The rise of digital media will require traditional media platforms to restrategize and will open new opportunities for advertisers.

China presents one of the most exciting and challenging media markets in the world. Because of the country’s size, complexity, and diversity, savvy marketers see China not as a single market, but as a collection of evolving, complex, and fragmented markets. Though new media has not yet replaced traditional media, traditional media’s dominance is beginning to erode. Advertisers face a vast array of platform options, especially in digital media, events, sponsorship, and other forms of branded content. Each of these platforms offers new ways to reach and engage with consumers.

China’s media market is about to begin an era of hyper fragmentation, offering media agencies and advertisers numerous choices when formulating media plans. This may surprise foreign advertisers that are accustomed to having fewer choices in China. The key challenge for advertisers in China is how to manage and evaluate these choices while raising media effectiveness and generating higher returns.

Generally, China’s advertising market performed well in 2009, increasing by 9.8 percent year on year. In 2010, the Chinese media market benefited from the Shanghai World Expo and the Asian Games in Guangzhou, Guangdong, as well as from accelerating economic growth. China’s advertising expenditures likely grew by 12.8 percent in 2010, according to GroupM China’s estimates. For many advertisers, China remains a key market with a promising future.

Media market influences

Four main elements influenced the development of the Chinese media market in 2010 and will continue to do so in 2011.

Rising incomes

Though China’s final 2010 statistics have not yet been released, per capita disposable income in urban areas rose 173 percent between 2000 and 2009, from ¥6,280 ($945) to ¥17,175 ($2,584). Retail sales volume nearly tripled during this period. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased 9.1 percent in 2009, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that China will help lead the global economic recovery, expanding by 10.5 percent in 2010 and 9.6 percent in 2011. The continuing consumer spending boom will underpin China’s advertising investment growth in various media platforms.

Retail distribution

The rising number of stores and other retail distribution points is taking brands to more lower-tier cities. Advertisers must invest to reach and appeal to new consumers in second- and third-tier cities, which are set to expand faster than more developed cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai (see the CBR, November-December 2010, Reaching China’s Next 600 Cities).

Media inflation

Rising communications costs will force advertising budgets to increase. Television will remain an ad seller’s medium, where big channels such as China Central Television (CCTV), Beijing TV, and Shanghai Media Group wield tremendous power and influence. This power is not merely commercial: For example, CCTV remains the central government’s main media voice and serves social, political, and cultural functions. Demand for airtime far exceeds supply on big TV channels, which apply stringent airtime restrictions. Local vendors are thus able to set rate cards (lists of full-price rates released by the media owner) accordingly and maintain revenue growth. Advertisers should understand that strategic marketing considerations are often a lower priority for these TV stations. The dominance of TV stations ensures that China’s media market will continue to face price inflation in the foreseeable future, and advertisers should maintain a positive relationship with big TV channels to obtain the best rates.

Government policy

The PRC government in 2009 introduced the tri-play policy (integrating broadcast TV, Internet, and telecom) and a new broadcast advertising rule. The tri-play policy aims to promote digital media development; the broadcast rule restricts the amount of advertising airtime allowed on state-run TV stations. Today, media owners of different platforms should cooperate and take full advantage of the complex and rich media environment developing in China.


TV dominated media investment in 2009 with a 63 percent share of China’s total advertising expenditure, and TV continues to set the direction of the advertising market. Toiletries, food, and pharmaceuticals were the top advertising categories, together accounting for roughly 40 percent of all TV advertising investment.

TV coverage in China reached 97 percent in 2009. As a result, TV still receives the largest audiences and will maintain its advantage as the primary medium in the short term. TV advertising in China likely increased by 9 percent in 2010 and will increase by nearly 10 percent in 2011, according to GroupM predictions. Four trends will influence traditional TV’s future development.

Longer TV viewing times in rural areas

Longer TV viewing times in rural markets will be a key driving force in the development of the TV industry, especially when combined with advertisers’ continued expansion into second- and third-tier cities. In 2009, the average TV viewing time per capita increased 10 minutes per day in rural markets, but the average decreased 1 minute per day in urban markets.

China’s multi-tiered TV market is more complicated than Western markets. CCTV, China’s top broadcaster, has 18 channels alone. In addition, China has more than 270 provincial and 728 local- or city-level TV stations. Most stations allow advertisers to use TV to match their distribution footprint and presence, either locally or nationally. As companies extend distribution networks into smaller towns, they will also need to increase their TV advertising investment. National and provincial TV stations in particular will benefit from these increased TV advertising budgets.

Adoption of new media

Traditional TV faces fierce competition as new media compete for a greater share of viewing time. The competition is particularly acute among young and high-income audiences in upper-tier cities. In 2009, the average time young Chinese (age 15-34) spent watching TV decreased, while people age 45 and older spent five more minutes watching TV each day compared to 2008. Traditional media companies are adapting to this shift by integrating new and traditional platforms. National TV stations have built their own websites—such as China Network Television, Hunan Jinying, and Anhui web station—to increase viewership.

Stricter advertising regulations

In September 2009, the PRC State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) issued new rules for radio and TV advertising. The rules restrict the amount of advertising space in some timeslots and prohibit certain advertising content. SARFT in the same month also released regulations that restrict broadcast platforms and times for TV shopping advertising and home shopping programs.

In April 2010, Shanghai Oriental Media Group established the Shanghai Oriental Shopping channel, the first dedicated 24-hour analogue channel for TV shopping. Shanghai Oriental owns the first TV shopping license in China, which will improve Chinese consumers’ access to the TV shopping market. This move indicates the PRC government’s intent to standardize the TV shopping market.

Rising rates

China’s national channels’ rate card inflation averaged about 11.5 percent in 2010—ranging from 17.0 percent in northern China to 10.7 percent and 13.6 percent in the central and southern regions, respectively. Overall TV rate card inflation likely reached 13.4 percent in 2010.


China’s Internet population (netizens) reached 420 million by June 2010, up 22 percent year on year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Roughly 98 percent (364 million) of netizens accessed the Internet via broadband. The number of rural Internet users reached 115 million by June 2010, 27 percent of China’s total netizen population. Growth of rural Internet users in China slowed from 2008 to 2009, however.

The overall rapid increase in the number of Internet users is underpinned by rising disposable incomes, beneficial trade-in policies for electronic appliances, and information technology (IT) infrastructure development. The launch of the third-generation network in China has allowed more people to access the Internet using mobile phones. By June 2010, 66 percent of Chinese netizens had accessed the Internet using mobile devices. The rise of mobile Internet users will present more opportunities for advertisers in the mobile market.

In 2009, China’s Internet advertising revenue reached ¥20.7 billion ($3.1 billion), according to iResearch Consulting Group. Network services and applications, autos, and IT products are the top online advertising categories, together accounting for nearly 50 percent of the Internet advertising market. China’s search engine advertising revenue reached nearly ¥7 billion ($1 billion) in 2009, a 38 percent year-on-year increase and a strong reflection of the medium’s ability to provide cost-efficient and targeted communication. Online display advertising, classified advertising, online videos, and social networking websites also fuelled the development of Internet advertising; advertising revenue in each of these categories rose sharply in 2009.


China’s e-commerce market was the best performing online sector in 2009, with usage rising 68 percent year on year. Of all e-commerce applications (including online shopping, online payment, and online travel booking), online payment experienced the fastest growth, with usage up 81 percent over 2008—boosted by the rising population of online shoppers.

The number of online shoppers in China reached 142 million by June 2010, accounting for nearly 34 percent of netizens. According to iResearch, advertising revenue of China’s online shopping websites more than doubled from 2008 to 2009 to reach ¥263 billion ($39.4 billion).

Blogs and social networks

About 58 percent (221 million) of China’s Internet users blogged in 2009, according to CNNIC. Of these, the number of active bloggers (those who updated their blogs within the last six months) rose by 38 percent year on year to 145 million. The key drivers of this increase were higher Internet penetration rates and the popularity of micro-blogs, which allow users to send updates in small fragments. Micro-blogs are more popular in China because they integrate the features of traditional blogs, instant messaging, and mobile communication across platforms. Increased interactivity and ease of use have resulted in more regular updating of micro-blogs than traditional blogs in general. The growing popularity of micro-blogs in China requires advertisers and agencies to re-examine their marketing and communications strategy. Advertisers should create company micro-blogs to promote new products, deliver brand messages, and build and maintain relationships with consumers.

With Internet penetration growth and the adoption of more online applications, netizens are extending their real-life relationships to online society (see Social Media in China: The Same, but Different). As a result, many social networking websites are emerging. Nearly 50 percent (210 million) of China’s Internet users had visited social networking websites by June 2010. Advertisers should consider social networking websites along with traditional online display ads, especially when communicating with a young target audience. Advertising on these websites will likely expand significantly in the next couple of years and will require a more interactive and engaging communications strategy.

Online gaming

Online gaming is the only form of online entertainment with increasing usage in China—with 296 million online gamers by June 2010, up nearly 12 percent from the end of 2009. Though advertising in online games is still in its infancy, more advertisers have demonstrated a willingness to invest in this area given that the platform offers the opportunity to enhance brand engagement and association. For example, the Coca-Cola Co. and Nike, Inc. have each struck deals with online gaming companies in China to expand their presence in the China market. Companies that advertise in online games must be aware that the industry still lacks tight control over content and the ability to monitor data, however.

Future projections

With accelerating economic growth, big events such as the 2010 Shanghai Expo and World Cup in South Africa, and the skyrocketing popularity of online videos and social networking websites, GroupM predicts that China’s annual Internet advertising revenue may rise by 30 percent in 2011. The Internet will attract more advertisers and gain a larger share of advertising spending in the near future as Internet coverage expands, content improves, and advertisers understand how to better leverage the data garnered from online campaigns. The Internet will dominate advertisers’ marketing strategy, if not spending, in 2011 and 2012. The biggest growth areas will likely be display advertising, sponsorship, joint promotion, and original content.


In 2009, the main sources of newspaper advertising revenue were business and services, real estate and construction, and autos—which together accounted for about 50 percent of China’s newspaper advertising revenue. Driven by the Shanghai Expo, domestic services and tourism may lead the rise in newspaper advertising expenditures. Newspaper advertising revenue likely rose by 13 percent in 2010 and may increase by 5 percent in 2011, according to GroupM predictions.

Despite rising advertising revenue, the newspaper sector faces significant external and internal challenges. Internally, unfair price competition, discounting, and conflict among newspaper groups have hindered the sector’s development. The external challenge comes from the emergence of new digital media. China’s first digital newspaper, Zhejiang Daily, launched in February 2006, and 33 newspaper groups, more than 300 newspaper offices, and more than 500 newspaper issues had gone digital by the end of 2008. As the pace of life in urban areas increases, citizens lack the time or patience to sit and read a full newspaper article, preferring instead to access the latest news and entertainment information via the Internet or mobile phone. By June 2010, 230 million active users read the news on mobile phones. If traditional newspapers embrace digital technology, such as by launching mobile newspapers, they will find more market opportunities than challenges in the growing popularity of digital media. This will also increase the investment return and attractiveness of newspaper advertising.


China has more than 9,500 magazines, but they account for only 2.3 percent of national advertising investment. Toiletries, autos, and personal items accounted for more than half of China’s total magazine advertising revenue in 2009. Magazine advertising revenue rose 12.8 percent year on year in 2009. GroupM projects that such revenue rose 18 percent in 2010 and will increase 5 percent in 2011.

The key factor behind this growth is the rising affluence of Chinese consumers. Wealthy consumers have more lifestyle and leisure choices. Magazines that appeal to wealthy consumers have a small but loyal readership and offer value to brand-building advertisers. For example, Bazaar Men, HisLife, Leon Mr. Modern, and L’Officiel Hommes have all launched in China in the past two years as publishers identified an opportunity for male fashion magazines in the China market. China surpassed the United States as the second-largest global luxury market in 2009, and its magazine advertising industry’s future is bright.

As with other traditional media, however, magazines face a threat from digital media. The release of, Inc.’s Kindle in 2007 heralded the coming of the tablet era. Other companies such as Axus Technology, LLC; BenQ Corp.; Fujitsu Ltd.; Google Inc.; Hanvon Technology, Inc.; and Sony Corp. have also entered this market. In 2009, Chinese consumers purchased 693,000 electronic readers, a surge of 121 percent from a year earlier. This boom continued in 2010 with more than 3 million sales of electronic readers.

Out of home

Though the performance of China’s out-of-home (OOH) market—which advertises to consumers in public places such as on billboards or in transit systems—remained flat from 2008 to 2009, the outlook for OOH advertising remains positive. GroupM projects that OOH advertising expenditure rose roughly 16 percent in 2010, mainly from advances in OOH digital advertising.

Three key factors influenced the development of the OOH market in 2010:

  • The PRC government took great efforts to regulate the OOH market before and during the Shanghai Expo and Asian Games Guangzhou, in particular by removing certain traditional OOH billboards. This left more space for digital OOH media such as mega light-emitting diode billboards.
  • To host these major events, the PRC government increased investment in city transportation, which advanced the development of liquid crystal displays in buses, metro cars, and taxis.
  • Three-dimensional movies attracted a larger cinema audience, and cinema advertising revenue rose accordingly.

In the longer term, because of OOH supply restrictions in certain cities and government limitations on OOH advertising formats for major events, there may be fewer opportunities for traditional OOH advertising formats such as billboards. OOH will survive in the cities only if it can become a part of city life and integrate with city planning and infrastructure.


Business and services, autos, finance, and post and communication are some of the largest categories in radio advertising. The fastest-growing categories, however, are cleaning products, clothing, and home electronics. In particular, the cleaning product sector increased its annual radio advertising spending by 208 percent in 2009.

Consumers in shopping malls, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants present big opportunities for radio advertising. Some radio stations have already started business trials in these new environments. For example, Central People’s Radio Voice of the City broadcasts programs in Beijing’s shopping malls and parks on national holidays.

With the introduction of a better system for monitoring radio advertising in 2009, advertisers are now more confident about investing in radio. Radio advertising revenue likely increased by 22 percent in 2010 and may increase by another 10 percent in 2011. In the long term, radio also must integrate with new media. For example, Beijing Radio’s Listening Pub is one of the most popular online radio programs in Beijing. In the future, radio can use mobile Internet technology to allow for online listening. Radio will no longer be a backup in advertisers’ future media planning if it is well equipped with more premium content, especially on digital audio platforms.

Advertisers have more options—and more challenges—ahead

Though TV remains the dominant advertising medium in the short term, the future of new media looks bright. In China’s fast-changing and complex advertising market, options will multiply, especially in digital media, events, sponsorship, and other branded content. Each platform offers new ways to reach and engage with consumers. Moreover, companies must develop interactive and engaging communications strategies to reach and maintain consumers.

[author] Lucy Zhang ([email protected]) is futures director for GroupM China. She is based in Shanghai. [/author]

Posted by Lucy Zhang