President of Brandigo China, a Shanghai-based full-service marketing communications agency.
B2B marketing in China — like all marketing in China — has its own quirks, pitfalls, advantages and opportunities. We’ve found that keeping up with the changing channels and platforms is one of the biggest challenges for marketers, as marketing tactics in China evolve quickly and Western approaches may fall flat.
In the post-Covid period in China, finding the right balance of tactics that incorporate online and offline target audience behaviors is just as important as finding the balance between global and local Chinese marketing tactics.
Platforms You Should Know
There are many social media and short-video platforms in China, but they are generally geared toward consumers. For B2B marketers, here are some key places to start:
• Chinese-language website: If you don’t have a localized version of your website (Simplified Chinese for the mainland), you’re barely in the game. Ensure it is mobile optimized and either hosted in China or someplace close by to get over the Great Firewall. If you plan on advertising or hosting the website in China, you’ll also need to apply for an ICP license — a permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
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• Official WeChat account: Most B2B companies have an official account on WeChat, where they can host a mini-version of their website and communicate with their followers through weekly posts. Generally, companies post a few articles every week together in one push.
• WeCom (WeChat enterprise): WeChat has a relatively new corporate version of WeChat that can be integrated with your HR systems and used for internal and client/customer communications, moving the conversations from private channels and providing corporations with more oversight.
• Baidu: This is China’s version of Google. You can run Chinese-language keyword advertisements here once you have applied and set up an account.
• Forums and Wiki sites: Posts and articles on user-generated forums, such as Zhihu, will help your SEO and brand awareness.
• 1688: This is Alibaba’s B2B trading platform for mainland China and is applicable if you are selling online.
Things to Avoid
• Avoid anything connected to Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and also website hosting platforms that may be blocked. That Google Map on your contact page or even the fonts connected through the Google API? These will slow down or completely block your page from loading.
• LinkedIn is a mixed bag. We’ve worked with several companies to try and reach users on LinkedIn. The ads and platform-sponsored email click-through rates aimed at non-Chinese professionals working in China averaged around a 3%-5% click-through rate — a fair result. But the same campaign localized and aimed at Chinese users barely moved the needle. So, I think it’s safe to say that Chinese professionals who work for multinationals will probably have an account, but it’s likely they won’t use it to keep up with posts and industry trends — just for job searching. This makes ABM (account-based marketing) a challenge.
• Data in China is highly regulated, like GDPR in Europe. Don’t expect to purchase any marketing lists. Also, data collected in China is to be strictly controlled by corporations.
• Direct translation is rarely going to turn out well. At worst, you may offend someone. At best, it will sound like you barely have a grasp of China and will not be able to handle local client servicing. And yes, in most cases, everything must be in Chinese.
Keys to Success
Analyze where you are in your China marketing journey and set your tactics appropriately. If you don’t have localized marketing materials, such as a website and other material, then you’re not ready for a large-scale lead generation or brand awareness campaign.
Also, Chinese user behavior may not be what you expect. When we managed an insight research project for a client targeting HR managers, we were surprised to find that they did not read “HR Weekly” but actually preferred to watch online drama series during lunch and received most of their information through informal WeChat groups. How does that affect your campaign? Print trade magazines have slowly disappeared or are evolving into WeChat channels. Insight research — even a few interviews — will help you identify key touchpoints and pain points.
Finding the right balance between global marketing and local team demands is critical. A sales team can easily push the boundaries of what is acceptable by global standards, claiming that this is the right way for China. On the other hand, the global team can be too restrictive, resulting in a lackluster effort.
One effective global website, for example, uses images of the company’s local Chinese team on its front page, and the WeChat QR code is right at the top of the website — easy for Chinese users to scan and follow but without breaking the global visual standards.
From our experience with dozens of B2B companies, along with hundreds of interviews and focus groups, we see that Chinese B2B users visit the web on their mobile device as well as desktop. But, according to our research, mobile is most likely the preferred device for over 70% of B2B employees looking for partners and suppliers. Purchasing and supplier accreditation will most likely take place on a desktop. Make sure that your site is optimized and fast.
Incorporating your global CRM or other systems is all possible in the China marketing workflow, but don’t expect it to be easy or cheap. Some basic behaviors of Chinese users, such as a preference for WeChat over email marketing, make some Western workflows superfluous.
Hot B2B marketing topics and techniques, such as ABM (account-based marketing), automation, video, AI and virtual events are all part of the mix, but again, the trick is to figure out how to adjust the channels and tactics for China and to make sure you have the basics nailed.