In just a few short years, the Chinese e-commerce market has grown to surpass that in the US to become the world’s biggest online retail marketplace. Nowhere was the consuming power of its citizens more fully illustrated than the recent Singles Day (Nov 11) shopfest on Alibaba’s e-commerce websites where $1 billion worth of goods was sold within the first opening 17 minutes and the total sales for the day reached $9.3 billion, an amount which eclipses the combined online sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US ($2.9 billion in 2013) by a huge margin (see China’s Consumer Power Unleashed – $9 Billion Singles Day Sales).
The emergence of this vast Chinese consumer market makes the understanding of its behavior a strategic imperative for companies and brands catering to the country’s domestic consumers as well as their outbound travelers. Though there are more similarities than differences between Chinese consumers and their Western counterparts, it pays to be aware of their differences in order to better cater to their needs.
Some of these nuances were highlighted by a recent report from Alibaba, China’s undisputed king of e-commerce with up to 80% share of the market. Although outlined within the context of the domestic market, a lot of these nuances are directly applicable to the outbound Chinese travel industry.
Online shopping adoption
Despite the much later introduction of e-commerce into China than in the West, its acceptance by Chinese consumers has been much faster. 75% of Chinese shop online weekly compared with a global average of 21%, according to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In addition, mobile internet is quickly becoming the most important channel upon which online transactions are conducted. Thanks to the widespread adoption of smart phones, 75% of Chinese consumers said they have used their mobile phone to shop, compared with a global average of 43%, according to the same report. The fact that nearly half of all transactions on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform during the past Singles Day were mobile transactions is further proof of this behavior.
Understanding this behavior is all the more important for travel operators and activity providers, as a lot of activities are typically booked post arrival at the destinations. Having information and a booking mechanism which are easily accessible from a mobile device would go a long way in helping these travelers make their decisions.
Online Marketplaces over Standalone Shopping Websites
Whereas the bulk of e-commerce in the West is done on either websites established by traditional retailers or on pure-play e-commerce portals, about 90% of e-commerce is done in online marketplaces where there are thousands of virtual shops and other service providers such as delivery companies, according to the Alibaba report.
Although there might be an inherent bias in this assessment by virtue of Alibaba being the owner of many of these mega online marketplaces, the conclusion is probably not too far off the mark. In a country where counterfeit goods and consumer fraud are all too common, it would have been counter-intuitive that online shopping is as widely adopted as it has been, had it not been for the fact that the trusted brands of major e-commerce portals and built-in escrow based e-payment services provide the critical confidence boosting elements for consumers to shop there.
The same need for transactional safety is even more important for Chinese travelers contemplating an online purchase in a foreign country. Besides the well known OTAs, portals associated DMOs or formed by a collection of activity and service providers would provide the inspirational content, credibility, confidence and convenience for travelers to search for ideas and make their purchases online.
For well known destinations and established brands, standalone websites with a booking engine would also make economic sense.
Not only do Chinese consumers pay more attention to product recommendations from friends and online reviews, more netizens participate by posting product feedback. Combined with the high propensity for Chinese travelers to post on social media about their travels during and after the trips (see 4 Key Functions the Travel Industry Should Know about WeChat), it would not be difficult to conclude that social media presence is an indispensable pillar of engagement for hoteliers and activity providers alike.
Need More Assurance
In a similar logical vein to the low level of trust by Chinese consumers due to consumer frauds mentioned above, Chinese consumers typically demand relatively more information about the products and their vendors compared to shoppers in Western countries where consumer protection is more mature.
Good information about the service providers, the products and services they offered, logistical details, quality assurances, commonly asked questions and, ideally, customer service over the phone in their language would be a major differentiator which would help overcome the psychological barrier to conversion.
Less Emphasis on Bargain Hunting, More on Choice and Experience
While prices were the most dominant driver to shop online a few years ago, more and more Chinese consumers do so for better choice, quality and merchandise not available at local brick-and-mortar stores.
The same shift in consumer motivations is also reflected in the relative allocations of their spending while they travel overseas. Luxury travels are more common especially among FIT travelers who seek slower-paced, unique and deep experiences over the traditional whirlwind tours and shopping sprees.
The $1 billion milestone of merchandise sales on Alibaba’s group of retail platforms was reached when the clock at their corporate headquarters in Hangzhou struck 12:17 am – barely 17 minutes after midnight and into the day of Nov 11, China’s Singles Day, a day turned by the same company into a 24-hour shopfest of heavily discounted online sales.
By the end of the day, their digital cash registers rang in a cool $9.3 billion (57.1 billion RMB), handily smashing last year’s record of $5.8 billion.
To help grasp the relative size of that online sales figure, Americans spent $2.9 billion on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the largest online sales days in the US – combined.
The 11.11 (Nov 11, or more popularly referred to as Double 11 locally) Shopping Festival involved 27,000 merchants and 42,000 brands selling on Alibaba’s group of e-commerce websites including Tmall.com, Tmall Global, Taobao Marketplace and AliExpress. It also involved other components of the ecosystem created around China’s largest e-commerce merchant, including Alibaba’s own e-payment provider Alipay and a consortium of shipping and delivery companies.
Nearly half of all transactions were performed via mobile devices, according to Alibaba.
Since it official launch in 2011, WeChat (better known as Weixin in its home country) has been stealing a large share of social media buzz and spotlight. Even taking into account the fact that WeChat is another creation of the 800-pound Chinese social media gorilla Tencent which commands a huge QQ messenger user base, the growth of WeChat – 600 million registered users worldwide and 438 million monthly active users (slightly below Whatsapp’s 500 million) in a span of three years – has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Behind the hype and the confusion about what WeChat is and isn’t, there are a few aspects of WeChat which we feel that hoteliers, operators, destination management organizations (DMOs) and other participants in the outbound Chinese travel market should be aware of. Knowing what it does or doesn’t do would help decide whether this social media channel should be part of the marketing arsenal targeting Chinese travelers.
By the Numbers
In order to decide whether you should consider WeChat, it is instructive to fully come to grip with mobile internet and mobile phone use as it relates to overseas Chinese travelers. Some factoids:
- There are one billion mobile users in China.
- With 500 million smart phone users, China is the country with the highest number of smart phone users. Annual smart phone sales in China, also the highest in the world, surpassed that of the U.S. a year or two ago.
- Over 90% of Chinese mobile users use their phones to access the Internet.
- Of all nationalities who post on social media about their travels during and after their trips, Chinese travelers are among the highest.
- Over 90% of smart phone users have a registered WeChat account.
So you can really describe the importance of WeChat in three words: social media + mobility.
Or, the claim that WeChat is THE gateway to Chinese mobile internet is not too far off the mark.
First and foremost, WeChat is a messaging app. Similar to Whatsapp, it has a suite of functions which comes pretty much standard to messaging apps. A few interesting and unique functions include:
- Hold To Talk – you can use WeChat like a walkie-talkie instead of typing texts. Messages are sent to the other side like voicemails.
- Video calls – you can make video calls over WiFi or 3G networks.
- People Nearby – this feature allows you to look around and connect to other users in the area, if they accept your connection requests.
- Shake – it is a fun feature which, by shaking your phone, you connect with someone anywhere in the world who is also shaking his/her phone at the very moment.
- Drift Bottle – this is another fun feature which lets you put a digital (text or video) message in a virtual bottle and let it drift in WeChat’s virtual oceans, to be picked up by someone somewhere in non-virtual time.
While there is still much ongoing debate and comparisons amongst messaging app like WeChat, Whatsapp, Line and Viper, the debate is pretty much meaningless, especially from Chinese users’ points of view. As messaging apps, they all have unique functionality and styles catering towards different user experiences. For WeChat, however, this is where the similarities with its competitors end.
As Tencent has built several key capabilities and slowly opened its API to third party developers, an ecosystem has gradually emerged around its core messaging functionality. Some of these capabilities are becoming valuable marketing and customer management tools as it relates to Chinese travelers.
Public Accounts – Marketing and CRM Channels
WeChat allows companies and brands to set up public accounts to interact with their customers and followers. One type of public accounts, called subscription accounts, is typically used by companies as a broadcast channel where company information is pushed to subscribers. Service accounts, the other type of public accounts, have more interactive capabilities allowing for a much deeper relationship with customers. Both accounts require explicit user opt-in registrations, and their messaging frequencies are limited (once a day for subscription accounts and once a week for service accounts) in order to preserve user experience.
Whereas the functionality of subscription accounts, much like the popular Weibo accounts, is limited by design and serves primarily as channels for pushing content, the rich capability of service accounts, which includes mobile e-commerce, customer service, integrated payment platform (see below) and a host of 3rd party mini-sites hosting solutions designed specifically for WeChat, makes them an ideal social CRM channel and allows a company to provide strong one-on-one personalized services to its customers.
QR Codes – Online-to-offline (OTO) Conduits
While the tech savvy and shiny-objects crowd vying for the latest NFC or iBeacon technologies might yawn at this o-so-2010 technology, the good old QR codes have their appeal in a couple of ways within the WeChat context. For one, a QR code scanner is built-in to the app and Chinese users are very used to using it due to its convenience. In China it is more common to see people meeting for the first time to connect with each other by scanning each other’s QR codes than by exchanging business cards.
Another more compelling reason is the simplicity of the technology which connects a customer from a company’s physical world to its online world. Imagine displaying a QR code at an amusement park entrance. By scanning the code, a Chinese tourist is directed to the park’s official WeChat account, and, upon subscribing to the account, becomes a follower of the park and gets instant access to all relevant information in Chinese about the park. There are no expensive IT integrations required which might or might not work with customers’ mobile devices.
Built-in Mobile Payment Platform
Designed as a direct challenge to Alibaba’s Alipay, WeChat comes with a built-in mobile payment system. From hotel and airline bookings, taxi fares and parking meters to utility bills, mass adoption is occurring from public institutions and private enterprises alike. Although the payment system only works in China for now, rest assured it won’t be long before it gets extended beyond the Chinese border, as Alipay has extended its reach to North America with its recent introduction of ePass.
All in all, WeChat opens a new marketing and customer relationship channel for businesses while at the same time further diversifying/complicating one’s choices of Chinese social media tools. How WeChat can be used in conjunction with Weibo and other social media platforms would depend on the types of service one provides within the tourism industry, a topic we will double click as we deep dive into specific aspects of WeChat in future articles.
As businesses in the travel industry have closed their books for 2013 and start to make plans for 2014, industry analysts and pundits alike are pondering over the year that has just transpired, particularly as it relates to the Chinese outbound travel market. For sure, 2013 has been a notable year again for the Chinese overseas travelers. But, more importantly, what lies ahead for this tsunami of travelers in 2014, and, as usual, the perpetual question – is the trend going to last?
While the official statistics for the entire year are still being tallied up, the numbers based on the first three quarters of last year are pointing to the expected growth trend. The total outbound overseas Chinese travelers are projected to grow by 18% over the year before to 98 million, according to a recent report released by the China Tourism Academy. The same report projected the total dollar amount spent at US$118 billion, smashing yet another previous record of $102 billion established in 2012 which propelled China to the top spot, edging out Germany and U.S. (see $102 Billion – China takes global outbound tourist spenders top spot ).
The continued outpour of Chinese overseas travelers is not a unique trend within the Chinese travel theme. Domestically, the Chinese had also been on the move. An estimated 3.3 billion tourists traveled and spent $430 billion within China’s borders in the past year. Little wonder every step along the Great Wall was filled with people and highways turning into kilometers of parking lots during peak tourist seasons inside the country.
As for the upcoming year, the China Tourism Academy, among other industry experts, is predicting another year of growth in the mid-teens (16% – 18%) for the Chinese outbound market. The prediction would put the total number of outbound travelers to solidly beyond the 100-million milestone.
While no drastic change of course is expected in 2014, barring any black swan event knocking over the apple cart otherwise known as the New Normal global economy, our crystal ball is offering the following five evolutions to watch out for.
1. Continued expansion of the free independent travelers (FIT)
The first prediction is an easy one. As more and more Chinese having already traveled overseas return for more trips, these repeat travelers are more confident than ever and willing to venture beyond what they had experienced in their first trips. If the evolution of the Japanese tourists in the ‘80s and that of the Koreans in the ‘90s are any indication, the size of the independent Chinese travelers will continue to expand. The only difference with the Chinese is the time scale (much more compressed) and magnitude of the numbers involved relative to the two other Asian groups before them.
Another factor causing this trend to accelerate is the new travel regulations which came into effect last year. The law forbids the sale of below-cost tour packages – a common practice by many domestic travel agencies who herd their group tourists through designated shopping outlets from which they earn commission to offset the cost of the trips. The side effect of this new regulation is reflation of package tour prices, in the process eroding the perceived economic advantage of package tours and further tilting the price-value equation in favor of FIT packages.
2. Going deeper and narrower
Whereas the bragging rights for the travelers back a few years ago used to be doing selfies in front of iconic symbols such as the Eiffel Tower or Coliseum, what is cool now might be having themselves and a group of buddies being helicoptered to the top of a pristine mountain to have lunch on a glacier, or a luxury boat and cycling tour along the Rhine where they stay in castles and vineyards along the route.
What this means is that the pace of their trips will slow down. Instead of five cities in seven days, the number of destinations might narrow to one or two, allowing them to smell the flowers, so to speak, along the way. Complementing the must-see’s at destinations, more and more time will be spent on theme based activities which better reflect an individual’s tastes and desires for certain types of immersive experience. Multi-day cycling tours, museum tours, hikes along famous trails and other participatory itineraries will become increasingly popular and sought after.
3. Spreading beyond tier-one destinations
As a group, the ‘been-there-done-that’ repeat overseas tourists are younger, better educated, more affluent, and are eager to venture beyond the standard tourist traps at tier-one destinations. The direct beneficiaries of this emerging trend are the tier-two and tier-three countries and destinations which have been so far left out by the first wave of Chinese tourists.
By definition, non-tier-one destinations are lesser known as less information about them is available. Such is especially true for the amount of information in Chinese. Therefore, the first challenge for these destinations is to raise their profiles so that they are part of the Chinese travelers’ vocabulary and appear as markers on their travel maps.
Along with prediction #2, these two trends will point to further diversification and fragmentation of the travel segment, and which leads us to our next prediction.
4. Intensified competition among destinations
The expanding FIT travel segment, increased sophistication and maturity of the repeat travelers, and continued diversification of vertical travel themes all mean that destination marketing organizations (DMOs) will need to innovate in order to capitalize on these emerging trends. Amongst the DMOs and industry participants, the next battle will be waged trying to win the hearts and minds of the FIT travelers, the prize of which will be better margins over those from packaged tours as well as economic benefits distributed more evenly across regions.
As most commonly known in the high tech industry, being early and on the bleeding edge of innovation can be detrimental to one’s wallet. On the other hand, being late to the game often means fighting over crumbs amongst many other me-too’s.
Destinations late in catching the initial Chinese trend will be fighting in an increasingly competitive landscape trying to position themselves for the next wave of FIT tourists. Some of them might still be weighing the pros and cons of the first wave of Chinese tourists arriving in tour buses on margin-challenged tour packages and wonder if the market is sustainable or worth going after. In the meantime their more innovative and forward looking counterparts are busy marketing themselves to the next wave of FIT travelers whose experience and preference for luxury occupy significant weights in their travel budget calculus.
2014 will witness further widening of the gaps between the have and have-not destinations and individual operators.
5. Increased sophistication of social media marketing
It is well known that the rate of internet user participation is high in China and social media plays an important role when Chinese travelers do their travel research. If these two factoids fail to convince you, the fact that a staggering 91% of Chinese respondents indicated they interacted with social media on their travels, according to a study by hospitality company Accor Hotels, should remove any lingering doubts that social media should be a vital part of your Chinese marketing strategy.
2013 is also the year when WeChat matured from puberty into an 800 pound gorilla. With 500 million users and 90%+ Chinese mobile users having this app installed on their smart phones (incidently, China outsold the U.S. in smart phones last year; another first), WeChat has gone beyond its messaging root and morphed into a full blown one-to-one social network, mobile payment system, social CRM and online-to-offline platform.
The jury is still out on exactly how dominant WeChat will be and exactly what roles it will play, as the platform and its ecosystem of apps are still evolving and mutating at a breakneck pace. The fact that WeChat will be a dominant gateway to mobile internet and a major social media force, however, is now clear and undisputed.
Microblogging, or Weibo, on the other hand, will see its growth moderated, now that it has to share the social media space with WeChat. Does it mean Weibo will fall out of favor any time soon? Not likely. Taper? Maybe.
The question of WeChat replacing Weibo is not quite a valid one as the different nature of the two platforms means that they are designed for different purposes. In fact, social media strategies using both platforms in an integrated and orchestrated manner has been a hot topic in 2013 and will continue to be one this year.
Before embarking on our journey to explore the nuts and bolts of Chinese social media, perhaps it is instructive to first have a look at a set of macro numbers just to give us a proper perspective on where this crazy little thing called Chinese social media fits in the overall scheme of things and why we should bother to spend time making it part of our business strategy.
Internet use worldwide has been growing at a breakneck pace over the past 15 years. Its user demographics have also undergone a significant shift. Whereas English has been and still is the most dominant language used, its user population now only makes up less than one third of the overall user population.
If you dig deeper into the numbers, you would notice what is even more significant is the pace of growth of non-English Internet populations. Whereas the English user population has grown by 301% over that period, the user populations for Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Russian have grown by 1,478%, 807%, 2,501% and 1,825%, respectively.
China is now the country with the largest Internet population with 538 million users (note: the entire population of the U.S. is 313 million). Since edging out the U.S. to take top spot in 2010, China’s user population has gone up by 118 million in the past two and a half years! Talk about a tsunami.
Another observation one can glean from the above numbers is that, as impressive as these numbers are, the penetration rate as a percentage of the Chinese population is only at 40%. Whereas comparable rates for developed countries such as the U.S., Japan, Germany, the U.K. and France are hovering around the 80% mark, making significant further growth difficult, there is still ample headroom for growth for China.
If you think the above the numbers are impressive, take a look at the mobile phone statistics. From a modest user base of about 40 million in circa 1997, the mobile population has exploded in the ensuing 15 years and has for the first time exceeded 1 billion users in 2012 (1.1 billion to be exact). The user population went up by 126 million in 2012 alone.
Of all these users, 232 million are 3G/broadband Internet users. With the rapid growth in the smart phone user base, China has already pulled ahead of the U.S. as the largest market in terms of annual smart phone sales since 2011. It is also set to top the U.S. iOS (iPhones) and Android install base in 2013.
And 75% of users surfs the web using their mobile phones.