A Snapshot of China's Digital Landscape

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Continuing with my recent Shanghai and Hangzhou trip, conversations with industry friends and general observations led to what I’d call an eye-opening experience. Here’s a snapshot of learnings captured.

When one speaks of China, it’s common to hear the phrase, “China is a monster in itself.” That translates to there’s a ton going on where we are right now, let’s not deal with China, especially with that notorious firewall. The truth is, the longer we put off looking deeper into China, the harder it’ll be to catch up later. Going to Shanghai and Hangzhou with an open mind left me in awe, knowing they are way ahead of everyone outside that country, in terms of technology and lifestyle. Well, for the most part. So here’s a couple things I’d noticed.

  1. The variety of apps

In China, without a VPN, almost all the usual apps you’re familiar with are rendered useless. However, if you’re Chinese literate, there’s an app for everyone and specific to every need. Even if you’re not, some of these apps recognize English search terms too. In case you’re curious, check out my survival cheatsheet.

  1. App stickiness

These apps were definitely developed to fully engage with the audience. I’ve personally experienced that with ease of use of the app. iQiyi is one of the cases in point, due to its seamless video streaming experience, probably rendering it as one of the best video players in the market. QQ Music and NetEase music services encompass everything a music fan could ask for. Lyrics, translations and romanized lyrics are all within reach within one app. From exclusives to music videos and live BJ sessions, relevant recommendations and an interactive community, the apps were designed to keep you glued for hours on your phone.

  1. The technology advancement

To further illustrate iQiyi’s player technology, take a look at the app walkthrough video where scrubbing the video could take place anywhere on the screen, readjustment of volume or brightness could be done on either ends of the screen. To minimize disruption in the user’s experience, iQiyi also allows sample viewing to exclusive or latest shows/movies, while prompting users to subscribe to the service. This applies to the market’s music apps too.

  1. The changing consumer landscape

In China, everyone on a subway commute is literally on their phones. According to We Are Social and Hootsuite’s “Digital 2019” report, the average daily time spent using the Internet in China is almost 6 hours and the average daily time spent on social media is close to 2 hours. When asked, Chinese consumers say they spend most of their time online sieving through heaps of information to find relevant, share-worthy ones.

Another interesting behavior is their willingness to pay for apps. Due to the nature of specific content exclusively available on certain platforms, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Chinese consumers pay for 3-4 app monthly subscriptions. These transactions all go through the mobile phone via WeChat Pay or Alipay. With mobile payments, the lifestyle of many Chinese have altered with less dependence on cash and credit cards.

According to the "2017 Mobile Payment Usage in China" report done by Tencent, RDCY and Ipsos, dining, retail, entertainment and traveling establishments have almost all adopted mobile payments as the standard. Cash is the next best alternative with 84% of survey respondents indicated “being calm” without cash on hand.

Restaurants today have also implemented viewing their menus and ordering via WeChat. One wonders how disruptive life in China would be without the mobile phone.

  1. Marketing digitally in China

Celebrities are always a huge crowd draw for marketing campaigns and content creation. Fandom brings together a community and in Chinese culture, community gives people an identity and sense of familiarity. Chinese marketers recognize this and celebrity and/or influencer endorsements for an array of products become an integral aspect in China’s marketing campaigns .

While it seems China is a fast moving to become a high tech country, there’s still a gap between Tier 1 cities (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai), New First Tier Cities (i.e. Chengdu, Hangzhou), Tier 2 cities (i.e Xiamen, Nanning) and Tier 3 cities (i.e. Zhenjiang, Yangzhou) on mobile penetration and how they consume media.

Due to the sheer size of China, one can only imagine the surmountable challenge to understand the entire market’s behavior. it’s no wonder all this development was done behind that firewall, with minimal interruption. And we thought we had it all figured out.

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