By Benjamin J. Hayford
Social media transformed the ways in which people connect with others, evaluate information, follow news and trends, and even how they shape government policy, but companies have yet to embrace social media advocacy in the ever-important China market.
More than 688 million people, more than half the Chinese population, are internet users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. The nationwide rise of internet use presents significant economic opportunity in China, but strict regulations, vigilant censorship, and heavy penalties for illegal activities complicate these opportunities.
Advertisements and posts deemed offensive or contrary to government viewpoints are blocked by censors. The government can block the accounts of repeat offenders and criminally charge them, which have costly business implications. Companies face the challenge of navigating China’s internet restrictions while advancing brand recognition, attracting consumers, and increasing market share.
The luxury goods market in China provides an example of effective social media advocacy to attract consumers. In recent years, slowed economic growth and President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign cause a slowdown in the luxury goods market in China. In January 2016, Bain & Company’s China Luxury Market Study suggested: “Luxury brands seeking to overcome the economic slump and reinvigorate consumer spending domestically must employ a more tailored, localized marketing strategy… Brands should strengthen both digital platform building and digital content creation, with an emphasis on localization to reflect local market preferences.”
The digital advocacy future
The Chinese government controls the domestic media and heavily regulates internet traffic. Competing narratives vie for public attention and top policymakers monitor, react to, and attempt to shape public perception online. Despite these complications, companies continue to eye China’s 688 million internet users, each of whom is a consumer and a constituent.
The Chinese government’s Internet+ strategy seeks to promote innovation and upgrade China to a powerful industrial country. The government committed to investing $182 billion in fiber optic broadband and high-speed 4G mobile networks by the end of 2017.
At the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos, Premier Li Keqiang described Internet+ as a way to develop a sharing economy that crosses socioeconomic borders. While internet controls and regulation remain strict, Internet+ is an incredible opportunity for companies to advance brand recognition, attract consumers, and increase market share through social media advocacy.
Leveraging social media
Companies who want a robust social media presence should must realize that Weibo is not Twitter, Renren is not Facebook, Baidu is not Google, and Xing is not LinkedIn. Twitter and Facebook posts, as well as Google and LinkedIn searches, although monitored, are not censored like Weibo and Renren posts or Baidu and Xing searches.
Leveraging social media in the United States requires strategic messaging. In China, that messaging must also meet government approval. In April 2016, the US Trade Representative included internet regulation as a barrier to trade, noting, “Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year, with 8 of the top 25 most trafficked global sites now blocked in China. Much of the blocking appears arbitrary; for example, a major home improvement site in the United States, which would appear wholly innocuous, is typical of sites likely swept up by the Great Firewall.”
Just last month, Xu Lin took over leadership of China’s Cyberspace Administration from outgoing Lu Wei, who was a highly visible defender of China’s internet sovereignty. While Xu’s inclination to tighten or loosen internet restrictions is unclear, the leadership change should encourage, not deter, companies to be better social media advocates.
Developing relationships with Chinese policymakers at all levels, including Cyberspace Administration of China leaders, knowing policies, and conducting smart campaigns is crucial to avoid post censorship or total web content block. Finding common ground with censors will open doors, while defiance and pushing the envelope in terms of messaging and content will slam doors shut.
About the Author
Benjamin J. Hayford is a Senior Business Analyst, Global Finance IT for Flowserve Corp. Flowserve Corp is an American multinational corporation with a global team of more than 18,000 employees in 55 countries. It is one of the largest suppliers of industrial and environmental machinery and services power, oil, gas, chemical, and other industries. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Flowserve.