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8 tips for (mobile) market research in China

on Monday August 6, 2012 @ 9:22

How do you market research the world most populous country? China has a population of over 1.3 billion, area of 9.6 billion square kilometers, and over 20 cities with 1+ million inhabitants.

Chinese boys using a mobile

China’s economy is far more diverse - therefore offering many more opportunities - than Russia and Brazil but the cultural and historic differences make entry to market all the more challenging. It’s a market where size, diversity of people, cultures and business environments makes market research, to identify tastes, opinions, and location, a must.

1. Make a small bet first

Before committing to to big budget spends invest into some upfront market research. Find out about competition and customer preferences - how does your product or service match up from cost and design perspective?

2. There’s no one China

Urban vs. rural, young vs old, regional differences - a country of 1.3 billion people simply cannot be entered using the same approach everywhere. Having a market strategy for China would be naive - of course an over arching brand strategy should be used at a global level but executing this will most likely need different actions and triggers across the market.

Adopt a focused strategy by picking a smaller territory, using research to establish if it’s a good match to your product or service and establish a foothold. Segment consumers to identify those of greatest value to the business. The key is understanding attitudes so you can provide functional and emotional hooks to pull people into your brand. And keep them there.

3. It’s a growth economy

China is way past the "emerging economy" state - it’s the world’s 2nd largest economy, the world’s largest exporter, and largest mobile phone market. While GPD per capita is on a similar level with Ecuador and Jamaica it’s the world’s fastest growing economy.

This is good news for companies looking to enter the Chinese market but also means that more thinking and research needs to go into understanding the opinions, tastes and habits of the consumers before committing to a launch campaign.

Macay New Year lights and shoppers

4. Underestimating the Chinese consumer

Don’t underestimate the behavior and shopping habits of Chinese consumers in fast moving consumer goods brands, especially in urban areas, and within supermarkets. The similarities according to Mark Uncles from Australian School of Business are remarkable.

"In some respects, the shopping habits of Chinese consumers look very familiar from a structural viewpoint," observes Uncles. But there are differences. "Middle-income consumers in China rely less on cars. They walk, cycle or take public transport when shopping for basic necessities," Uncles says. "That has implications in terms of how much is carried and, given these limitations, shoppers have to make more trips – so shopping frequency is higher."

5. 38% of mobile-only internet users

Broadband internet and personal computers are not as widely used as in Western countries, 38% of internet users access it through their mobile phone in China. This % is even higher in rural areas where 45% are mobile-only internet users. This makes mobile research (and later marketing, engaging via mobile web and apps) probably the best and most affordable ways of reaching out to a large portion of the population.

6. Chinese are very keen internet/mobile users

90% play games on their mobile, 40% of those daily, 89% browse social networking sites like Renren.com, Sina Weibo or Tencent, and 27% access internet via their mobile at least an hour a day.

We conducted an in-depth study of Chinese mobile-only generation that’s available for free in our blog.

This reinforces the previous point that mobile is often the key in reaching out to large groups of consumers both for understanding their behavior but also in engaging with them, doing marketing campaigns - if this consumer group is relevant to your product or service then make sure you have a strong local mobile strategy.

Chinese soldiers in the subway

7. No surveys on sensitive topics

Politics, religion and sex-related topics are considered sensitive by most Chinese and shouldn’t be brought up. Same rule applies broadly to any kind of marketing communications, especially TV ads, as the main channels are owned and operated by the government.

8. Be aware of national holidays

The most but usually overlooked advice when doing international research is forgetting to take into account the national holidays. For example, during Chinese New Year businesses close down for around a week and weeks leading up to that period are also semi-dead. People are less likely to respond to your market research efforts.

To complicate matters further then each region has its own holidays on top of the national ones. Wikipedia’s article on public holidays in China is a good resource to work through to find potential impact on your research projects.

Bonus point: Personalization key to entry

Chinese market and consumers are somewhat reserved towards foreign brands with most product categories being dominated by strong local brands. However, in a culture with strict rules and customs, people do like to be individuals so giving them access to personalized products or service can be a key.

Couple of years ago Adidas started offering buyers an option to customize the design of their shoes in some of the stores - this gave people an opportunity to express themselves, to be an individual, and turned out to be a very popular offering helping Adidas’ overall market growth.

Insight into sensitive topics in China

While writing this post I stumbled on many sites or stories worth mentioning as they give better insight into the daily realities of Chinese lives, media and what topics are considered sensitive by the officials in China.

Interview with Han Han (from September last year), one of the most popular and influential Chinese bloggers. Han Han discusses various topics around blogging about sensitive topics (the officials regularly take down his postings), the importance of social media etc.

Jeremy Goldkorn’s Danwei.com and his personal blog are both well worth keeping an eye on as both track changes in Chinese media and internet. Jeremy has been living in Beijing since 1995 so knows China as well as a foreigner can be expected to know it.

Life Behind the Great Firewall of China is a great list by Sascha Segan (although it’s a year old).

Timely example of Chinese official’s reactions to events they don’t want spread in the news: China Censors Aftermath of Deadly Beijing Storm. Putting the government in bad light is probably a no-no if you’re not well versed in everything local.

Photos: Tauno Tõhk

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