Finding your North Star
Finding your North Star


In a globalized world where you’re as likely to find a KFC or Starbucks on a street corner in Beijing as you are in Brixton or Boston, I am thankful that the Chinese digital landscape provides an escape to meat-and-two-veg of Facebook, Twitter and Google. When we were planning for 2013, I met with three of China leading sites Sina Weibo, RenRen and JingDong. I was struck by how each outlined a different vision – a different North Star – on which to build their business for the future.

Before talking specifics, it might help to set the scene for those that don’t know. While it’s true that many of the well known Chinese sites are direct clones of western counterparts the similarity tends to end quite quickly and they are all the more interesting for their idiosyncratic quirks. As with Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos, the Chinese sites have their own unique competitive forces that drive them down new paths through their evolution – and there is a lot for brands, agencies and pure-plays to learn from their adaptation.

China’s digital landscape is centered around four key ecosystems – the four kingdoms of the Chinese digital world. Firstly, Sina, a news portal site like Yahoo in its heyday, whose success in the last twelve months has been driven by its massively popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo with 240m+ users. Secondly, there’s Baidu, which commands over 70% of the search market, which like Google, has a plethora of supporting content and community platforms. Thirdly, comes Tencent, which has numerous portals, gaming sites and an installed base of 600m QQ instant messenger users and a rapidly emerging mobile messaging service called Weixi. Finally, Alibaba / Taobao which manages both B2B, C2C and B2C platforms which command 75% of ecommerce in China. It should be noted that while these are dominant ecosystems, there countless significant sites – like the dominant video site Youku – that are competing head on or hand in hand with these four ecosystems – not all of which are interoperable – Baidu, for example, cannot spider the ecommerce platform of Taobao. Overall the Chinese internet is characterized by rapid copying of Silicon Valley start ups and an even faster pace of adaptation and innovation to make them work in China.

The first site I sat down with was Sina Weibo. Weibo is not the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, as it is often mis-characterised. It is more like a hybrid of the best elements of Twitter and Facebook combined, so it provides both a social and an interest graph for brands to engage consumers. It enables brands to aggregate content from a broad range of sources, and launch multiple apps to target different needs. Ken Hong, who heads their marketing, outlined that Sina’s focus is going to be on proving brands with richer platforms to drive ecommerce, customer service and content driven social CRM features. Sina Weibo, will make many CPG brand sites quite redundant as their Weibo platform becomes their primary touch point and central brand property for consumers.

I then sat down with Joseph Chen, Chairman and CEO of Ren Ren. Before Weibo’s meteoric rise, Ren Ren held the social media crown in China; it is often compared with Facebook – and it is a direct clone – but it has never grown beyond its student user base which stands at about 153m active users. Joseph Chen’s key focus for RenRen is Mobile. He said that half of his resources next year will be focused on transforming RenRen to be a mobile first site – Mobile is already the primary access point for 65% of their student audience. RenRen will maintained focused on developing their social gaming and educational content and seek ways to combat arch rival Tencent. Lately, there has been a rapid uptake of Tencent’s mobile Weixin platform. Weixin is a voice messaging meets “friend” locator platform with almost 200m users. It’s largely credited with the sexual emancipation of many a Chinese youth thanks to it’s ability to hook up people that are in close proximity to each other. It demonstrates both how a mobile-only social network can dominate, and how a mobile network can provide credible opportunities for brands to engage users – both of which Weixin has succeeded in doing.

Finally, I spoke with JingDong, which manages one of China’s leading ecommerce sites locked in a fierce price war with sites like Guomei, Suning and Tmall. The war is a healthy sign of better times to come for the survivors. Wu Sheng, their VP of Marketing , had a very simple message for their focus in 2013: Consumers, Consumers, Consumers. “Does the customer return? That is all that matters; the rest is just fluff. Does the customer return?” I loved the simplicity and single mindedness of this message. In a world where marketers themselves are bombarded by frameworks and maxims, I think that success depends on finding your “true north” and never losing sight of it.

So, my wisdom from the East is: Deliver experiences that naturally extend beyond social into customer service and commerce, optimized for mobile, with a religious focus on getting customers to return. In the age of transactions, that seems like a good “North Star” for all marketers worldwide.

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