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Chinese preference for smartphone communication leaves email out

Most Western entities tend to use email as their main form of communication. However, the constant evolution of technology and changing habits of users are forcing companies to resort to new ways of sharing messages.


Particularly in China, the email culture is not very popular. Research indicates that 80 per cent of emails go unopened, and when they are opened, the average response time is 90 minutes.

In contrast, 98 per cent of text messages are opened by recipients and yield an impressive response time of 90 seconds. Engagement through email seems to be on the way out, with filled inboxes, and increasingly sophisticated filter settings making it harder than ever to grab the attention of the readers.


In China, email rates are relatively stagnant due to various issues with service providers, firewalls, and security. While Western countries witnessed a slow rise of technology, from the first computers which filled rooms, to chunky desktop monitors, to laptops and then smartphones; most Chinese people went from having no technology in their home to having a smart phone in their pocket.


In the United States and other parts of the world, as the web was just emerging into mainstream use in the late 1990s, PCs were relatively abundant. In 1999 there were 50.5 computers for every 100 people, according to the World Bank.


Most first-time internet users were working adults or college students about to join the market. Email became a primary mode of communication in the office. And as desktop PCs began to move from the office to households and schools, parents and teachers taught younger people how to use the internet.


In China, however, there were only 1.2 computers per 100 people. Outside of China’s major cities, most households did not own a computer, much less one connected to the internet. In crowded dormitories, there wasn’t much space for students to cram in a desktop PC. And China’s white-collar population was far smaller proportionally than that of the US.


The country was a relatively late adopter of computers and when internet cafes opened, young people started to use social messaging programs such as QQ (created by Tencent) to communicate with one another. Unlike standard emailing, QQ provided entertainment and more interaction with features such as instant messaging.


Smartphones replaced computers as the main computing device in China. Data from the state-backed think-tank China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) shows the rise in China’s internet penetration correlates almost perfectly with mobile phone adoption, and that most connectivity originates on the phone.


When WeChat was released in 2011, it soon became an integral part of daily life. The multi-functioning instant messaging mobile app replaced the use of emails and just like in the West where your email address is part of your identity, WeChat has taken precedence.


Foreign companies operating in China are rethinking their communication strategy, particularly for B2B products and services that might not have the luxury of a budget that can provide a multi-channel strategy. This situation also affects a company’s internal communication.


Experts argue that email is simply less compatible with Chinese culture than chat, particularly in the workplace. Thomas Luo, founder of PingWest, a Chinese tech blog with writers in China and the US, says that email doesn’t merge easily with China’s business culture, which tends to be informal and fast-paced. These qualities, he argues, are better suited to chat software.


In China, a lot of people use WeChat for all their messaging needs, including for business. Private traffic is basically what Chinese brands came up with as an email-free equivalent of email marketing, and it seems to be an even better engagement tool.


WeChat has been adopted into the Chinese working culture and resonates with consumer behaviours. It has become the leading mobile platform in China, which integrates social, commerce, service, and communication.


This does not mean Chinese people do not use email, people just check it far less frequently than their Western counterparts.


Consumers in China do not use or check emails regularly and this is the main reason why email marketing is less effective. They prefer that their favourite brands contact them via text.


But despite WeChat’s popularity, different marketing channels serve different purposes. If you want to send a massive and generic message to your audience, then WeChat is the best option. However, if you want to personalize your content, WeChat may not be the right platform.


In this case, email could be the better option. WeChat and other social media apps in China cannot send specific targeted messages to users depending on their shopping preferences, size, and taste.


Chinese consumers are extremely diversified. City dwellers are not the same as country residents. The same goes for Chinese people in the north vs. the south. No single communication channel covers them all. The best is to create an Omni-channel approach, and let your customers decide how they wish to receive information.


Companies can opt to do “email marketing” through WeChat and send newsletters through the app. Such newsletters can increase customer engagement and create a closer ‘relationship’ between the brand and its consumers.


In general, Chinese buyers prefer to receive messages from brands through WeChat because they don’t want to shift across platforms.


China’s booming digital ecosystem of social media apps provides an array of options for companies to build an effective and coherent marketing strategy. In China, social media is not an option but a vital source for companies to be successful in entering the market by leveraging platforms.


Though email is the preferred method of messaging for corporations in the West, any foreign company intending to operate successfully in China must keep in mind the communication habits of the Chinese. A company which does not understand the mindset and preferences of its consumers and employees, ultimately experiences failure.

To learn more about our services in China, contact our Head of Business Advisory - Ms. Kristina Koehler-Coluccia at kristina@woodburnglobal.com. DISCLAIMER: All information in this article is verified to the best of our ability and is assumed to be correct at time of release; however, Woodburn Accountants & Advisors does not accept responsibility for any losses arising from reliance on the information provided within. The information provided is for general guidance and does not replace specialized advice.

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