In a recent Skift Tech Forum panel, Lee McCabe, vice president of North America at Alibaba Group, said: “I’ve worked in e-commerce and marketing for quite a while; everything I know I can leave at the airport when I go to China. Everything is different, the way you build a website is different, the way you merchandize, the payments are different, the lot.” With such disparities between Western and Chinese markets, how are hospitality service providers supposed to act, and what methods can they adopt to capture the ever-growing traveler demographic from the East?
A Mobile Audience
The first step to any marketing campaign is to find and understand your target market, and if there’s one phrase to describe Chinese consumers, it’s “mobile-first”.
“While ‘mobile first’ has emerged as a commerce buzzword, thus far there has only been one true mobile nation: China.”
This emphatic claim from Michelle Evans — contributor at Forbes — is not without merit. Since 2011, the number of mobile phone subscribers in China has skyrocketed. By the end of 2012, China has become the country with the most mobile phone users across the globe, with 89% of its total population falling within the category. As of July 2018, a staggering 1.52 trillion mobile phone subscriptions were registered in China, making China’s mobile market truly a behemoth.
What led to the proliferation of mobile technology in China is, as Evans describes it, “a perfect storm of factors”. Due to the emerging nature of its markets, China needed a fast, and cheap, way to establish digital connectivity, a job well-fitted for mobile networks. As the prices for mobile phones dropped, and the lack of landlines meant the foregoing of desktop technology, Chinese consumers flocked to the mobile market, adopting smartphones as their first and primary device for internet access.
“The mobile-first mindset among Chinese consumers impacts each stage of their journey as travelers, from inspiration, to booking and in-destination behaviour.”
- Meghan Carty, Researcher for Skift
Transferring this mobile-centric behaviour to travel habits, there is no surprise that Chinese tourists prefer mobile technology when it comes to traveling. In EyeforTravel’s Chinese Consumer Report 2017-2018, smartphones were identified as the primary device used when Chinese travelers conduct their pre-trip research and planning. When making bookings, a survey by Worldpay and Opinium in 2016 indicates that 25% of Chinese consumers prefer to book through mobile options, as opposed to just 6% on average for the other countries surveyed. In-destination, Chinese tourists also prefer mobile, especially when it comes to payment, with 91% of Chinese travelers saying they would be inclined to spend more if Chinese mobile payment solutions were supported abroad. To accommodate and capture travelers from this heavily mobile-first nation, then, it is of utmost importance that any strategies utilized should be mobile-friendly.
Marketing Through WeChat
The first step to attracting potential customers is marketing — to capture their interest when they begin planning their trip. Since smartphones are the primary device on which Chinese travelers research and plan their trips, it is only logical that marketing through mobile channels would reap the greatest benefits.
One of the most effective ways of mobile marketing to a Chinese audience is through WeChat —
“With more than 900 million daily users and 38 billion messages sent per day, WeChat is one of the biggest mobile messaging platforms in the world, its transaction volume on par with Facebook and WhatsApp.”
WeChat provides native advertising, so the quickest and most direct way for hospitality brands to market through WeChat is to run advertising campaigns on the platform. However, the most popular messaging application in China provides plenty more creative methods for hotels to market their services to potential Chinese tourists which can bring more fruitful results than simple direct advertising.
One simple and effective way of promoting your brand on WeChat is by owning an account — a channel through which Chinese consumers can communicate with hotels, at the same time giving hotels a chance to demonstrate their world-class customer service by addressing customers’ concerns or providing personalized travel recommendations. A happy customer is a returning customer. A second method that has proved most effective is WeChat’s subscription function. Hotels can run subscription accounts, which allow account holders to send scheduled newsletters — WeChat magazines — to its subscribers, drawing both Chinese travelers’ attention and keeping them up to date with company news. As Reene Ho-Phang, founder and managing director at BrandStory, a tourism marketing agency, says: “Now in China people don’t like to look at newsletters on email anymore. Instead of email, they can look at their subscriptions and something like a newsletter is delivered to WeChat for the brands you subscribe to.” The content can range from text to videos, allowing for better customer engagement.
“I think some of the most effective strategies are based around creative content marketing strategies and delivering content that potential travelers want and creating interesting formats to deliver that information. This isn’t just about making the content look good on a small, vertical screen; it’s about experimenting with flexible, portable content structure and experiences like interactive games.”
- Reene Ho-Phang, Founder and Managing Director at BrandStory
Another significant channel WeChat provides that competitive hoteliers should consider utilizing is WeChat Mini-programs. These mini-programs act like any other app on a smartphone, but better — mini-programs are cloud-based, meaning they do not have to be downloaded, saving precious data and storage for consumers. Users simply access the mini-program directly through WeChat on their phones. As of 2018, there are 400 million total mini-program users, 170 million of which return daily. The mini-programs allow for hotels and other hospitality service providers to create distribution models in order to capitalize on the Chinese outbound travel market, and they have been proven to work: Skift reports that “hotels developing mini-programs find they rank among their best-performing direct channels, bringing in a large number of bookings from outbound Chinese travelers.” One case study documented as much as 40% growth in traffic per month since the launch of their mini-program. Given these statistics, WeChat has proven itself to be the primary portal through which hospitality players can directly and most effectively reach the largest amount of Chinese travelers.
Collaborating with Key Opinion Leaders
Aside from WeChat, it is crucial for any hospitality industry member hoping to capture the Chinese outbound tourism boom to understand the importance and benefits of key opinion leaders (KOLs). In a recent series of interviews conducted with CMOs across numerous industries in China, Kimberly A. Whitler, senior contributor at Forbes, found that instead of mentioning traditional marketing methods in the West, these CMOs all highlighted the importance of one particular strategy: KOLs.
KOLs aka influencers, are usually bloggers or vloggers that have gained notoriety through a large following on various social media platforms. They have the ability to influence their followers and fans through connecting with them, and hold a high sense of relatability. As opposed to traditional celebrities, KOLs have a more intimate and authentic relationship with their audiences. As Vincent Marion and Sophie Coulon of Francelysee explains, “People feel a sense of proximity to the KOLs owing to a strong interaction the influencers build with their followers...Followers feel a sense of community and trust the influencer to share accurate information with them.”
“...firms located in China believe that developing a KOL strategy is essential to growth for three key reasons: 1) KOLs can drive faster awareness than traditional marketing tactics, 2) they also help strengthen the brand’s image as it benefits from the endorsement of the KOL, and 3) it can often deliver (when effective) much better results at a fraction of the cost.”
- Kimberly A. Whitler, Senior Contributor at Forbes
Influencers can only do their job when they are genuine with their audiences. As Kim Westwood, Managing Director of ShoppingLinks, puts it: “the most effective micro-influencers for your brand are the ones whose demographics and personal tastes most closely align with your target audience. The more seamlessly you fit into a KOL’s everyday life, the more likely their followers are to trust their recommendation of your brand.” The content should be organic and reflect the KOL’s usual style. Finally, focus on a long-term relationship. One-off KOL campaigns can, and will, feel like only an advertisement, harnessing low engagement rates from their audience.
At the Right Place with the Right People
China’s consumers may behave significantly differently from those of the West, but capturing their attention and their favor is not impossible. Understanding China’s mobile-first mentality with WeChat and KOL marketing strategies in your backpocket and your hotel is well-equipped and on its way to capitalizing on the outbound Chinese tourism boom.
References - Part 2
- Statista: Number Of Mobile Cell Phone Subscriptions in China from December 2017 to December 2018 (In Millions)
- Forbes: How China Won The Race To Be A Mobile - First Commerce Nation
- Early Moves: How China Became The First True Mobile-First Commerce Nation
- Skift: Why a Smart Mobile Stratefy Is Essential to Luring Chinese Travelers
- The Economist: WeChat's World
- Skift: WeChat Mini-Programs: What Hotels Need to Know to Drive Chinese Booking
- PhocusWire: Q&A: How Brands Are Using WeChat to Attract Travelers
- Forbes: If KOLs Aren't Part Of Your Marketing Strategy, You Need To Read This
- Jing Daily: KOL Marketing in China: Why It Works and How To Do It Right