New Rules To Reach China's Social Media Users

Forget About Catering to Early Adopters, Say Ogilvy & Mather's Edward Bell and Chris Reitermann

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SHANGHAI ( -- A lot has changed since 1962. Those enormous boxes that took up half the room and only played black and white TV are now wafer thin and hang on a wall like art. To play music you scratched a needle in a groove and "sharing it" meant turning the volume up. People had their faces in their high school "face books" or yearbooks, but those embarrassing epitaphs of youth were rightly shelved and forgotten about.

Today, marketers in China have to play by new rules to reach social media users, now the most dynamic consumer audience in the mainland.

New Rule Number 1. We need a new adoption model.

Fortunately, we have one. The adoption theory is a graceful bell curve written by Everett Rogers in 1962, and later turned into marketing bibles by marketing experts like Philip Kotler introducing the concept of early adopters.

Chris Reitermann
Chris Reitermann
The theory has become so embedded into our thinking about influencing consumers that it is one of those things that we say without thinking about.

The problem is, it's wrong. The OgilvyOne Connected report suggests that if your target audience is among the many millions of Chinese social media users, this early-adopter theory is essentially useless.

Instead, a new segmentation has been identified that is much flatter. China has evolved from a model featuring innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%) and the majority (84%) to a model composed of initiators (26%), commenters (29%) and gawkers (45%).

Far from being a tiny few percent in traditional offline adoption theory, one in four Chinese consumers "start something" online. Akin in nature to the highly valuable innovators from the old models, they are more affluent, mature, savvy users who initiate conversations online by posting their views about products and brands with a view to creating a response from others. They are highly social, recruiting new friends to share their views with.

The second group who can be compared to the overused early adopters audience comprises relatively less affluent users who are highly enthusiastic about online life. They are into reacting to and forwarding interesting posts that they've seen online as part of maintaining an active online social life. They are the active geeks of China's social networking scene.

The largest and youngest of the three groups, gawkers, earn less and tend to engage in more traditional forms of digital interaction including SMS and instant messages. They are the least sophisticated and confident of the three groups, preferring to simply be informed of what's going on in the blogosphere.

Why the shift?

Ed Bell
Ed Bell
The internet is a democratizing, leveling force. In the flatter, semi-anonymous online world, it is easier than ever before for people to take social risks than it ever was in real face-to-face situations.

Social media users can take their time, borrow creative bits and pieces, forward funny things, Photoshop their faces and compose funny, interesting and even salacious posts. In the online world, the risks of social failure are significantly reduced, encouraging many more people to 'have a go' and start something.

New Rule Number 2. It's sharing...but not as we know it.

We know the internet is about sharing stuff -- but not like this. Sharing is not an unthinking automatic behavior, but is instead a highly thoughtful, even soulful experience that social media users yearn for and spend time preparing for.

Although China's most popular sharing site is, a casual chat site driven by spontaneous sharing, by looking across a larger number of social networking sites, planned sharing activities -- like making new friends online or posting product videos -- are actually the favored activities of those coveted initiators.

This division of sharing into two forms, spontaneous (chat) and planned (social networking, video casting, blogging, publishing) is thrusting this social need into the limelight as an opportunity for brands. Rather than simply engaging consumers directly, these new rules for marketing on social networking sites need to enable consumers to spontaneously express themselves while also inspiring them to share elements of a product and brand with their network.

New Rule Number 3. Alpha brand buyers are in fact social network site users.

We frequently hear comments in marketing circles like "Social networking is good for 'buzz' but doesn't have much to do with business." But social networking site users are possibly the best investment a marketer can make. Sixty-one percent of users have previously purchased online, 74% are willing to pay more for better quality and 70% like trying new products.

A further 62% buy products to express their personality and most are not interested in fake or shanzhai brands. They are looking for more information about products and interaction from brands. And they're not kids looking for cheap deals. Instead, they represent a new opportunity to create influence and revenues.

(The OgilvyOne Connected report can be downloaded at here.)

Chris Reitermann is president of OgilvyOne in China and Ogilvy & Mather's Shanghai office. Edward Bell is Ogilvy & Mather's group planning director, also based in Shanghai.

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