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9 Ways To Sell In China: Tips For Ecommerce Marketers

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9 Ways To Sell In China: Tips For Ecommerce Marketers

You don’t have to have an MBA from Wharton to spot the opportunities the Chinese market presents for ecommerce.

The world’s most populous nation, the People’s Republic of China, has the world’s second-largest economy, with a GDP of nearly $16 trillion. And what’s truly astonishing is that most of its economic growth has occurred over the last three decades.

If you’re like most foreign (i.e., not based in the PRC) companies, this potential probably has you licking your chops.

But unfortunately, this is a notoriously difficult market to enter for Western companies because it presents several unique challenges. These often include:

  • Difficulty navigating a complex and inconsistent bureaucracy.
  • A poor understanding of consumer buying habits.
  • Governmental challenges include corruption and a lack of transparency.
  • Sourcing local labor and managing employees.
  • Intense competition (and rules that favor domestic companies).

That said, it’s not impossible, and the possibilities far outweigh the cost and time required.

In this piece, we’ll discuss the unique challenges of doing business and look at nine things ecommerce companies can do to not only get their foot in the door but also thrive.

Ecommerce Tips For Marketing In China

1. Understand Chinese Consumer Behavior

Chinese digital shoppers do not behave in the same manner as their American and European counterparts.

For one thing, thanks in no small part to censorship laws, Western search engines have no significant presence in the PRC.

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Instead, the Chinese have several home-grown search engines, each with its niche in the market.

And the vast majority of shoppers are using these on mobile devices, with 99.7% of Chinese internet users accessing the web via smartphone. 

But, those are far from the only differences in consumer behavior.

Chinese citizens also prefer single-entry-point shopping, where they can choose between brands rather than visiting a shopping platform of a single company.

For example, they’re more likely to buy Nikes from Tmall (an Amazon-like store) than from the Nike site itself.

Chinese consumers are also heavily swayed by influencers and social media.

Chinese companies actively encourage celebrities to use their apps as a channel for product launches. And direct links from social media posts to online stores make it easy for shoppers to find and buy the exact shoes their favorite star was wearing.

Additionally, the vast economic growth the country has undergone led to an increased emphasis on quality, convenience, and customer service when making decisions.

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2. Select The Right Products

Whereas previous Chinese generations may have valued collectivization and sought benefits for society, modern Chinese consumers have moved into a more individual mindset.

In a whitepaper entitled “Chinese Consumer Insights 2022,” Ireland-based professional services company Accenture found an 11% increase in consumers willing to buy products that highlight their identity between 2013 and 2021.

This should come as no surprise in a country that now boasts more than 700 million middle-class citizens.

To ensure the success of your ecommerce marketing in the PRC, you need to sell the type of products they’re looking for.

Goods for leisure activities, technology, beauty and makeup, and clothing remain hot items on the Chinese digital market.

There is a high demand for foreign products, but they must be considered premium alternatives to domestic items.

According to the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper owned by Alibaba, China claimed 32% of the global luxury goods market in 2020.

This is a huge opportunity for foreign companies looking to expand into the Chinese marketplace.

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3. Set Up Local Hosting For Your Website

Chinese search engines tend to prioritize websites hosted on servers within the country. Launching a Mandarin version of your existing online store alone will not cut it.

To show up in the searches of Chinese consumers, you need a site hosted in China. But it’s not as simple as clicking a few buttons and filling in your credit card information.

Before any website can be hosted in the PRC, you must apply for an Internet Content Provider (ICP) registration with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

Depending on which industry you fall under (e.g., education, healthcare, financial services), you may have to receive permission from a relevant government agency before applying. 

You need to receive your ICP commercial license, as well as an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) if you plan on processing data and transactions.

However, if you plan on having a physical presence in China, you may not need an ICP.

Just be aware if you do need one, the entire process may take several months.

4. Use Trusted Payment Processors

The way payment works in China differs from what you’re probably used to.

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For one thing, the model varies depending on the type of transaction. You could try to navigate these complex requirements on your own, but it’s recommended that you work with a third-party online payment platform like Alipay or Tenpay.

Alibaba’s Alipay is the primary payment method for major Chinese ecommerce platforms, TMall and Taobao. It offers escrow capabilities to reduce risk when receiving payments.

You’ll need a Chinese phone number, bank account, and a Chinese business license to use it.

Tencent’s Tenpay also offers escrow and is simpler to set up.

To receive your license, you must prove to Tencent you want to do business in China and provide a foreign ecommerce website.

This requires a China-visible WeChat account, a cross-border payment account, and a WeChat ecommerce website.

Note: You can apply for your WeChat account and foreign business license directly through Tencent, though this is not a standard process.

Minimize your payment risk with product inspection certificates that attest your items meet agreed-upon quality requirements.

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5. Provide Exceptional Customer Service

Chinese business is built upon a concept known as guanxi. Roughly translated, this means personal relationships with an implied level of trust and mutual obligation.

Because this has historically been such an important aspect of how business is done, Chinese consumers have an ingrained expectation of hierarchy, negotiation, and customer service.

While the first two are not so important to ecommerce companies, the third is crucial.

Competition in the digital marketplace is fierce, meaning Chinese shoppers are used to superior customer service.

They expect – and you should provide – things like fast delivery and returns, clear communications in Mandarin, and easy mobile payment options.

And they’re not afraid to share their opinions on social media sites, so bad customer experiences can have far-reaching effects.

6. Choose The Right Logistics Solution

Late deliveries, damaged items, and difficult return policies will turn Chinese customers off. That means your logistics must be iron-clad.

Unfortunately, finding high-quality providers can be difficult in mainland China.

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This leaves you with three options: Build your own, partner with or acquire existing firms, or find a good third-party provider.

The first two options are time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for most ecommerce companies, so that leaves only option number three.

Logistics providers in the PRC generally fall into two categories:

  • Companies compete based on their large network.
  • Companies that compete based on superior service.

Choosing which is right for you will depend on what you’re selling.

For example, if you’re selling pet rocks throughout China, size is more important than service.

Your product is unlikely to be damaged, and your primary goal is getting it into the hands of the buyer, wherever they’re located.

On the other hand, if you’re selling crystal birdhouses in the Shanghai metropolitan area, a smaller logistics company that can provide a higher level of care and service is probably preferable.

7. Reach More Shoppers By Using The Top Marketplaces

As was mentioned in the first tip, Chinese online shoppers prefer marketplaces to brand websites.

While you can sell through your site, you’ll be exposed to a much larger audience if you’re part of one of China’s big online marketplaces, like Taobao, Tmall, or JD.

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In 2019, Taobao surpassed $490 billion in gross merchandise volume. Tmall was second at $463.5 billion, and Jingding claimed third at $301 billion.

As you can see, the sheer volume of sales these sites account for is incredible. Taobao and Tmall are both owned by Alibaba. Jingding, or JD, is supported by Tencent.

Selling on these platforms usually requires your company to be registered in mainland China, though there are exceptions in some product categories.

These platforms are not interchangeable. Tmall is generally viewed as the luxury version of Taobao, and consumers trust it to find authentic branded items from abroad.

JD offers a wide variety of goods, from frozen foods to electronic books.

8. Take Advantage Of Shopping Festivals

Like Western online retailers have Cyber Monday and the run-up to Christmas, Green Monday, and Amazon Prime Day, China has its major shopping festivals.

To maximize your sales, you should be aware of these and use them to your advantage. These include:

  • Pre-New Year’s (January-February) – Just like the days before Christmas see massive shopping numbers in the West, the months before the Nian Huo Festival or Chinese New Year are busy shopping times for ecommerce retailers.
  • International Women’s Day (March 8) – Called the “Queen Festival” by Alibaba and the “Butterfly Festival” by JD, this day and the day before (Girls’ Day, March 7) are big online shopping days as men give presents to their significant others.
  • Mother’s Day (Second Sunday in May) – Filial piety is a big part of Chinese culture, so it’s no surprise that Mother’s Day is a big deal, with a corresponding increase in gift purchasing.
  • Love Day (May 20) – An unofficial Valentine’s Day, Love Day falls on this day because “five two zero” is a homonym for “I love you” in Mandarin. Valentine’s Day is also celebrated on its traditional date.
  • Midyear Shopping Festival (mid-June) – China’s answer to Prime Day, this summer event was started by JD but adopted by other online retailers.
  • Golden Week (starting October 1) – Beginning with China’s National Day, this week-long holiday sees a massive influx in spending because of traditions involving travel, family reunions, and gift-giving.
  • Singles Day (November 11) – First celebrated in 1993, 11/11 has become a big online shopping day in which people celebrate being single. A month later is Singles Sequel, on December 12 (12/12), many online retailers run inventory clearance events.

9. Promote On Chinese Social Networks

Chinese citizens love their social media platforms like the rest of the world.

And while none of these have direct correlations with more familiar platforms like Facebook or Instagram, many share similar features – including paid advertising. 

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In tip #1, we mentioned these sites’ role in online sales.

The ability to click on an item in a Chinese social post and be linked directly to that item in an online store allows influencers to wield massive influence over purchasing decisions, which is a good reason to foray into this market.

Additionally, just like Westerners, the Chinese spend a good portion of their daily lives on these sites, which means well-placed products will generate a lot of exposure.

Here are some of the most popular social media sites in the PRC:

  • WeChat – Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Facebook, WeChat is more accurately a combination of Facebook, WhatsApp, Google News, and a dating app combined. It has 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide. An all-in-one messaging app from Tencent, it also has games, shopping, and financial services.
  • Sina Weibo252 million people use this micro-blogging app every month. It is most similar to Twitter in that it has character limits while allowing the posting of videos, images, and gifs.
  • Tencent Video – The fourth largest streaming service worldwide, Tencent Video has 1.2 billion monthly active users. China’s online video market is highly competitive, but Tencent Video is the leader, outpacing rivals IQiYi and Youku.
  • Xiao Hung Shu – A hybrid ecommerce/social media site, this platform allows users to post reviews, participate in discussions, and post content. Most content is focused on product photos and shopping experiences. It has 100 million active users each month.
  • Douban – With 200 million monthly active users, Douban is a social networking platform dedicated to lifestyle content. The platform has integrated functionality allowing users to download ebooks, listen to music, and buy tickets for movies and concerts.

Chinese Ecommerce Is Worth The Work

As you can see, getting into the Chinese digital market requires a fair bit of work. But because online shopping is a huge piece of the Chinese economy, it’s worth the effort.

Be aware that you will probably face legal, cultural, and digital hurdles. And the process of getting set up will take much longer than you’re accustomed to.

With that said, if you have the time, patience, and language skills to navigate the complicated bureaucracy and develop a strategy that may feel alien initially, you’ll be gaining a foothold in one of the world’s biggest online markets.

Chinese citizens are strongly interested in international brands, particularly those perceived as high-end. But if you’re not a luxury goods company, don’t let this dissuade you.

The Chinese online marketplace provides a tremendous opportunity for businesses of all types and sizes.

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Do your homework, follow the proper channels, and you’ll become a successful ecommerce player in China.

More Resources:


Featured Image: William Potter/Shutterstock

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In-house SEO vs outsourced agency talent: Who wins the debate?

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In-house SEO vs outsourced agency talent Who wins the debate

30-second summary:

  • SEO involves a lot of tasks, processes, and technicalities that are hard to master and manage
  • Investing in an in-house team can have lots of advantages, like building specialized talent, greater control over performance, productivity, brand and process alignment
  • However, outsourcing to an SEO agency may not deliver the above-mentioned benefits but can be easier on your marketing budget and overheads
  • So, how do you identify the right fit for your business?

There are too many parts of SEO and many of those parts are constantly moving and changing. The more a site grows, the more challenging SEO is going to be. So what’s a better approach: to start building your own in-house SEO team or rely on an agency or freelancers?

Let’s see…

Pros and cons of building your own team

Pro #1: You build your own internal talent and knowledge

Your team is your biggest asset. Your company is only as good as the people behind it. These are all cliches but they hold true.

Having an in-house team to rely on makes your SEO strategy more consistent and aligned with your company’s culture and your product positioning strategy. Plus, there is a smoother flow of ideas and communication that leads to better results. You also stand to gain from the cross-pollination of talent that feeds into innovation and greater problem-solving.

Con #1: Talents tend to move on

There’s one huge issue with talented people: They tend to overgrow their employing businesses, and they do that pretty quickly.

It often becomes hard (and expensive) to keep the talent, even if your organization was the one that grew it.

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Pro #2: You hold someone responsible

If you are good at hiring, you will likely find someone responsible who will take their training and tasks seriously. The person will have clear ownership which makes everyone’s lives easier and your business more effective. 

Any business initiative is going to be successful only if there’s someone inside the company to “own” it.

In-house teams are easier to control, you can ask for and obtain reports within a day. You can ask for clarifications without running out of your billable hours.

Con #2: It is expensive

Not many businesses can afford to have an internal SEO that has nothing but SEO… Apart from regular and inevitable payroll, there are also HR processes that contribute to the overall expenses. And let’s not forget about employee insurance and other benefits.

Yes, growing your own team is generally a great investment but only if your budget allows it. Plus, there’s always a risk your investment will simply leave your company one day (see above).

Pro #3: You own your data

Privacy is a big issue when it comes to letting anyone do marketing for you. On the other hand, you can also control the technology and privacy much more efficiently ensuring that your data is accessible to your internal team only.

Additionally, when you outsource anything, you will inevitably miss lots of data, like contacts that were acquired, templates that worked better, and other assets.

When you have the work done internally, you end up accumulating contacts you can rely on going forward. You also eventually build your own data and find innovative ways to build it into your search marketing strategy.

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Con #4: It is slower

Unless you have a huge team, SEO tasks will pile up. They are very hard to organize and scale without outside help because there are too many variables and most of them are done on a continuous and regular basis.

Relying on freelancers to outsource SEO tasks is often the only way to get things done and free some time for looking into analytics to align your SEO strategy better.

Pro #5: The process can be better integrated

SEO is no longer an island. It can only be really effective if it is well-integrated into all processes within an organization, including product development, IT, sales, and customer support.

The intersection of digital and physical consumer experiences is also a strong reason as to why SEO needs to have strong integration with digital marketing, martech, and sales. Your business can achieve its goals only if it has a unified footprint.

Con #5: You cannot build a team that is good at everything

The biggest problem with SEO is that there are several moving parts that require absolutely different training and skill sets.

Remember the graph?

SEO graph and relativitySource: Anthony Palomarez

SEO always includes content creation and optimization, technical support, and link building (which normally includes email outreach, relationship building, and linkable asset creation which, in turn, involves graphic design or video production tasks).

If you need to understand all of these moving parts better, I have a simplified flow chart for you:

the scope of SEO

Let’s not forget that many of those parts will have to evolve based on ever-changing Google guidelines and ever-developing search algorithms that are hard to keep up with.

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With such a variety of skills required, building a team that would handle almost everything is next to impossible, even for corporate entities.

Of course, today’s technology makes it much easier. You don’t have a web developer to build a landing page, or handle on-page SEO essentials. You don’t have to be a graphic designer to create visuals, or even put together an effective lead magnet.

But even with smart technology, to handle all the parts of an SEO strategy you will need a pretty huge team, which is – again – expensive.

The truth is somewhere in the middle

The takeaway from the above is somewhat of a dilemma: You want a team to control something that you may never be able to control.

The best solution is usually in the middle:

  • Hire an SEO manager who has thorough SEO knowledge
  • Let that SEO manager find companies and freelancers to outsource different moving parts to

This means having an SEO manager who is brilliant at both SEO and project management.

Yes, it will take time to find the right person but finding the right person is never easy. 

It is well worth your time though:

  • Your in-house person will be able to “translate” any SEO jargon to you whenever you need to understand what is going on
  • You will have someone owning the strategy and process 
  • There will be a person who will be inside your company to ensure your SEO strategy is aligned with your overall product positioning strategy and include other teams in the SEO processes

In reality, if you want your SEO strategy to deliver results, you need both: An internal person (or a team) and someone outside your company to rely on. This is not a question of choosing one.

Conclusion

Managing SEO is hard. Don’t feel discouraged. There’s no valid alternative to organic search traffic. Find the right person who will be able to manage the process for you and find reliable partners to outsource different SEO tasks to. This way you will keep the strategy under control while still being able to afford it. Good luck!

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Ann Smarty is the Founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. She can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.

Subscribe to the Search Engine Watch newsletter for insights on SEO, the search landscape, search marketing, digital marketing, leadership, podcasts, and more.

Join the conversation with us on LinkedIn and Twitter.



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