Traversing Through China’s Digital Market

As Australia’s largest trading partner, working with China should be an integral part of many a business strategy. With its middle-class rapidly expanding, and with it a thirst for everything from consumer goods to services and experiences, China’s huge population means Australian companies can tap into a consumer base that far exceeds our local market. But how does one obtain access to this fertile marketplace and gain cut-through?

China has more than 700 million Internet users; 30 times Australia’s entire population. As in the west, the lives of Chinese citizens are increasingly led online, so companies need a strong digital marketing strategy in order to effectively engage them. But because Facebook, YouTube, and Google are all on the wrong side of the Great Firewall of China, alternatives must be sought.

In the social media space, there are Weibo and WeChat, while the search engine of choice is Baidu, which accounts for more than 80% of Chinese search traffic. As with their western equivalents, there are advertising options across all these platforms, but in China, there is a crucial fly in the ointment; state control. Increasingly tight regulations apply to online advertising in China after Baidu allegedly promoted misleading medical information. In the wake of the death of a 21-year-old student, medical advertising is perhaps the most tightly controlled sector with certain types of treatments, such as IVF, banned from being advertised altogether.

While this ban may seem to hamstring any efforts at advertising medical or health-related products in China, it actually gives Australian companies the upper hand. Following news of fake hospitals and treatments gone wrong, Chinese citizens distrust their own institutions and products and instead look to options overseas, such as Australia.

Woman in China using WeChat
A woman leaves a voice message in a WeChat conversation.


Despite advertising restrictions, there are still ways to cut through these obstacles. One of the most popular forms of marketing in China currently is online-to-offline marketing or O2O; this is driving online activity to offline activity, but it also applies the other way around (offline-to-online). Ideally, an Australian company would set up a bricks and mortar clinic or store in China and then promote their products and services on the spot. Another option is for Australian companies to develop local partnerships. The Chinese partner would provide in-store marketing materials, and in the case of a clinic or healthcare provider, they could even perform general check-ups before patients depart for treatment in Australia.

On the other side of the O2O approach, companies use digital channels to drive people to real-world locations. The best channel to do this in China is WeChat, the platform Chinese internet users spend most of their time on every day.

“WeChat is the only app you need in China. “ says Heard Agency’s Digital Campaign Manager, Liam Brodie. “Users can do just about everything without ever having to leave the app, from booking a taxi to flights and hotels. Even more powerful for the health-services sector is the ability to book doctor’s appointments and schedule pick up of prescriptions from approved pharmacists. Users can even pay for these products and services using their integrated digital payment method WePay. It makes for an easy decision for companies looking to do business in China and should naturally be the first port of call when considering any marketing activities.“

Noodle stand in China with QR code
A QR code at a street vendor’s noodle stand in Shanghai gives customers the option to pay using WePay.


Even with restrictions, companies in the health industry are still able to set up pages in this app. The issue is that to sign up for WeChat, an account must be set up through the Chinese version of the platform, which means a local partner must register with their business registration certificate.

Once the page has been set up, Australian companies can engage the services of key opinion leaders (KOLs) to grow the WeChat page. These are influencers whose followers can number in the tens and even hundreds of millions. This is an area of advertising that the Chinese government hasn’t set down guidelines for, so even companies operating in areas that have been banned from advertising can still benefit from the services of these KOLs.

The Chinese business landscape is very different to what Australians are used to; from strict government regulations to differences in consumer trends and social media. While not all industries are as complicated as the healthcare industry, information on how to traverse the field is scattered and unclear. A trusted partner who knows the lay of the land is hugely advantageous and highly advised in navigating a path through the world of marketing in China. Australian companies are in a great position to do business there, and with such strong relations between the two nations, more companies should look to expand their business into this new and rewarding territory.

WeChat Dominates Social Media in China

China’s social media platforms are unique compared to those used globally.