There is no underestimating the size and opportunity of the Chinese online market. China's mandate to transition to a consumer economy, and the inability of commercial real estate to penetrate high income growth areas as quickly as Internet infrastructure, are key reasons two thirds of the APAC's ecommerce comes from China.*
The overarching caveat: China's government is a protectionist one, to put it diplomatically. As a result, costs for comprehensive digital entry continue to climb, albeit physical entry is still far more expensive, with less efficient reach.
Here are the key components to a comprehensive China online presence. No one component is critical, in that other approaches cannot be used, but most are necessary to what can be justly labeled a solid platform for driving online revenue.
A Chinese site
Obvious? Let us first clarify that a Chinese site is NOT what happens when a visitor presses the "CN" language option for instant translate. Let us further clarify that a Chinese site has been at least 90% translated (for SEO's sake) into Mandarin, translated for not just accuracy but also sales impact. Let us finally clarify that a Chinese site with lasting power, which cannot be simply copied or otherwise pilfered has an ICP (Internet Content Provider) number. An ICP is necessary to display advertising, to be outlined later. It is also necessary for the next component.
China's Internet is the slowest in the world save for India's, and overseas sites are frequently slow to no-load, given the demands the world's largest online population puts on it. Extra-heavy site? A static CDN (content delivery network) is also a good idea for all those super videos and hi-res pics that will drive branding and sales on your site.
The good news: Baidu, China's dominant search engine, copies Google as best it can, but lags six months to two years in features and algorithms. If you're good at Google SEO, you're great at Baidu! Except for Mandarin keyword research, and finding good links, which you'll want in-country help with. Seed your translated articles on Baidu's knowledge properties - Baike, Wenku, and Zhidao, which emulate Wikipedia, Google Docs, and Yahoo! Answers, respectively, and which return top results for virtually all search terms on Baidu's search engine (trying to keep it all in house is an obsession with China's Internet giants.)
Baidu PPC, to be precise. In ten years of China online marketing, we’ve yet to find a method to drive focused traffic and revenue that is more scalable and efficient. The Baidu support tools are less reliable, and they require a deposit to get going, but the principles of success are the same: good ad copy with value-add call to action, great landing page that flows from ad and repeats CTA, constant testing and tweaking. Don’t forget that for Baidu advertising, and in fact all serious advertising in China, you will need….
A Chinese Business License
You can't advertise on Baidu or other big, focused Chinese platforms without a license. A quick Google search will reveal a laundry list of expatriates in China with firms that specialize in setting you up for business for a few thousand dollars. Many resist this essential step, on grounds of price, looking for a shortcut, yet will spend the same amount on a business class ticket to a China expo to trade business cards. Make the commitment; get the license.
This is the most over-rated of the components. "It's free!" So is love, technically. Sina's recent IPO may make you think Weibo is the go-to platform. However, it has been steadily losing ground to WeChat, a social messaging app that captures the functionality desired by China's increasingly mobile Internet crowd.
Don't forget that all big, focused platforms have social media on which you can reach a much more targeted audience. Qunar, for example, China's biggest travel site, allows branded pages with interactive content and an app for sharing pictures. Find the focused Chinese platforms for your industry, and focus your social media efforts there.
A definite investment of time and resources to set up, implement, and run, a Tmall store can nonetheless be comparable in sunk and ongoing costs to a robust Chinese e-commerce site. You have to work much harder to drive traffic to the latter, though; Tmall has 51% of China's B2C market share. Many big organizations are opting for a Tmall store as the e-commerce section of their Chinese sites, recognizing that visitors' preference for the Tmall shopping process results in a much higher conversion rate.
Remember, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to China – the market is just too diverse and fragmented, regardless of what mass media would have you believe. A site and hosting are obviated by a decision to go with Tmall. You could possibly get leads for your hospitality organization with just some savvy social media work.
Thankfully, any configuration you go with is far more scalable than a China brick-and-mortar approach.