Here's a story relayed to me by a friend that sums up the change in the wind perfectly.
A group of Chinese travellers shows up at a winery in rural Oregon unexpectedly. The owner has never catered to Chinese tourists before, and didn't do anything different other than putting up his usual selection of wines and snacks. Communication was difficult, and his Chinese guests became bored rather quickly. They ended their visit on a somewhat disappointing note, and left the winery owner scratching his head.
He headed over to my friend, who was a China-watcher, for some advice on what to do the next time Chinese tourists show up at his door.
My friend said, "You don't need to worry. You won't see any more of them for a long time coming."
So what gives?
It all starts and end with this big black hole called the Chinese Internet.
It goes without saying that the Chinese digital space operates on a parallel plane from its western counterpart. In fact, most Chinese wouldn't know what Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube are.
Instead, the digital space in China is dominated by a number of Internet giants that own some of the most widely used products in the country. Products that you probably haven't heard of, like Weibo, Youku, Weixin (or WeChat as it's known outside of China), QQ, among many others.
Many of those services have been called clones of their western counterparts for many years. But in reality, the Chinese copycats have caught up so quickly in recent years that it will be the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter that will look the other way for innovation and business model inspirations.
Businesses in the west, both big and small, are seeing the need to connect with the growing Chinese consumer wave that's pouring across the border and making a considerable impact on their own business.
Chinese students studying abroad now number around 400,000 per year. Most head out to English-speaking countries, and this has had a tremendous impact on the education industry in places like the US, UK, and Australia, institutions that offer executive or MBA programs, as well as English-language preparatory programs.
Challenges abound for students and their families, as well as the institutions themselves. Many schools have turned to Chinese social media to connect with their newest cohort, and to bridge the cultural gap.
William Foreman, Associate Director of International Communications at U Michigan, tells a convincing story of the advantages of running its news desk as well as its communications activities in-house.
"A student from China arrived just around the New Year, and there was nothing open, and nowhere to turn for information. So he reached out to the school through our Weibo account, asking to be connected to the Chinese student community. We were able to respond to the message within a matter of hours, ensuring the student had a great start and subsequent transition to life at the university."
Another space where Chinese wealth is transformative is the real estate industry. More and more wealthy Chinese are parking their money aboard by investing in real estate in North America, Australia, and Europe.
Gladys Wang, a real estate agent based in Houston, Texas, has seen a significant jump in her business from her activities on Weibo.
Since the majority of her clients are from the local Chinese-speaking community, she started posting on Weibo in hopes of connecting with them. Although no special efforts went into promoting her account, and she posted only once every few days at the beginning, she has grown her fan count from a couple of hundreds to now over fifteen hundreds.
Fan counts aside, Wang has seen some real businesses coming her way from her Weibo activities. She estimates that between 20-30% of her clients now come from China (instead of the local Chinese community), and many have bought properties through her without ever meeting her face-to-face. She credits much of the trust and relationship to being a real person, and to having consistently "shown up" with a personality on Weibo.
For Linda Lee, a real estate agent in San Diego, getting on Weibo is just a natural part of doing business. With an ever-growing Chinese-speaking community, she wanted to be where her customers are.
Tait Lawton, founder of Nanjing Marketing Group that specializes in helping western businesses in China through digital marketing, says the following.
"Selling real estate to a Chinese-speaking demographic is still a pretty niche business. You can definitely stand out by setting up a site for your business and optimizing it for search engines. It doesn't necessarily have to be a site hosted in China, and whether it's in Chinese or English, the rules of search engine optimization do not change. And of course, social media is big."
With close to 100 million Chinese travellers making trips abroad annually, it's no wonder that the travel industry in general, and particularly international airlines, are tripping over themselves to try to serve and and cater to this new group.
According to Camellia Yang, social media specialist at Air New Zealand, large Asian airlines that do well on global airline rankings, such as Singapore Airlines, registers well with Chinese consumers. But despite Air New Zealand's relatively late entrance in the Chinese market, Weibo and WeChat engagement is beginning to pay off.
With AZN, brand engagement is still the key goal, with promotions posted occasionally. Yang sees Weibo as a mass broadcasting platform, with a content posted multiple times a day, much like a website that requires refreshing regularly. On the other hand, WeChat is a platform that allows one-on-one interaction, and holds much more potential for sales promotions in the future. Customer service through the WeChat platform is also something that Yang sees an improvement in, in the near future.
Caterpillar is as B2B as you can get. In an industry where it might seem futile at first glance to try to connect to customers that do not frequent channels like Weibo or WeChat to make their purchasing decisions, Caterpillar thinks otherwise.
Brian Stokoe, social media manager at the heavy industry behemoth, tells me about Caterpillar's unique approach to customer development through its Chinese social media channels.
"Instead of leveraging social media channels as a one step platform in reaching their customers, we use highly localised videos to draw attention to the brand and its team to experts, which then prompts the customers to either reach out to its team of dealers and sales people offline, or further their online journey through expert blogs/forums, or speaking to dealers through their WeChat accounts."
Like many other industry insiders, Stokoe is curious and excited about the potential presented by WeChat.
"WeChat really presents an entirely new way to connecting with customers. The potential of connecting with customers one-on-one is new and exciting, and could present real opportunities for both our corporate brand and our dealer network."
The power of the Chinese shopper drives some of the most exclusive and expensive shopping establishments in the world. Whether it's Galeries LaFayette in Paris, or the South Coast Plaza in Southern California, Chinese luxury consumers are the dream clients with seemingly bottomless wallets.
I spoke with Diane Lepicard from Paris Shopping Tour, a tour operator that caters exclusively to Chinese clients. According to Lepicard, Chinese tourists have matured significantly in the past few years. The stereotypical package tour tourists have been steadily declining, in favour of a new class of tourists that are more independent, more knowledgeable, and more in search of the authentic experiences. In short, they are becoming more like the western tourists!
Online travel is one of the fastest growing industries in China, and travellers returning from abroad chronicle everything , from detailed day-to-day itineraries, to in-depth reviews of restaurants, hotels, and other service providers. Online platforms that have seen extremely strong growth all have huge forums or content devoted to reviews and experiential sharing. Check out the likes of Qyer, Qunar, MaFeng, and Lifefar.
And in the case of my friend's winery above, it's probably already been blacklisted on the Chinese social space.
For the entrepreneurial large and small business alike, this is the golden time for you to get into the Chinese online space. Whether you are in retail, tourism, the education space, or B2B, making yourself and your brand known on the Chinese social space could mean significant growth in your business.
Chinese social media / shutterstock