Wednesday, 23 April 2008

China 2.0

Here's what I would do if I was serious about marketing in China. China has the largest internet population in the world, and it's still growing. The shift from television screens to internet screens on computers or mobile phones is the largest media exodus ever. More people will engage with the internet on a mobile phone in China first than in any other country. The numbers go on for ever really. China is all about the numbers.

However Chinese internet isn't really Web 2.0 yet. The Western model of identity and profile through Facebook and Myspace et al simple doesn't work here, but use of BBS is unbelievably masssive. I wrote about it over on Kaiser Kuo's excellent digital China blog some weeks ago here. The most dangerous focus group topic I ever raised was identity versus anonymity here in Beijing with quite progressive University students. Even mentioning that 99.9% of China's internet voice is completely anonymous on Bulletin Boards (BBS) against the thought of 'appearing' on the net as themselves was enough to silence a room full of respondents with fear, as if I were interviewing them for Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti in Soviet Russia. I'm not exaggerating.

Whether its the State, or the group or the family there's something about being identified or attaching a face to content that terrifies Chinese folk. Face is a big deal in Asia. However the internet is a very valuable and highly appreciated part of middle class Chinese ability to express themselves and articulate their thoughts. Sure a lot of it is flame wars but I think we all know that flaming is part of growing up on the net. Its not hard to wind people up via the interweb is it? Once that realization is discovered, we tend to move on. Possibly to identity/reputation management which is definitely the new game in town now that Google is in charge.

So here's the thing. 70% of Chinese BBS is built on a platform called Discuz which is owned by Comsenz. They just had another million bucks thrown at them by those guys at Google. Now the killer thing about Discuz is that it is partially open source. Open source is almost an heretical idea in Asia. The notion of 'sharing' is antithetical to the Asian mindset. Secrets and information are valued beyond anything else to the point that sometimes it would appear that some would prefer suffocation than sharing their oxygen supply with other parties. I really mean that, it also explains a lot of the copy mentality that exists in this part of the world. That's the irony to the insane fixation on secrets and not sharing stuff; nobody does anything really new and so everyone is watching everyone else to see if an incremental change or new direction is taken. It also explains why only one or two Asian brands, including Japan have brands that stand out.

But with Discuz there is an opportunity to create a mini platform between profile driven social networks and BBS topic driven net activity. I would suggest writing some code for some widgets to sit on top of Discuz driven BBS and then we have a half way house to facilitate cross networking of BBS and profile/identity management that exist with traditonal social networking sites. I'd even go so far as to encourage all the flamers to pick up a new moniker and treat it like they're in front of their family at all times. Like it's their new 'face'. ....Start afresh like!

So the trick now is to figure out where brands should hang out on the net with their customers and their respective communities. Nobody actually has a full breakdown of this information although Sam from See I See/China Internet Word of Mouth knows more than most.

A proposal I made was to do a standard quantitative research project of the top 500 BBS communities on the Chinese net. If that seems like a lot then hold steady because China is massive and there's more. I think the top 500 BBS communites across the metrics of 'most affluent', 'most populous' and 'most influential' would make sense. Then I would segment all those groups across the usual community interests that advertisers are most interested in, moms and families, car lovers, tech lovers, political, travel and all the usual useful-in-a-rough and-ready-way segmentation seen on those standard tick boxes we are asked to fill in when we subscribe to internet services.

Once this 'new digital media planning data' is available I'd then put forward a China 2.0 media plan. Using the fundamentals of Transmedia Planning and some viral work that embraced volume seeding, Lo-Fidelity video and the upside of risk, as talked about back here in the post Black Swan (and here too) I'd think about developing a plan for engaging with existing customers and potential customers on the basis of being interesting or useful to them. That plan should be strategically built on a broadcast to narrowcast basis or vice versa depending on the rationale for engaging/reenforcing something at an internet dialogue level first or television's monologue model. Its quite exciting when I start to think about creative briefs written with the net first or telly first as a rolling narrative direction. Lots of opportunities there.

The only part I'm still trying to figure out is how to 'represent' in those tens or hundreds of 'communities' on the net where it's important to be useful or interesting for specific clients and their needs. I've given it some thought and my instinct is to identify the people who are most active in and respected in the community. The trick is NOT to buy them, because they then lose their authority and respect (Shills they scream!), but to build up their reputation by giving them the ability to 'share' through either reputation enhancements of information sharing or favour dispensation such as Skype credits or Taboa (China's Ebay) coupons as an idea. It's crucial that all actions are transparent, open, honest and authentic otherwise it all falls apart. Brands aren't very good at that short list of Web 2.0 guidelines and it explains why most marketing 1.0 peeps and planners 1.0 types don't get it.

Ideas like the one above are unlikely to be implented here though any day soon. One of the most frustrating aspects of working in developing economies is just how many bad habits are picked up from the West and then applied cookie cutter style over here. The advertising format is pretty much the same for lazy/untalented marketers and agencies (insert pretty model with product implying that you too can be cool/beautiful/powerful). And then the methodologies for assessing the effectiveness of those campaigns are just lifted from the West without much thought to the notion that Asians have a different perception of the truth or how to articulate it. Even the focus group dynamic is completely stuffed given that cultural differences like Guanxi in China or Grenjai in Thailand exist. This is where even the sharing of inconsequential information is considered reckless and stupid. I did write back here how I would approach Asian research with a fresh mindset because the same old companies come back with the same old rubbish and its not hard to figure out better ways.

I've pointed out that a lot of the advertising people in China have sat on top of 15% GDP growth for 10-15 years and are at best unremarkable and at worst believe their own P.R. but I'm guessing that one or two might read the above and see the seeds of China 2.0 in there. It's all very exciting when I think about it - The End.

Update: I see that some of these ideas have started to materialize over on CWR blog.