CommonSense Blog

Communication Lessons Direct from China

By Bob Pearson | Jan 12, 2015

this column first appeared in the January 5th issue of PRNews

The Chinese market is innovating in ways different than what we are used to in the west. Where we see boundaries, entrepreneurs in China envision new ways to combine social media and ecommerce. What I’ve discovered is that “geographic learning” is part of how we build an edge in our home market. Often, the best ideas for what’s next are happening thousands of miles away. This article will describe key lessons learned from China that can be applied to how we communicate in western markets in the years ahead.

1. Focus on one consistent customer experience. In China, ecommerce companies like Alibaba integrate social media fully into their sales experience. They don’t divide social media and sales and they don’t place as high a premium on advertising. Where we see a divide in how things should work (social media and ecommerce), the Chinese find an opportunity to create one continual customer experience.

2. ROI is easier to answer. When you tie social media and ecommerce, it’s the same customer, so we know his/her purchasing power. Chinese companies don’t have to waste time asking ‘How do you know social media will lead to ROI?’ The more directly we work with our customers, the more we know about them. The more we advertise to them from afar, the less we know. The latter way being much more expensive and less productive.

3. An involved customer is a productive customer. When you interact with customers in a repeatable and trustworthy manner, a breakthrough occurs in the relationship between company and customer. In China, because social media and ecommerce are one in the same, consumers will ask their peers for advice more frequently and provide advice to companies more often.

4. Customer experience refers to positive outcomes. Normally we think of customer experience as how to deal with negative situations.

In China, it’s the opposite. Improving customer experience means more integration of reviews into sites, more forum conversations, more content created on new products, more advice amongst peers on what to buy.

5. Education trumps advertising. New customers don’t know much, if anything, about a brand they discover online. In China, a premium is placed on educating the consumer by directly involving the customer in the purchase.

The company and the community are there to share advice, discuss new options and teach each other. With a rising middle class, this was imperative, but it reinforces the most simple brand-building lessons.

6. Social platform features will match customer need. We think of social platforms doing one thing well, whether it is photos ( Instagram) or Twitter (140 characters) or Foursquare (location).

Does this make sense? In China, firms combine whatever they believe the customer will want into one platform. For example, WeChat has features similar to Instagram (post photos), Foursquare (find people near you) and instant messaging.

Youku has shades of Netflix and YouTubeSina Weibo allows you to act like we do on Twitter and post as we do on Facebook. This makes sense.

7. Instant messaging will lead to new platforms. IM is one of the fastest-growing aspects of social media in China. WeChat and QQ, both owned by Tencent, are two of the largest instant messaging companies. WeChat enables the user to talk live, share images, use geo-location apps and more.

Could the next platform emerge from IM? What does that mean for how we share content in the U.S.? It’s an obvious trend in a mobile-first world. Overall, the lessons from China are those we talk about a lot in the western world, but often we are held back by our habits. There is no magic bullet.

Rather, there is an opportunity for brands to become more involved in the full customer experience, so that we break down our artificial walls of “sales” versus “marketing” versus “communications.”

Our customers don’t think like this and perhaps, based on what we see in China, we are getting an early glimpse into how our online world will evolve in the years ahead.

The Sidebar

Being Conversant in China

As I study how China is evolving, I’m continually thinking of what we, as communicators, can do differently. Here are the ten most important items on my mind for 2015.

1. Identify your communities for your brand. How many communities do you have where they talk about your brand? What do you do to interact with them? What content do you provide to them? If you don’t have any, how will you get them started?

2. Know your customers…really. We should know exactly who has influence online for our brand, exactly who is providing reviews, exactly who is creating great educational content and more. You should have a list of more than 1,000 people where you know their name, what they do for your brand and what you will do for them.

3. Take instant messaging more seriously. How will you provide content that can be easily shared via IM? What will you do with services like Snap Chat that are redefining what an IM means for entertainment purposes?

4. Work closely with Marketing & Sales. It’s time we have one set of metrics to measure how social media and sales work together. China is teaching us the importance of this every day.

5. Measure how often your team interacts with customers. Develop metrics to understand how often you and your team actually interact with customers online and how often the rest of your company does this on a daily basis. Do you do it? If so, how do you know what is working? If not, what is holding you back?

6. Build your second sales force. Obsess over providing your most important online customers whatever they need to be successful in educating their community, which is really your shared community. What is your content plan to provide a regular flow of information to your customers? Is any of this based on their direct feedback?

7. Remember what all customers want to do online. Anywhere in the world, we have three primal desires online—to share ideas, knowledge or solutions to educate our peers. How are you doing this? Are you enabling your customers or are you talking at them?

8. Think of the entire customer experience, not just a single channel experience. Customers travel from channel to channel to learn. We may go from Facebook to Twitter to Search in minutes to learn on the same topic. Take the time to understand what the journey is for your key customers. Don’t focus on one channel at the expense of learning about the path they take.

9. Remember that education trumps advertising. We are all customers and we all want to learn about the brands that we care most about. Remember to teach. Earned media is the perfect way to do this well. Paid media is really meant to accelerate the work of earned in the new world.

10. Keep an eye on what doesn’t work as well. Not everything in China turns to gold. Look at what fails as well. Why did it? Equally instructive for all of us.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn a few words of Chinese. Zài jiàn. —B.P.

This article originally appeared in the January 5, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.