Digital ad spending in China keeps rising, despite a minor slowdown in the world’s second-largest ad market. In fact, 57% of advertising spending in China will be directed to the internet in 2017, according to GroupM’s “This Year, Next Year” report.
That’s up from 19.4% just five years ago and represents a remarkable portion of where brands are now dedicating their pitches. (See chart at end of article.)
To put the scale of digital prevalence in broader terms, the Chinese government’s Internet Network Information Centre’s “39th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China” (PDF) said that as rural connectivity hits near saturation rate, 95.1% of the country’s now 731 million Internet users went online via a mobile device in 2016.
So if you’re doing business in China without a strong digital marketing presence, then what exactly are you doing?
Complicating the path for brands hungry to convert their online advertising dollars into sales is the fact that Chinese consumers often don’t trust these ads, despite increased smartphone use. They continue to place greater faith in ads on TV.
Engaging consumers in the Middle Kingdom requires campaigns that reach across the media spectrum, says Zod Fang, head of GroupM Knowledge China.
“TV will remain the most influential single media type in China–45% of Chinese consumers find brands which are represented on more media channels more trustworthy,” Fang said. “Forty-eight percent found TV advertisements more impressive, while 43% said they would not fully trust a product that is only advertised online.”
Quality Is Essential
As foreign and domestic brands continue to flood the Chinese market, consumers have shown an increasing reluctance to engage with advertising.
“Consumers in China are selective with the tremendous amount of marketing messages bombarding them,” says Joseph Tsang, chief digital officer at Grey Group Greater China. “Only outstanding creativity with authentic consumer insights can therefore stand out.”
Tsang said he believes creative content should be targeted towards getting sales and not aimed at awards judges. “A good digital campaign should create organic buzz among authentic consumers in society and not just something spread among the advertising industry,” he said.
Another factor for marketers in China is getting enough eyes on your creative content to convert ad spend into sales. While SEO plays a powerful role in Google-dominant search markets, in China it’s still largely pay to play on Baidu.
“Baidu’s search results allow brands to ‘pay their way to the top,’ unlike Google, which blends paid results with organic listings,” explained Carter Chow, China CEO at J. Walter Thompson Worldwide.
“The kudos attached to a high organic search ranking on Google and the investment required in search engine optimisation to achieve it is not the most efficient way to gain traction on Baidu,” Chow said. “Rather, an integrated SEO/SEM strategy–one that combines search engine optimisation with paid-for presence–will ensure a brand can gain the recognition it requires.”
Tsang added that the ecosystem of China’s homegrown social media giants means companies such as Tencent and Weibo dominate the digital landscape in China.
“In Western markets, social media requires time investment, while in China social media requires a fortune in investment,” Tsang said.
And that cost is rising, Chow added: “As brands rush for attention on social media, the dominant form of digital communication in China, there is increasing audience exhaustion accompanied by rising media costs.”
Build Your Own Bridge To Consumers
Brands need to have a fair portion of their marketing mix with the big three–Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT)–but Chow suggested brands should include their own platforms in the marketing mix.
“There is a tendency to ‘rent’ audiences on established platforms. Companies feel like it’s exhausting to build their own platforms and drive people there,” Chow said. “This could be somewhat myopic short-term thinking because you don't own audiences when you do that. Instead, you need to make a more conscious effort to define your owned platform strategy so you can own your own data.”
Tsang said he sees various media blending together, thanks to the internet. “To date, the influence of single media has continuously been weakening. Hence, the chief marketing officer needs to focus on the coexistence of various media and their synergies,” he said.
2016 Net Advertising Expenditure By Category, Internet: