of posting because it quickly dilutes the interest. Don’t just inform. Involve your audience.

You can do it all by yourself. No need to get an extra help or a social media manager for this purpose. If you need tools for sorting content before publishing, you can use tools like Pinterest for collections, and the Notes app on your phone or your computer for the text. Use web wechat to send to yourself the text from the computer to your phone, to make it faster to write/edit/publish content.

Case 2:
If you run a small F&B place. Coffee shop, Juice Bar, or similar. Going digital means you need all of the above, plus web presence and digital content.

Open a Wechat service account (only ‘businesses’ can open these, not individuals). With this type of account you can post one time per week, but the potential to reach your audience is much higher because your messages go directly onto their active chats list. A clever way that I’ve seen my friends at Heyday do, is when they post “This week at Heyday” and give you a glance at all the performers during the ongoing week. It’s pleasant to read, it’s not too intrusive, and it informs quite nicely. For a small Coffee Shop or a Juice Bar, this solution is ideal, since your offering is often static. There are not frequent changes in your products or variation in your shop, but instead, there’s an opportunity to create a weekly ‘window’ of engagement to your customers.

With a Wechat service account, you can send push notifications, gather user data (quite valuable) and get geo-location information from your followers (as long as they grant it). This helps you to get a better picture of where your audience is, geographically, and perhaps setup a plan to expand your business, or create incentives for those valuable costumers that are a bit further away from your main shop.

Also, definitely register a URL and put together a website. I can’t stress enough how valuable your online presence is. You don’t need a ICP to have a static online storefront, but if you’re planning to regularly link your Wechat followers to your website, you might need to look into getting a ICP (this is a license that lets you register/host websites in local servers). There is a lot of documentation and recommendations for this part, so your own research is needed here as well. Check out www.strikingly.com if you want a website builder tool that even the Managing Editor of this magazine can use.

For your store, you might wanna consider having a tablet with a running slideshow of your menu. This can be easily done with free apps, although your content might require software that isn’t necessarily free (think Image retouching, custom fonts, etc). Another advantage of this, is that a QR on a digital display is 60% more likely to be scanned than a printed QR on a piece of paper, plus, if you are wise designing your content, you can reuse the same elements across wechat/web/store displays.

This quickly becomes costly, if you don’t manage it well. For your digital presence, you need regular updates on your digital marketing. Flyers that are branded and well designed can cost you quite a bit, so invest some time into buying a few good design templates that you can handle yourself. I’ve seen people learn the basics and be able to work their way out of a design problem, but I would definitely advise to partner up with local talents for that.

Say, for instance, bring a group of good Instagram aficionados, with considerable follower base. Invite them for a tour of your place, and get them to experience what you consider is worth sharing on social media. You would be surprised how involved, and amazingly talented the Instagram community is in Shanghai, and how humble and professional these guys and girls can be. A few coffee shops have done great deals with some talented photographers and managed to get nice social media posts that boost their digital marketing.

Consider also how compatible your branding is for digital presence. For instance, you need branded cups, napkins, flyers, art on the walls, etc. Anything that is captured on your place, should somehow reflect your brand. This amplifies massively the reach your establishment’s name has on social media.

The estimated investment for a Domain and a decent Website made by yourself with an online tool, goes for at least 1500 CNY a year. Digital Displays or Tablets go for 1800+ CNY. A dedicated freelancer for design needs (recommended) goes for 1500–2000 CNY per day, but you probably need this person only once every three months.

Case 3:
If you are a certified Health & Wellness service professional, going digital means you need all of the above, plus a booking system.

Setup a dedicated device (phone or tablet) and setup multiple ‘calendars’ on it. Set one calendar for business reminders (create events for accounting, tax filling, paying bills, salaries, starting dates), another one for customers (set events with Name + Phone), etc. Digital scheduling can happen through paid services, but the foundation of just being able to have full control of your schedule and workload in a transparent and fully digital way, allows you to be very efficient with your week. Efficiency is the number one item that 70% of businesses in Shanghai lack on.

Calendar app running on a Mac/iPhone 6 ©2016 Apple

You can use your customers’ booking calendar to track how often your customers book you. Say, you run a hairdressing salon, or a skincare center, by knowing the frequency of their visits, you can reach out in a timely manner and the service will feel more personal. You can receive calls or messages with booking requests and you can have a pretty flexible way of handling it with a simple app switch.

Now you can do a lot of this manually, which still saves you a lot of time in organizing schedules and so on, or you can pay for an online service that makes digital bookings as easy as tapping on a webpage through your mobile browser or Wechat. Several options out there for you, so additional research is needed. Some of these services run for 70–100 CNY a month, but the benefit and clarity they bring to your scheduling is worth it.

Case 4:
If you’re a medium size business looking to grow your digital presence, going digital means you need a strong website and digital communications, and a social media campaign.

People often feel daunted by not knowing anything about design or code or marketing, but truth is, many of your customers just want an honest window onto your business. What do you do? What are you good at? What can you do for others so they have one less thing to worry about? If you can answer these three questions, you already have a Company Mission (old school term), a confident sales statement, and a service descriptor that says everything your customers need to know to assess whether they’d like to call you or not.

As for digital communications, stop using QQ/Gmail/Hotmail emails, and go for custom domains. hello@businessname.com or nick@sensibleshop.com will make a better impression than 123456789@qq.com – Plus your email handle becomes more memorable.

Build a beautiful website. Either hire someone great, or do it with the right tools. Avoid Wordpress. Avoid downloading HTML templates. Aim to use services like Strikingly or Squarespace, and get your business out there. Depending on your line, perhaps ‘H5 builders’, Tmall or JD are also good ways to go online.It’s really much easier than you think. Trust me. My first site sucked. It didn’t matter. I had one. Nobody else in my circle did. Guess who is ahead now?

Ongoing maintenance is a pain in the butt if you use open source tools or Wordpress. Simply put, great platforms for business are built by people who understand business, and people who understand business rarely do things for free. You gotta spend money on a reliable platform for ongoing operations. Customer Support, Emailing, Shipping & Tracking, Invoicing, etc. Everything can be good or it can be great, depending on how you invest your passion and kuais in it.

Case 5:
If you just want to build an ‘app’ to go Digital, you need a lot of things you probably don’t have at hand right now. Also, a ton of money.

The ultimate way to go digital, is definitely through a custom app. I don’t mean to demotivate you, but if you want to be realistic, there are many elements you have to understand if you’re looking to build one.

A simple app developed by a team of 3 people can cost you, at least, 300.000 CNY. That cost covers design and development. Ongoing costs for maintenance and updates might apply. A more robust app, with integration with social networks, or that interconnects with other apps or services, can go for 600k-900k CNY.

Ultimately, a robust app that captures the core of what your company does, and provides all the needed functionality, can easily cost you 3M-5M CNY. That’s a company, basically.

Now, there are alternatives in the market that you might be able to use. For instance, there are Wechat stores you can use for your shop, right out of the box. There are more robust solutions for digital engagement and marketing, where if you have a lot of followers and you’re looking to distill the top percentage of engaged brand advocates, there are alternatives as well — A good one is PullPath. These might not be a full replacement of a custom app, but perhaps they’re a great start to help you add value to your business and bloom in the digital space.


Closing thoughts

Going digital doesn’t mean having a website, or having a Wechat account that sends fliers. Going digital means that you understand the hardware that hosts the software that performs your needed task. Going digital means you know what percentage of your sales come from referrals on Wechat. Or how many unique visits your store has. Or how many email addresses you’ve collected through a newsletter form. Or where is your audience based.

Going digital means you understand that your digital flyers (a JPG basically) should be 960px wide and more than 1500px tall, so it can be scrolled when people share them, so you can showcase more information in an elegant way. Going digital means you know that Wechat crops the center block of the image, so you design a flyer that uses it as an advantage to be more attractive from the thumbnail on a moments feed.

Going digital means that you prefer one image reposted by your followers or referrals, rather than multiple images that require more operations (save this, save that, search and find it, tag it, select this, select that, post –Nobody has time for that). Going digital means that you fully understand how your audience uses technology to access what they need, at the right time. It means showing the right thing just in time, rather than just in case.

Going digital means you do exactly what you’re doing now, but finding ways to use existing tools to amplify your reach, to save you time, to improve your productivity, to boost your sales, to help you sleep longer hours, to give you more time for your family at home.

For example – I wrote the first half of this piece on my tablet, then switched to my phone as I was on the subway, then finished the first draft on my laptop. I sent a PDF via Wechat to Nick, who looked at it on his Wechat app for Mac, who then used annotations to bounce it back to me via Email, so I can finish it and have it ready to be printed in this beautiful glossy paper.

That makes me a digital writer, I guess.

So perhaps, you, dear Shanghai reader, are also a digital person. You have gone digital already, and it’s now time to organize those apps and services into neat folders, labeled emails, and recurrently-paid subscriptions to platforms that will multiply your growth, and give you heaps of time to continue growing as a non-digital human, doing things like talking to people, and not looking at your phone.

A rain of little tips to finish

Your wi-fi password shouldn’t be something like “iloveburger” or “ilovebeer”. It’s outdated. It’s not fun. Use things like “ofcourseimhungry” or “whatsyournextbeer” so when people share the password among themselves, they’re also triggering potential purchases.

Create wallpapers for your business and share them through Wechat. You’d be surprised how much reach you can have with something apparently meaningless as a mobile wallpaper. I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of devices in the last years by doing this.

Create consistent branding on social media. Use the same identifier on Wechat, Weibo, Instagram, Twitter, FB, etc. Make your brand easy to find. People call it SEO, but I call it ‘make it findable by its name’. No tricks here, just basic naming conventions and descriptors.

Partner with good talents on Instagram. You don’t need a KOL, you need someone with a good reputation and a sizable follower base (1000–1500). They can bring a massive audience to your business. Reward brand advocates in your own ways.

Good luck! Welcome to the digital world!

Brb, I gotta go see Nick’s boss now. We’re going digital.


Originally written for the printed version of Status Magazine, Summer 2016. This is an unedited version.


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Case studies, advice and knowledge from the creative/digital/advertising agency world. Providing a platform to spread the best ideas in an industry that thrives on constant innovation. If you think you can inspire or share value, email us. We may add more great writers soon.

Momo Estrella

Written by

Design Lead at @IDEO. Curious about the relationship between people and things.

The Agency

Case studies, advice and knowledge from the creative/digital/advertising agency world. Providing a platform to spread the best ideas in an industry that thrives on constant innovation. If you think you can inspire or share value, email us. We may add more great writers soon.

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