The lure of the Chinese netizen

Cindy Chiu, Davis Lin and Ari Silverman/McKinsey & Company
22 Aug 2012

The evolution of consumers' digital behavior in China has the potential to change how products and services are developed and delivered. Internet usage has expanded more quickly in China than anywhere else in the world. China had 513 million internet users at the end of 2011, compared with 67 million in Germany, 121 million in India and 245 million in the US. More than 50% of Chinese users spend more than 12 hours a week online.

The increasing popularity of the internet, along with the maturation of online payment systems and improvements in the reliability of logistics services, has fueled the growth of e-commerce, which is expected to triple by 2015, when sales could reach 2.7 trillion renminbi ($420 billion). As e-commerce rises, brands have an opportunity to prompt consumers to make immediate purchases online when searching for product information using social media.

While messaging and photo-sharing is as popular in China as in other regions, one aspect of usage in the country stands out: social media has a greater influence on purchasing decisions for consumers in China than for those anywhere else. Chinese consumers say they are more likely to consider buying a product if they see it mentioned on a social-media site and more likely to purchase a product or service if a friend or acquaintance recommends it on a social-media site.

Their appetite for social networking sites is considerably higher than their Japanese, Korean and American counterparts. The popularity of these sites in China has grown at the expense of other online functions, reflected by a decrease in time spent on sites such as search engines, online gaming, portal news and online music.

Local Chinese sites dominate the landscape. While Facebook and Twitter are fixtures of daily online use in the west and in other Asian countries, there is no access to these sites in China. Some 44% of respondents said they favor Qzone; 19% of those surveyed each use Sina Weibo and Renren the most; 8% use Tencent Weibo, and 7% favor Kaixin.

To fully leverage the SNS battleground, companies need to understand the different patterns of Chinese SNS users. Six segments of SNS users are emerging in China with different motivation and attitudes:

  1. Social-enthusiasts - spend a large portion of internet time on SNS to maintain friendship network
  2. Opinionated - heavily rely on SNS to express their own original opinions and build reputations
  3. Resenders - actively post tweets to drive up their followers and traffic
  4. QQ-spillovers - access to SNS mainly driven by Tencent QQ
  5. Inactive - SNS is not regarded as a major activity
  6. Sponges - "read only" mode with little interest on traditional social function

To promote their products and services to internet users, it is vital for companies to find right mix of social networking sites and SNS segments. While SNS is unlikely to be effective for reaching the inactive and the QQ-spillover segments who are not highly engaged on SNS, a few other segments are key for companies to take note of.

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