Travel brands and destinations are vying for the attention of Chinese travelers – already a massive market with an estimated 130.5 million outbound trips made in 2017 and projections of 10% growth annually for the next several years.
But capturing the attention and interest of these active – and primarily affluent – travelers requires a different strategy than what is traditionally used in the West. For one, mobile is the dominant information interface. EMarketer predicts adults in China will spend two hours and 39 minutes per day on a mobile device this year, up more than 11% over 2017 and for the first time eclipsing time spent watching TV. While on their phones, however, Chinese consumers are not using the platforms most common in the West: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all banned, and Baidu – not Google – is the dominant online search tool, controlling about 80% of all searches to Google’s 10%.
What Chinese consumers are using is WeChat. The Tencent-owned platform is an all-encompassing app for its one billion monthly active users, providing services such as instant messaging, photo sharing, shopping and travel research, booking and payments. To get a deeper understanding of WeChat and how travel brands can use it to reach the lucrative Chinese outbound travel market, PhocusWire spoke to Reene Ho-Phang, founder and managing director at BrandStory, a tourism marketing agency that manages campaigns targeted at outbound tourists from China and throughout Asia.
Can you start by explaining the mobile market in China?
China has become one of the world’s largest travel source markets. Therefore everyone is excited about the market, and it’s a market where almost every travel brand is represented. There are a couple of interesting trends that are arising from the market. The digitization of China was very rapid, and so if you look at the infrastructure of China, the digitization superseded the physical infrastructure. The majority of the population is on mobile phones, and the digital infrastructure is rather complete.
People now get around their daily life without a wallet, without cash money or credit cards. There’s no need for that. All you need is your mobile phone, and you can utilize it for hiring a taxi, ordering food for lunch, booking travel, rating a restaurant, conducting shopping, watching TV, paying your utilities and your bills.
In China, there are also tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Tier 3 cities might be a really mountainous area – you may not have the roads, the hospitals, other physical structural amenities, but everyone has a mobile phone and you can reach people across the nation through the mobile network. In some tier 2 and tier 3 cities, the family may not have a television, but it does not matter. They can watch anything on telephone. In some cities, you would see people first have TV screens and then mobile, but here the digitization happened so fast, we skipped that.
WeChat now has about one billion active monthly users. Why has it become the dominant mobile platform?
It’s a really powerful, multipurpose messaging platform. It became something the Chinese people love with the primary objective of having your own circle of friends. In China it’s very important to feel exclusive and like you are part of a network. That started the popularity of WeChat. You can share photos, words, but another very popular function is the wallet. It’s right next to the social messaging – it’s within easy reach. And within the wallet you find many other brands have mini programs, and you can reach them easily.
For example, you can go to the wallet and reach out to your favorite shopping mall and make a purchase. And in your wallet you can search for a merchant or a car rental company or a taxi and you can book it right away. You can look for a government agency where you are paying bills or utilities. It became so convenient and became integrated into Chinese consumers’ everyday lives.
How is WeChat being used for travel and tourism marketing?
Travel brands can reach consumers in various ways utilizing WeChat. There is no one best way. It depends on the business you are conducting. For example, they can have a subscription account. Now in China people don’t like to look at newsletters on email anymore. Instead of email, they can look at their subscriptions and something like a newsletter is delivered to WeChat for the brands you subscribe to.
Some of the brands we handle are Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Hawaii Tourism China and also the Capital Region USA, which is Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. For these clients, we do an updated newsletter every week about the latest travel attractions news. Where in other markets you would do an e-newsletter, here it’s a WeChat magazine that is delivered to your account because you subscribe for it. It’s very enriched – it can be videos, it can be text. It really looks like a magazine.
How else is it being used?
Another function is that an organization can also provide customer service through their business network – like a hotline where customers can ask questions about, for example, a destination, when is the best time to go. You can also create mini apps in WeChat. Instead of relying let’s say on Android or iOS where you have to download the apps, now in WeChat you can create the app. Let’s say you decide to have an app to share the safety features of a destination or information that is always changing like weather and so on.
You can also create campaigns within WeChat. You will see native advertising, so that is another way brands can reach out to potential travelers. WeChat doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists as part of your total campaign. For example the WeChat QR code is displayed at Hawaii events and on collaterals, maps for Chinese consumers to quickly scan and enter to get the subscription.
What suggestions do you have for brands that want to engage Chinese consumers via WeChat?
I think some of the most effective strategies are based around creative content marketing strategies and delivering content that potential travelers want and creating interesting formats to deliver that information. This isn’t just about making the content look good on a small, vertical screen; it’s about experimenting with flexible, portable content structure and experiences like interactive games. For example: Hawaii, as you know, is a spectacular destination, but it is facing huge competition from other Asian islands. There is a need to differentiate it. So we created a campaign to position Hawaii as the diamond of all islands, a cut above.
The concept of a diamond captures the consumers’ imagination and desire. We worked with China’s number-one diamond boutique brand [Chow Tai Fook], and we jointly created a treasure hunt WeChat game so you can go to different islands of Hawaii and find the treasure – the diamond hidden in each island. It’s very engaging and they can learn about each island, and it’s beautiful and it had great diamond prizes.
This initiative is a joint marketing effort with the number-one diamond boutique of China. They have about 2,000 stores. Their WeChat account has millions of customers. So we are tapping a new customer base. Short videos, especially those ranging six to 15 seconds are a popular trend that will be widely used on digital and e-commerce sites for marketing purposes. In the past two years, Tencent, Alibaba and Toutiao have made huge investments to support short video production.
And WeChat is also used for payments?
A very high percentage of travel purchases happen on the mobile phone. They can utilize WeChat Pay. Let’s say you are an airline. You can choose to create an app on WeChat, and in your app you offer the options of ticket purchase with WeChat Pay. You can also offer a customer service page for questions and so on. These are options. To operate successfully is to understand your target audience and anticipate their needs and make it so enjoyable and seamless for them to make the purchase.
What have you seen as Western brands try to understand and adapt to marketing via WeChat?
It’s a quite steep learning curve, because the technology is fast disrupting previous business models, whether it’s the business model of an online travel platform or a travel agency or media. It unfolds because the consumer habits are rapidly evolving. China is an interesting market because when something is popular, it goes viral rapidly, and because of the population size it reaches a critical mass very quickly, making it highly feasible. The change occurs rapidly.
What do you see happening in the next few years with marketing on WeChat?
Consumer tastes are changing: Consumers want even more tailored itineraries, not one-size-fits-all. What we are seeing in the market now is the travel platforms that can offer customization will be the new winners.