In marketing, there are a lot of tactics that will almost always work and there are some that likely won’t. For example, advertising a product to your target audience during their favourite TV show is often a good strategy that will generally prove to be successful. Whereas hitting your customer with an email newsletter at 7pm on Friday will generally not work quite well.
When working in online marketing – in particular search marketing – these rules get a little bit trickier. Often, the flick of an algorithmic switch somewhere in Google HQ will render a tactic that worked last week as useless this week. Strategies you implement in January could possibly get you penalised in June. That’s all good though. In fact it’s these sudden changes that are one of my favourite things about the channel. The goal posts keep shifting a little – which keeps you on your best behaviour, weeds out the dodgy competition as well as keeping you on your toes all the time.
And then there’s online marketing in China…
If you compare western online marketing as changing the goal posts occasionally, then China online marketing is more akin to changing the entire game. Kind of like being an ice hockey player and showing up for a game, only to discover your team now plays football instead… and no body told you about it. You better learn quick, or else you’re off the team.
Yep, digital marketing in China is tricky stuff.
“If you compare western online marketing as changing the goal posts occasionally, then China online marketing is more akin to changing the entire game – without anyone telling you about it”
Your target market is completely different, you need to consider hundreds of completely different elements than you would normally encounter for a western campaign. Elements such as Chinese web design and UX best practice, customs, dialects (yep, there are more than one), infrastructure, regions of your target audience and then of course there is the well publicised ‘great firewall’ and strict government restrictions, just to name a few.
To make matters worse, there is generally no official rulebook as to what exactly these regulations are. No set-in-stone guidelines that state ‘X is bad, but Y is ok’.
One really interesting example of how these restrictions can affect marketing is for an ad campaign for the Crown Casino group’s Macau location that occurred a few years ago. Crown Casino is the major player in casinos/gaming here in Australia – with locations in Melbourne and Perth and most recently Macau.
The Macau location was no doubt set up to capitalise on the growing affluent Chinese demographic visiting abroad that desire gambling and casino services.
“Fun fact: There are over 1.1million millionaires in China today, and wealth in China is growing at a compound annual rate of 18% per year.“
Yep, rich Chinese travellers are a big target market for casinos and gambling providers world wide – and Macau is the Asian equivalent of Las Vegas.
But here in-lies a problem:
The ever-growing affluent Chinese demographic is the key target market, yet advertising of casinos and gambling is strictly forbidden within China (except for the state run lottery – which donates funds to charity). You literally cannot mention words like casino, gambling, poker, blackjack, roulette etc. on your website within Mainland China, under threat of being completely banned. Additionally, you cannot legally advertise gambling in papers (government run by the way), magazines, social media, TV or anywhere where else within Mainland China.
So, how do you market gambling in China when gambling and casino’s are banned?
Problem 1 – How do you reach an affluent Chinese audience?
How does a casino worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with their massive marketing budgets, global reach and influential contacts touch an audience that is forbidden by law to talk to?
Chinese consumers – more so than many other cultures – are heavily influenced by celebrity. Brand ambassadorship is a key driver for any business wanting their product to make a dent in the 1.3billion hearts and minds of Mainland Chinese citizens.
It is an extremely lucrative market currently for Hollywood and sporting celebrities, who can earn big bucks for drinking the right drink at the right event, being seen on TV holding the right smartphone or appearing in the right 30second TV commercial.
“Chinese consumers – more so than many other cultures – are heavily influenced by celebrity”
Case in point, the Crown Macau advertising campaign.
For their new advertising campaign, Crown Macau approached Chow Yun Fat – the biggest Hong Kong action hero there is – think of him as the Bruce Willis (when he was super popular) of Asia.
They offered him $21million dollars to appear in their TV ad campaign for Crown Macau – an ad that clocks in at 1m30sec – which he accepted.
Problem 1: Celebrity ambassadorship – Solved
Problem 2 – How do you promote a casino in China, when gambling and casinos are illegal?
On top of the $21million dollars for Chow Yun-Fat, Crown invested significantly in a very slick, well produced advertising campaign. The ad portrayed Chow Yun-Fat in a sort of James Bond role, showing him meeting exotic women holding tarot-like cards (suspiciously like Blackjack), throwing square ice-cubes from a far into a glass (suspiciously like craps), spinning a plate of fine food (suspiciously like a roulette wheel). All while also advertising the other fine dining, entertainment and hospitality experiences of the venue.
You can check out the clip below, it’s very well produced. Very slick. And absolutely full of gambling and casino innuendo. It’s great!
The script and video were approved by the Chinese government authorities both pre and post production. Air time and marketing channels were confirmed and purchased and the ad went to air.
It had all the ingredients to appeal to their target demographic, conveyed nicely the services on offer, while at the same time never specifically mentioning or showing anything to do with gambling or casino gaming.
Four days later, the ad was pulled from rotation and banned from being shown within Mainland China.
Even though approval had been sought and given, the Chinese government standards are extremely volatile. Someone saw the ad and had literally just changed their mind.
A multi-million dollar investment rendered useless with the changing of (perhaps) one anonymous government employee’s mind! Crazy!
As touched on in the beginning of this article, this is fairly common within China. From a search perspective your site can be blacklisted in Mainland China without any warning or reason provided. Perhaps there is an external link you have that points to a site not considered suitable. Or maybe you have to many links pointing to external sites. Even having your website on the same server as a completely non-related yet banned site can get you blacklisted – a list that it is extremely difficult to be removed from.
China has a lot of rules and regulations when it comes to marketing; a lot of which are not specifically documented or available. It takes practice, research and treading extremely carefully – especially if your business or client works in an industry that is full of regulatory land mines.
Online marketing in China is definitely not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. Local knowledge and insight into what will work and what will get you thrown over of the ‘Great Firewall of China’ is essential for anyone looking to play in the Chinese online sand pit.
“If you’re finding that keeping up with Google’s algorithm updates is getting too tricky for you, then marketing for China is probably not for you”
For those who think keeping up with Google’s algorithm updates is getting too tricky, or staying on top of what email provider you should use is getting too difficult these days, then marketing for China is probably not for you.
But if you dig stepping out of your comfort zone a little and thinking outside of the marketing boxes you’ve been operating in as a western digital marketer, then China might be the next destination for you to build your skills.