As China's economy continues to grow, albeit in fits and spurts, companies there are engaging in increasingly intense battles for the consumer. There's a new battleground, though: With around 300 million Chinese using social media platforms — more than those in any other country — websites like QZone and Sina Weibo have now become critical to the marketing mix.
China has the world's most active social media users, according to a survey we recently conducted, with 91% of respondents saying they had visited a social media site in the previous six months compared with 67% in the US and 30% in Japan. Most marketers are therefore trying to engage with the increasingly affluent social media user.
What sets China apart is that social media has a greater influence on purchase decisions than it does elsewhere. Chinese consumers consistently say that they are more likely to consider products or services if they see them mentioned on a social media site, and that they're more likely to purchase those that their friends recommend.
The Chinese prefer peer-to-peer recommendations because they don't trust formal institutions, as we have pointed out. They are very skeptical about news and advertising; instead, they rely on word-of-mouth from friends, family, and opinion leaders, many of whom share their opinions through social media platforms.
The Chinese aren't all alike, of course. People have different motives as well as distinct usage patterns. Our survey identified, broadly, six types of users:
The Social Enthusiasts — 15% of the sample — are a brand's best friend. They spend more time on social media websites than any other segment — 69 minutes compared to the national average of 46 minutes a day — and use these platforms to build their social circles. More than two-thirds of this segment will post updates on their lives every day while only 41% of all users do so. They care about numbers: 76% agree that having a large circle of friends is important.
The Enthusiasts use social media to tell friends about recent purchases and to share personal reviews. They're happy to see ads on social media sites, and are open to downloading brand-sponsored apps. This group is most prone to use social media to learn about products and services that they want to purchase: 46% of the respondents in this segment believe that's an important aspect of using social media as against the national average of 30%.
The Resenders, 14% of the population, are brand friendly, but see social media mainly as a way of promoting themselves. Almost a third of them indicate that "driving traffic to my blog and generating followers" is important to them compared with the overall average of 18%. They manage that by building on others' activity; commenting on blogs, writing on walls, and re-posting videos, for instance.
More than 40% of The Resenders say they make Groupon-type purchases, and 69% spend money on things they see on social networking sites every month — a level that exceeds even that of the Enthusiasts.
The Readers, 14% of the sample, spend significant time on social media (55 minutes a day), but as the name suggests, they devote much of that to reading. They follow a number of micro-blogs, but just 13% say they comment on blog posts and only 7% admit to writing on someone else's wall.
The Readers appear to be neutral about brand advertising, but bloggers talking about products can influence them. Don't forget, these users may not create new information, but they are meticulous about gathering data to make purchase decisions.
The Opinionated could become a brand's worst enemy if they aren't managed. Constituting 14% of the respondents, they spend 60 minutes, on average, at social media sites every day, more of it uploading content than reading it. Over 60% of this segment views these platforms as important places for expressing their opinions but only 26% of the population shares that perception.
This kind of user doesn't like ads and will be quick to speak out if they have a bad experience with a brand. For instance, a multinational appliance-maker in China recently faced a major problem when a few vocal consumers, saddled with a defective product, uploaded several videos and posted thousands of messages about their experiences.
The two other segments we identified are users who gain access to social media sites through their use of Tencent's QQ instant messaging service (The QQ Spillovers) and The Inactives, who don't participate in conversations in a meaningful way. These consumers constitute 42% of China's social media users, but they are less relevant to companies.
If marketers are to succeed in China, they need to understand better the four main types of social media users, monitor what they're saying about their brands, and build teams that know how to construct and deliver messages to each of them.