How to crack China online: Five challenges for firms to overcome to succeed in the market

Many online businesses look to the Chinese market for expansion but are often ill-prepared to crack it. While China has around 700m internet users, a few mistakes can make it inaccessible. So what are exactly are challenges – and how can they be overcome?

(1) Navigating the “Great Firewall”

The Chinese government blocks thousands of domains to protect its citizens from potential exposure to what it sees as questionable content. While many bosses are confident that their website does not contain any offensive content, it is critical to ensure that your website meets these rules to avoid being blocked. 

A few recent cases illustrated how common it is for the algorithms checking websites to block a safe website in error. In one bizarre case, a meat producer’s website was automatically blocked because an image of a pig was falsely recognised as human skin and flagged as obscene. So taking a closer look at your website is crucial. Many websites contain social media buttons, a sidebar of “recent tweets” or even embed a video from YouTube. Each of these run the risk of having your website blocked, as such platforms are blocked in China. It is easy to overlook when many brands simply replicate the western website for the Chinese market.

(2) Location, location, location

There is also the issue of latency to consider: how long it takes for a website to load. Latency depends on the distance data must travel from its origin to the user requesting data – for a website hosted on the other side of the world, it can take some time for websites to load. The “Great Firewall,” with its automatic checks, also adds a few seconds to this.

People are not patient, and consumers in China are no more patient than those elsewhere in the world – people will click away from the website they are trying to access after a few seconds. Loading times of half a minute or more will mean consumers abandoning your site before it loads. As such, hosting nearer to China will help – many firms consider hosting a data centre in Hong Kong, but despite being a part of China, it is outside of the “Great Firewall”. A content delivery network provider also means you can host a data centre in the UK and still have great performance in China.

Read more on China’s involvement with the UK:

(3) Language and culture differences

To someone accustomed to western websites, visiting a Chinese website can seem disorienting. China’s slow internet speeds means dense, text heavy websites are preferred – users can get all the information they need in one place, instead of having to click elsewhere. This means you can’t copy your minimalistic website design for the Chinese market. Even if latency is not an issue, businesses must ensure content is aligned with cultural expectations to ensure their message is well received by Chinese consumers. 

(4) Going mobile

An estimated 90 per cent of internet users in China opt for a mobile-first approach – a shift that has occurred much faster than in the west. Several firms have already adopted a responsive design that can adapt to mobile and most likely think they’re most of the way there. But in China mobile sites are often a separate, primary solution. Chinese businesses develop mobile-only “Light Apps” that act as microsites aimed at mobile audiences. 

(5) The laws of licensing

All websites in China must have a “Bei’an” license, while those that “make money” need an additional “ICP” license. Certain vertical markets also need further licences – and hosting a website without these licenses is impossible. If you are serious about competing with local sites, it’s key to seek advice when dealing with this unique legislation. One wrong move could mean your website is blacklisted, with no way to appeal.

Taking on China

Businesses targeting China might have the greatest product in the market and an influential marketing strategy to go accompany it – but could be let down by something minor. Instead, getting to grips with the Great Firewall, licensing laws and cultural expectations are key to reach Chinese consumers and be a success in the market. With huge investments in time and money, businesses need to get their China strategy right first time around.

Alex Nam is MD of CDNetworks Europe.

Image: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, David Brimson, director of DealGlob, explains what Chinese investment can do for British SMEs.

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