Marketing to the Mainland

19 August 2008

A smart way to approach the world’s largest Internet market, mainland China, is to realize that it is a totally distinct and separate beast from your mother’s Internet.

A network map showing the international Internet and the Chinese Internet would look like a Venn diagram with two circles that barely touch. In reality, only a handful of low-capacity data lines controlled by the state-owned telecoms connect the Chinese and the international Internets. This concept of multiple, distinct Internets flies in the face of the common perception of a single World Wide Web, and is a rare example of globalization being stopped cold in its tracks.

While these technical barriers present our industry with some of its greatest challenges, the cultural differences between the Chinese Internet and its international counterpart are just as significant.

For starters, the Chinese consume the Internet in different ways than Europeans and Americans. Internationally, the Internet originated as an information resource where people could get answers easier than driving down to the courthouse. This theme has perpetuated and Westerners’ use of the Internet remains squarely focused on information-related tasks.

A recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that only 35 percent of American adults play games online. By contrast, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the official source of information on the Chinese Internet, almost 60 percent of Chinese Internet users play casual games online. Additionally, Chinese Internet users are much younger than their Western counterparts with over half under the age of 25.

While the Chinese use the Internet for many of the same reasons as the rest of the world, the reality is that they use the Internet primarily as an entertainment medium. Low cost of Internet access, heavy youth Internet penetration and a lack of entertainment alternatives have overwhelmingly driven online content toward entertainment.

In the Western world, people chiefly use real-world situations to expand their networks and meet new people. While the Internet has started to change this a bit, Westerners still engage social network service, or SNS, providers by bringing their offline network of relationships online -- into the SNS -- rather than vice versa.

Within China, policy and customs have driven people to adopt the Internet as their primary social playground. The Chinese create online relationships much more often than Westerners; furthermore, they tend to bring these online relationships into the real world more frequently. These trends have spurred massive engagement in many social media channels.

QQ, China’s dominant Internet player in everything from casual games to SNS and instant messaging, has 150,000 more registered users than the estimated Internet population. The average Chinese Internet user has more than one QQ account. These extra accounts are usually alternative online personalities that people adopt depending on their moods.

Additionally, the Chinese have taken to online forums to voice their opinions on just about everything. In a country where it is not easy to get your message out, the Internet, particularly online bulletin board systems and blogs, have given people the opportunity to make themselves heard.

What does all of this mean for interactive marketers? The differences between the Chinese and Western Internets are significant. Marketers need bodies on the ground in mainland China that are on their team. While always challenging, none of China’s barriers to entry are insurmountable. Success does require a few essential ingredients, not least of which is solid understanding of how the Chinese consume interactive media.

Charles H. Gillespie is the chief executive officer of World Sports Network, the Shanghai-based interactive media company that manages, a China-facing sports destination. In 2005, Mr. Gillespie assembled top executives in Chinese interactive media and sports technology to found WSN. With over five years experience in I-gaming, Mr. Gillespie has strategically positioned WSN to take advantage of China’s large internet population and surging interest in all things related to sport.