Even the savviest marketers are amazed at how deeply China’s new generation is engaged with the internet. Americans tend to have a relatively “functional” relationship with the web – finding cheap flights, researching medical conditions, day trading and so on. On the other hand, Chinese internet users, particularly the youth demographic, are emotionally dependent on virtual buzz.
Consider the following findings uncovered in a recent survey of American and Chinese young digital “mavens” carried out by JWT in association with US media conglomerate IAC: 42% of American youths admit they live some of their life online to 86% of Chinese; 13% of Americans agree they have a “parallel” online life to 61% of Chinese.
But the Chinese are not simply “engaged” with the internet. They flock to a virtual universe to express themselves in a way that is not possible in the real world. They do it, anonymously, no holds barred.
China’s love affair with the internet begs two questions: First, why is this so? And, second, how can marketers profit from this revolutionary “deliverance platform?”
To answer the first, it is important to acknowledge the frantic, hyper-competitive, success-obsessed, capitalist-Communist amalgam that is New China. Even the trendiest, most “Westernized” youth is under tremendous pressure, and when pressure builds, it must be released.
Then there is repression. Blatant demonstrations of individualism – still deemed selfish – are unsafe since “the leading goose gets shot down,” which means hopes, dreams and anxieties are held close to the vest. Chinese Confucianism, the nation’s cultural blueprint, mandates hierarchical regimentation rife with Byzantine behavioral codes. College criteria are strictly academic, students never question teachers and pedagogy focuses on drills and memorization.
What’s more, China boasts a yawning generation gap, exacerbating the lack of expression in daily academic life. Parental expectations are law; dating before graduating high school is “bad.”
For Americans, the internet provides an incremental increase in the huge range of options they enjoy in life. For young Chinese, the internet represents an exponential – and anonymous – expansion in choice and liberation. In contrast to offline conformism, online expression is stunningly freewheeling.
Marketers can increase profits by forging deep digital bonds with China’s new generation:
Creative that engages. We should reject passively-consumed “advertising” and embrace “engagement ideas” with which consumers actively “participate” to satisfy hidden passions. Ford’s internet-based “21-Day Excitement Challenge,” for example, provided a platform to infuse routine days with stimulation. The effort generated more than 200 million hits, not to mention dramatically strengthened brand equity. DeBeers’ online “Crazy for Love” and “Love Is All Around” competitions let young men express the depth of their feelings for their girlfriends without losing face.
Insight into hot buttons. We can take advantage of new technologies that enable measurement of online “buzz” and analysis of website pathing (i.e. how users navigate within sites via click-through tracking). We can, almost in real time, adjust communications based on how they are being discussed and digested.
Higher loyalty and profit. We must embrace the potential of customer relationship management (CRM) to forge enduring engagement with our most loyal consumers, many of them young with rich attachments to brands. Although offline direct marketing remains underdeveloped due to limitations in infrastructure and list availability, the interactive nature of the internet allows us to leapfrog these constraints. For example, China Mobile’s online, youth-targeted M-Zone has launched a points program in which prizes can be exchanged for value-added service subscriptions. Web-based initiatives such as Bertelsmann’s Book Readers Club and Pizza Hut’s “Let’s Yummy” loyalty programs have successfully bolstered repeat purchases among heavy-user youth and young adult segments.
Yes, the new digital age is global. However, the Chinese world view, in which repressed expression clashes with trenchant ambition, is fundamentally different from our own. Marketers who navigate the shoals of the Middle Kingdom’s virtual universe have an opportunity to strike it rich.