Using Social Media in China: Accessing the World’s Biggest Market

When Paul Salo first arrived in Asia — hauling a backpack on board the Trans-Siberian Railway — Ronald Reagan was in power, people in China still wore Mao suits, and social media didn’t exist.

That was back in 1989. Salo stayed there and his 24 years as an entrepreneur in Asia — the last 14 of which were spent in China — has given him a wealth of experience in an area that is largely a mystery to most Westerners. In town for Social Media Camp, Salo presented a session called Double Your Reach With Chinese Social Media. Guess what? China is online in a big way — a really big way.

“China has such a huge population and I think it is very difficult for people here to understand what that means,” Salo says. “You open the tap and the water just goes in.”

Something else to know: China is keen to try new things.

“The country was closed for a long time and they want to try new foods. They are hungry for information, they want to learn, they are not closed-minded, and they have no background. For example, electric bikes and cars are popular. Why? They never had a gas car — they don’t know about the power. It is very easy to penetrate the market with things that are tough for us to accept — they just pick up on it.”

So how do you access that market? Social media is a good start, but first you have to choose your platforms. “There are too many to tell you,” Salo says. But he did narrow it to a few that have good potential for businesses here.

  • — Sina Weibo is the place to go for brand marketing. It is public — anyone can be on it — and something like Facebook and Twitter combined.
  • — A platform for communication of all kinds — chat, group chat, messages, text, voice, video, photos — and private, in that you have to connect with someone. More than 300 million people are on it. TIP: When you meet Chinese people, get them all on WeChat right away. It’s not like here where you have to be friends first. Besides, you will never get them on the phone. “Phones are useless,” says Salo, explaining that the average businessperson carries six cell phones and they won’t answer because they don’t trust you. “If you want to show them who you are, add them to WeChat.”
  • — If you have something to sell, set up on this (there are “field guides” in English).
  • — If you are sourcing products, this is the place to go and they have “alipay.” According to the Economist Online (March 23, 2013), Alibaba’s profits were more than EBay and Amazon combined. Clearly, the Chinese have no qualms about shopping online.

Getting Comfortable

Start by spending some time — a couple months at least — watching and listening to get a feel for the environment. Then post something personal — photos of places or food you like — and let people get to know you, says Salo. “You can’t sell hard to the Chinese.”

If you are worried about language, don’t be: post in English — that’s what Salo does, even though he is fluent in Mandarin. To demonstrate his point, he shows an HSBC ad that says: “There are five times more people learning English in China than there are people in England.”

Another advantage of posting in English is that it keeps the replies down to a more manageable number.

“Don’t worry if the people replying are only those who can speak English — there are plenty of people — and probably, the ones who can speak English are the ones who are most interested in what you have to offer.”

And don’t worry about replying right away — it’s not like here. There are lots of people online and if it takes a week to reply, that’s okay, says Salo.

Global Competition

Something that many businesses may not realize is that they are competing with countries like Cypress, Malaysia, Germany, Australia — these countries are targeting the same people. “People here might think they will pick here because this is better, but you have to remember that the goal of the buyers is different,” says Salo. “It’s global competition with everyone who is getting paid by wealthy Chinese no matter what they are buying.”

And Chinese wealth is growing rapidly. Salo says there are now more than a million millionaires in China. “And that could easily be double because there is a lot of grey income in China. “

Even more surprising — the average age of a millionaire in China is 38.

In general, life is getting better and better in China, and a lot of that is due to social media.

“[Social media] is a huge equalizer — it has had a huge affect on society,” says Salo. “In India, for example, social media is busting apart the caste system.”

Currently, Salo is working on his newest project: a series of educational e-learning courses featuring entrepreneurs like himself — people who have found ways to make a living abroad successfully. He is featured is the first of the series.

“It’s everything I have learned and all my friends have learned about Chinese real estate investors.” See and