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In China in 2006, social media was something that the West did. Any chance to use it here was blocked by “The Great Firewall of China” – unless you were one of the lucky ones who had a VPN (virtual private network).
2007 was also a tense time as authorities played cat and mouse with activists set on causing disruption to the national symbol of pride: the Beijing Olympics.
“One dream; One world.” How did it go?
Controls, limitations and censorship were increased by a jumpy administration.
Yet it was against this seemingly impossible backdrop that Sina, best known as a portal site, launched its Micro Blog service, an instant hit as millions of Chinese found their voice and became “Netizens”.
The West had the “Browser Wars”, China had the “Social Media Wars” as Sina's blogging service spawned others, with home grown versions of Twitter and Facebook, and the fight for market share and dominance began. It was a short skirmish – Sina emerging victorious with Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.
Stir smartphones into the mix, especially iPhones and iPads, the-must-have-or-you-are-nobody status symbols, and you have an explosive combination. Now it is possible to chat, blog, gossip, criticize and shop from anywhere – the taxi, subway, coffee shop, office, classroom, bus, everywhere!
Social media growth has seen online activity grow accordingly. China’s Internet users now exceed 500 million, with 356 million using mobile phones and tablet computers [December 2011].
All this has increased the importance of digital marketing in China. Social media sites such as Weibo and Renren have thrust marketing light years ahead to the point where Weibo is now China's default online marketing tool.
Digital marketing: not just a new channel
Online media in China has evolved along its own lines, influenced by Chinese culture and social conditions. Since time immemorial, China and its Confucianism ideology has been a society based on sharing, on relationships, and favours. It is an ingrained part of Chinese culture to seek peer or superior advice. Society was largely a cooperative, working together for the common good.
Certainly the invasion of Western capitalism and market-driven forces have had an eroding effect to some extent, but ‘relationships’ are still at the heart of Chinese society.
Not since Christmas came to the country have Chinese embraced anything so fully and warmly as social media.
Social media, like Christmas, was made for China's Confucius-inspired relationship culture.
We all know, applied correctly, social media builds close relationships between customers and brands, relating to their needs and wants in real time, strengthening brands and increasing sales. 
The growth of digital marketing in China enables businesses to fully leverage the power of social media and I-WOM (Internet Word of Mouth) intelligence to promote brand awareness as well as deploy social media for more informed decisions in research and event planning. 
However, the growth has been so rapid that many companies and Embassy Trade Councils do not really understand its importance or how to effectively utilize it. They often lack real information. Consequently, despite Western companies being more creative and possibly having the edge in social media possession, many are still unable to compete successfully, if at all, with their Chinese counterparts.
Why is digital marketing so important?
Digital social media or I-WOM is important in China business because of the way it is used and who is using it.     From its beginnings as a ‘people's only voice’, similar to Twitter, it has evolved to include brands reaching out directly to consumers, corporations building their own third party platforms, and a burgeoning App community. Digital social media is now the default marketing channel in China with O2O (Online to Offline) marketing the hottest topic. 
It has empowered Chinese society like nothing before it, giving consumers the power to express their opinions, both negative and positive, on brands, products and services. 
Chinese women are following the global trend in that they make or contribute to 80 percent of purchasing decisions, are better educated and informed, and are postponing marriage in favour of a career and lifestyle. They are not just leading the economy in China but are better and more efficient communicators and users of social media. This is of extreme importance for marketers.
However, there are some negative aspects – there has been abuse; the seeding and proliferation of ‘fake’ malicious tweets aimed at destroying a competitor or causing confusion. This destructive ability of social media in China is exacerbated by the lack of policing of these fake ‘seedings’ which the Chinese public are all too ready to believe without hesitation. This aspect is not fully appreciated by many Western firms.
Social media is a dynamic channel, constantly changing, confusing and complex – and has resulted in the emergence of specialised ‘Digital Business Solutions’ studios. The term ‘marketing company’ is not descriptive enough today.
Marketers have to be on their toes, innovative and must stay ahead of the competition. 
There is no margin for error with social media, you either do it right or you cannot succeed.
Get it wrong and you have alienated an army of would-be buyers.
Consequently it is difficult for in-house marketing departments to keep abreast of what’s going on, especially if they’re based offshore or working to ‘Western thinking’.
And as I have stated, many do not really understand the importance of digital marketing in China or how to use it effectively.
Multinationals and SMEs alike are now outsourcing to local digital studios who employ leading-edge technology and top experts in their field – usually a mix of battle-hardened, seasoned Chinese business professionals and young tech-savvy experts who carry their entire social world with them on their smart device in their pocket.
These young people are at the very cutting-edge of technology and creativity. They choose to work in small, dedicated digital studios where salary and learning opportunities are better than larger traditional marketing departments. This makes it extremely difficult for SMEs to hire top class people and, by extension, compete effectively.
So the digital world in China is dynamic, alive, exciting, challenging, constantly changing and evolving. And the Chinese consumer's ready acceptance of it makes it an extremely important channel when marketing in China.
This presents amazing opportunities for both foreign and domestic businesses in China. But at the same time, the challenges cannot be overlooked.
Article by Everlyne Yu, co-founder of WPBeijing – a digital marketing, social media, app specialist – and Active Digital, a Beijing-based multi-lingual digital business solutions studio specialising in  I-WOM luxury goods for the female market. Email via her website Everlyne welcomes enquiries regarding business threats and opportunities in China.
Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.