The world of advertising has changed quite a lot in the last twenty years, and advertising in China is no different. Television, Radio, and out of home advertising were the only methods available to advertisers in the past. In the last few decades this has radically changed, not just in China but across the world.
While many businesses still make use of traditional advertising, digital has become the most popular method by far due to its ability to target users based on their behavior online. With traditional advertising, targeting was incredibly limited, with many advertisers accepting that the best method of advertising is to simply reach the most amount of people. Today, advertisers can reach users with advanced targeting to ensure there’s less wasted advertising dollars.
While traditional advertising is still popular in China, there has been a radical shift towards digital advertising in China due to its lower costs and more targeted reach. In this article we’ll cover 5 of the most popular channels brands are using to advertise in Mainland China.
#1. WeChat: Expensive but Effective
While WeChat isn’t widely used outside of China, nearly everyone the world over has heard of its popularity in China. WeChat currently has over 1.15 billion monthly active users, putting it firmly among the ranks of Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook.
Tencent, the company behind WeChat, resisted adding advertising to the WeChat platform for quite a long time to avoid driving users away from the platform. For the first 3-4 years after WeChat’s launch there was very little in the way of official advertising for companies and brands to make use of.
To this day, Wechat still has comparatively high barriers of entry for advertising in terms of cost & requirements. Unlike Facebook, where companies can start advertising for as little as USD $5, WeChat requires initial deposits of in the thousands of dollars to activate an advertiser account.
In 2014, WeChat launched banner ads, which are widely regarded as some of the worst-performing ads on the platform. However, for brands desperate to reach WeChat’s user base this format quickly became popular in China.
This changed in 2015 when WeChat launched Moments Ads, the format most directly comparable to Facebook’s Newsfeed ads. These ads have proven effective for many brands and remain the most well-known on the platform.
While Moments Ads are the most popular they are not for every brand. They are typically used by larger brands as they are far more expensive than any other type of ad available on WeChat.
For smaller brands, there are other options including KOL advertising, banner ads, and Tencent’s Ad network, Tencent Social Ads. These usually have lower barriers to entry and can allow smaller brands to get started reaching their target audience on WeChat.
#2 Weibo: Still Around Still Effective
While WeChat has been hogging the spotlight over the last few years, Sina Weibo remains an incredibly important part of China’s advertising and social media ecosystems. While many have predicted Weibo’s role in China would decline, it still saw considerable growth in 2019 with its user-base reaching 497 million monthly active users.
Unlike WeChat which has sought to restrict advertising on the platform and maintain its user experience, Weibo has dove headlong into making the platform an effective tool for advertisers of all sizes.
Primarily popular with B2C companies, Weibo offers a range of different advertising formats for brands, companies, and even individuals to take advantage of. These formats include boosted posts, hot topics, on-open display ads, banner ads, and more! The platform even offers a range of different formats specifically designed to appear as organic posts.
Due to its open nature, brands can expect to receive far more reach on Weibo as opposed to WeChat. While the user quality might not be as high as on WeChat it’s an incredibly effective platform for building brand awareness. It can also be effective in driving users to take certain kinds of action, like participating in surveys or giveaways.
Due to a tie-up with Alibaba, it can also be very effective for e-commerce businesses selling on Taobao or T-Mall. However, for e-commerce businesses with a limited budget they would likely be better served by placing ads directly on their e-commerce marketplaces as opposed to on Weibo.
Ultimately Weibo remains one of the most effective advertising channels in China due to its wide array of ad formats, inexpensive rates, and its ability to target a large audience.
#3 Baidu – In An Ocean of Social Media Search Still Plays an Important Role
Even as social media continues to steal the spotlight in China for advertisers, search still remains an incredibly important channel for advertising in China. This is particularly true for businesses in the B2B sector.
Like Google, Baidu has many different channels for brands to take advantage of when advertising in China, with the most popular being its search engine. Other than search Baidu also has its own display network and several different websites including Baike, Tieba, and Baidu Zhidao.
Although Baidu saw its advertising and marketing service revenues drop by 2% YoY in 2019, it still maintains its position as the market leader in terms of search.
While overall spending on search engine advertising in China has been growing at much slower rates than other advertising channels in China, it plays a key role for businesses with more complex products who target only a small segment of the total population. This decline in search engine advertising revenues has been very damaging for some of the smaller search engines in China, but has also help cement Baidu’s position as the #1 search engine in China.
Manufacturers, Tech companies, and service providers all heavily rely on Baidu to reach their target customers. Baidu will likely continue to play an important role in advertising in China, particularly in the B2B space. Chances are if search works well in your home market then Baidu will likely be a great channel for you as well!
#4 Alimama: The Ultimate Advertising Channel for E-Commerce Brands
Alimama is Alibaba’s advertising platform providing brands with access to some of China’s largest web properties including T-Mall and Taobao. With the E-commerce sector in China growing at breakneck speed Alimama has grown to be one of the most important advertising networks in the country.
Outside of its own properties, like Taobao and T-mall, the network provides advertisers with the ability to place advertisements on popular websites like IQiYi, Weibo and Youku. However, the real reason most advertisers choose this platform is for access to China’s most popular e-commerce marketplaces, Taobao, T-Mall, and Alibaba’s latest acquisition Kaola.
The most popular ad formats available on this platform are the so-called “Train Ads” and “Diamond Display Ads.”
Train ads function in a way similar to SEM. Companies can purchase the right to appear higher in search results for certain keywords on Taobao and T-mall potentially leading to more clicks and sales through the platforms.
Diamond Display Ads function exactly how they sound, as display ads. However, these ads are the only type of display ad that can be shown on Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplace, giving them a huge leg up over standard display ads.
For E-commerce businesses, there is no other form of paid advertising that is more effective than what is offered directly by Alibaba. While KOLs and other forms of marketing can also be incredibly effective when it comes to paid digital advertising Alimama remains the market leader for e-commerce companies in China.
#5 The Bytedance Ecosystem: The Newcomer On The Block
Building on its success with its two most popular apps, Jinri Toutiao and Douyin (The Chinese version of TikTok), Bytedance has risen to become the second biggest player in China’s digital advertising space, with over 23% of digital ad spend going to the company.
In the first half of 2019 alone, Bytedance’s advertising revenues grew by over 113%, primarily driven by the increasing popularity of its short video app Douyin. Douyin has given advertisers access to an affluent and young audience making it unique among China’s social media ecosystem.
Jinri Toutiao, Bytedance’s news aggregator, is also popular with users of all ages. Its complex algorithms serve content to users based on their past behavior, leading it to become one of the most popular platforms for news-seekers in China.
While advertising on Jinri Toutiao is relatively easy and is comparable to other platforms Douyin is its own animal. Given that the platform is relatively new, Bytedance has been hesitant to overload the platform with advertising in the hopes of maintaining its user growth.
However, more and more features for advertisers have been added to the platform in 2019, including allowing users to place direct links to marketplace sites like Taobao and T-mall.
Like WeChat, Douyin hopes to keep out the riff-raff by requiring relatively high initial deposits for brands to activate their advertising accounts on the platform.
This hasn’t stopped large brands from taking advantage of the platform, but for smaller businesses, the platform does remain somewhat out of reach due to not only these minimums but the content formats required to advertise on the platform. High-quality short videos are tough to produce and require significant investment apart from the advertising costs paid to Bytedance.
All of this is likely to change in the coming year as Bytedance continues to monetize its apps and entrench itself as one of the leading platforms for advertising in China.
Choosing the right channel for advertising in China is often the easy part, it’s taking advantage of them and generating a solid ROI that can be the hard part. Businesses need to carefully analyze demographics, user intent, and user behavior to determine which channel will work best for them when advertising in China, or else they might be better off just flushing their advertising dollars down the toilet.
For newcomers to the market, I always recommend working with a native team to ensure you take the right steps toward building your business in China. With the right research & right team, China can be an incredibly lucrative market, but brands that fail to prepare properly are almost certain to fail.