WeChat often wins out over email China, which has implications for both work communications and marketing, writes Kristina Koehler-Coluccia, Head of Business Advisory at Woodburn Accountants & Advisors
Most Western entities use email as their main form of communication. However, the constant evolution of technology and changing habits of users are forcing companies to resort to new ways of sharing information.
In the UK and other parts of the world, as the web was emerging into mainstream use in the late 1990s, PCs were relatively abundant. In 1999, there were 50.5 computers for every 100 people, according to the World Bank.
Most first-time internet users were working adults or college students about to join the market. Email became a primary mode of communication in the office. And as desktop PCs began to move from the office to households and schools, parents and teachers taught younger people how to use the internet.
In China, on the other hand, there were only 1.2 computers per 100 people. Outside of the major cities, most households did not own a computer, much less one connected to the internet. In crowded dormitories, there wasn’t much space for students to cram in a desktop PC. Moreover, China’s white-collar population was far smaller proportionally than that of the US.
The country was a relatively late adopter of computers, and when internet cafes opened, young people started to use social messaging programmes such as QQ (created by Tencent) to communicate with one another. Unlike standard emailing, QQ provided entertainment and more interaction with features such as instant messaging.
In the 2000s, smartphones replaced computers as the main computing device in China. Data from the state-backed think-tank China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) shows the rise in China’s internet penetration correlates almost perfectly with mobile phone adoption and that most connectivity originates on the phone.
When WeChat was released in 2011 (also by Tencent), it soon became an integral part of daily life. The multi-functioning instant messaging mobile app replaced the use of emails, especially in personal communication and in smaller, local companies. As a result, foreign companies operating in China had to rethink their internal communication strategies.
Some experts have argued that email is simply less compatible with Chinese culture than chat, particularly in the workplace. Thomas Luo, founder of Chinese tech blog PingWest, says that email doesn’t merge easily with China’s business culture, which tends to be informal and fast-paced. These qualities, he argues, are better suited to chat software.
In China, a lot of people use WeChat for all their messaging needs, including for business. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Chinese people do not use email. It is widely used in MNCs or companies that frequently deal with foreign entities; people just check it less frequently than their Western counterparts. There can also be issues with email due to China’s ‘Great Firewall’, which makes it difficult to use platforms like Gmail within China, and may prevent users from receiving emails from some providers.
WeChat also resonates with consumer behaviours for marketing purposes. Consumers in China do not use or check emails regularly, and this is the main reason why email marketing is less effective. They prefer that their favourite brands contact them via social media platforms.
But despite WeChat’s popularity, different marketing channels serve different purposes. If you want to send a massive and generic message to your audience, then WeChat is the best option. However, if you want to personalise your content, WeChat may not be the right platform.
Chinese consumers are extremely diversified, and no single communication channel covers them all. The best is to create an omni-channel approach and let your customers decide how they wish to receive information.
Companies can opt to do “email marketing” through WeChat and send newsletters through the app. Such newsletters can increase customer engagement and create a closer relationship between the brand and its consumers.
China’s booming digital ecosystem of social media apps provides an array of options for companies to build an effective and coherent marketing strategy. In China, social media is not an option but a vital source for companies to be successful in entering the market by leveraging platforms.
Though email is the preferred method of messaging for corporations in the West, any foreign company intending to operate successfully in China must keep in mind the communication habits of Chinese people. A company that does not understand the mindset and preferences of its consumers and employees may ultimately experience failure.