Blog post #76: The dizzying pace of innovation in China

Thursday 22 September, 2016
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Over the past two weeks we’ve covered Social Media Week London, where big trends included the maturing of social media, mobile-first creative, smart use of data, automation, and the importance of storytelling. This week, we widen our focus on digital and social, with a look at the incredible pace of change in China.

What do these three companies have in common: Huawei, ZTE and Oppo?

(Huawei is the telecoms giant known by soccer fans through its sponsorship of Arsenal football club); while ZTE and Oppo both made a splash at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona).

Yes, they are all Chinese, of course, but more than that: they all have ties with Shenzhen, a southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong.

Shenzhen (which Wired called “The Silicon Valley of Hardware”) has evolved from being a city with a copycat technological culture to becoming the crucible of technological innovation inChina.

The city is a microcosm of China, leapfrogging through phases of innovation, from mass producing fakes and cheap plastic toys, to creating MP3 players and smartphones, to being the home of Huawei, DJI drones, and the mother of all messaging apps with no equivalent in Europe: WeChat.

WeChat has gone from being a simple messaging app to an entire ecosystem since its launch in 2011. In fact, someone could easily survive a day anywhere in China without his or her wallet because of the functions available on WeChat. Need to make a video call, get a cab, pay a restaurant or send a friend some money by packaging it the traditional Chinese way? No problem: all can be done through WeChat.

Brands operating in China have dived into WeChat because its multitude of functions and level of stickiness make marketers rub their hands with glee. According to China Daily’s 2015 national reading survey, people spend an average of 40 minutes reading WeChat content every day.

Moreover, in this mobile first market, the platform is an effective way of building a personal relationship with customers that goes beyond pushing product information through text or video content. For example, if a luxury brand wants to share a launch with its WeChat followers, it can provide 360-degree views of the show and the means to buy the product immediately.

Followers are engaged in an interactive environment that drives in-app purchases. This is an important extension because the Chinese love to buy things with their mobile phone: eMarketer estimates that mobile devices only accounted for 22% of all retail e-commerce sales in the US in 2015, compared to 49.7% in China.

Content can be tracked to gauge the level of popularity and effectiveness in driving real-time conversion to in-app sales. At Weber Shandwick China, we call this social customer relationship management. This is about moving from community management, to content and now commerce.

The dynamism of China’s social media landscape means there are other platforms for brands to reach a wide audience. This includes China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, which was launched in 2009.

On this channel it is influencers who rule the roost.

Our influencer tool, KLOUD, enables us to match around 20,000 online influencers – from celebrities to bloggers to industry experts – with clients, based on their scores on social impact, credibility, image and controversy.

There’s now a cottage industry of people who make money from broadcasting their lives on live streaming apps (the equivalents of Periscope). Recently, I was delivering a lecture at a New York university when a Chinese student said she paid to watch someone in her hometown eating noodles. The Americans in the crowd were gobsmacked.

The pace at which China’s social media scene has transformed since the birth of WeChat and Weibo has been astounding.

It demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit and relentless innovation of young Chinese, the tech-savvy abilities of China’s growing middle class, and their unmatched enthusiasm in embracing the universe of technological exploration.

With every radical innovation that Shenzhen – and the rest of the world’s second largest economy – pumps out, this generation seizes it and takes its potential and possibilities to the next level.

They are on an adventure that keeps business creative, fresh and, above all, exciting.

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