Positive electronic Word-of-Mouth on Social Media in China How to market your business with the help of 730 million internet users

Written by: Fabian Engeln


McDonald’s taking over the Chicken Wings Market in China

In 2010, the American fast food chain McDonald’s launched the “Love McWings” campaign in China, which became a huge success. Over two million Chinese people shared their love to McDondald’s spicy chicken wings online on social media after the campaign announcement the campaign. The company promised to hand out free chicken wings in seven McDonald’s restaurants for seven days, if one million people will participate on the Chinese McDonald’s website (Harward Business Review, 2010). An important trigger for the campaign to become so popular was a fan site set up by McDonald’s on the Chinese social platform QQ. After all, masses of people had to be restricted, because of the huge demand of free chicken wings at the seven shops (Portfolio, 2010). 

Image: Chinese McDonald’s QQ fan campaign website (Damndigital, 2010)

This example shows the huge potential of a country with 730 million Chinese internet users (Internet Live Stats, 2016) in terms of spreading products through word-of-mouth (WOM). Now, the internet facilitates the increasing interconnection of people, leading to even more fast-paced electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014). So how can companies leverage this potential in China and use online strategies to generate electronic word-of-mouth?

The beginning of this blog article deals with a general theoretical overview of word-of-mouth and how the phenomenon changed with the evolution of social media in the new web 2.0 environment. Then, the focus will be the role of electronic word-of-mouth marketing in the unique Chinese social media world. The middle part will draw the attention on practical case examples of Chinese and Western companies engaging in electronic word-of-mouth strategies in China. The analysis of these examples will be the basis of the concluding management suggestions.

The Expansion of Word-of-Mouth with Web 2.0

Early research on the phenomenon of word-of-mouth dates back 50 years, where it was seen as “oral, person to person communication between a receiver and a communicator whom the receiver perceives as non-commercial, concerning a brand, a product or a service” (Arndt, 1967, p.3).

However, the internet development changed this traditional view of consumer interaction. People are no longer using internet only as an information source, as it was common in web 1.0. It is now a place where content is created and changed by the users in a sharing and collaborative way (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). In web 2.0, they are creating and consuming information on social media websites, while adding value where they are permitted to do so (Campbell et al., 2011). This creates new opportunities for marketers to spread their brands and products.

Now, electronic word-of-mouth can happen at any time and any place, with the possibility to exchange information with an unlimited number of individuals through the internet (Ellison & Fudenberg, 1995). Therefore, the definition of electronic word-of-mouth was clarified by Henning-Thurau et al. (2004, p.39) as a “[…] statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the internet”. Thus, electronic word-of-mouth can occur on various different types of websites, where interactions between individuals are possible. For instance, blogs, questions & answer sites, social networks and many others. There can be positive and negative electronic word-of-mouth (Chatterjee, 2001). In this article, positive electronic word-of-mouth will be the focus with regards to how companies can use it to market their brand and products.

Why electronic word-of-mouth is so effective in China

In Asian countries, the electronic word-of-mouth phenomenon plays an extraordinary role. There, people have a collectivistic nature and therefore tend to ask for advice from others to purchase online more than anywhere else (Park et al., 2011). That is why electronic word-of-mouth has a huge potential on that continent (Park et al., 2011). In China, customers are quite sceptical of official institutions, due to censorship (Maxxelli Consulting, 2013). As a consequence, Chinese people are likely to inform themselves about products and companies through statements made by other people on social networks (Yu, Asur & Huberman, 2011). Additionally, the cultural behaviour in China facilitates the people’s propensity to engage in electronic word-of-mouth, as they tend to feel more comfortable when expressing their opinion online than in face-to-face communication (Tse, 1999).

Understanding the Chinese Social Media Landscape

For marketers, electronic word-of-mouth marketing on social media is an important success factor, as people regard product information on those as more credible, than marketer-generated content (Bickhart & Schindler, 2001). However, managing the online presence in the unknown Chinese environment can be a challenge. This is why companies first need to discover the rather fragmented local social media landscape

In most western countries, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube are widely used (OneEurope, 2014). However, companies should not believe that it is the same in China. For example, barely 1% of Chinese online users use Facebook (Internet World Stats, 2015). This is the result of strong censorship and country-wide regulations, making many western websites unable to access. On the image below, the important social media QQ, QZone, Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku on the Chinese market are illustrated. They are the Chinese adaptions of their Western counterparts and have specific purposes, as shown in the right column. For instance, Youku and YouTube are made for visual marketing with videos, while QQ has many different functions and western counterparts. Consequently, companies do not have to develop a whole new concept of social media policies and strategies on the Chinese market (Aperto, n.d.). However, marketers should understand the purposes and nuances of Chinese social media, before doing online marketing for electronic word-of-mouth.

Image: Popular social media in China (Synthesio, 2013; Makeawebsitehub, 2015)

How to Impose the Words to Spread in the Middle Country

There is still a lot of research running on electronic word-of-mouth. Companies still do not fully understand how to make customers engage in electronic word-of-mouth. King, Racherla and Bush (2014) have synthesised many important research resources and give relevant insights on the topic. In the following, these and other approaches will be explored with examples and local adaptions on the Chinese market.

(1) For Chinese people, reviews of other users are the most credible information source when doing online shopping (China Internet Watch, 2014). Thus, incentives are important to encourage customers writing reviews and spread their opinion about a product on social media (Henning-Thurau et al., 2004). Many Chinese companies on the online retailing platform Taobao offer monetary incentives of up to 20 Renminbi (≈3 USD) to write good reviews of their products with a five star rating (IT Home, 2015). This is an opportunity for marketers to make Chinese customers write reviews on social media and pave the way for successful electronic word-of-mouth.

Other incentives can be prizes or physical rewards, which are attractive for the target group of a brand. For example, Nike had its “Just Do It” campaign in China and encouraged people to enable a small Nike logo in their status on the messaging app QQ (QQxoo, 2011). The people identified themselves with this “cool” image. Also, this was one of the steps necessary to receive a present by Nike; another incentive for the fans. The company exploited the unusual nature of the Nike badge on QQ to make people ask their friend about it and engage in electronic word-of-mouth or let them click on it to find themselves on the campaign website.

Image: Nike’s logo badge on QQ messenger (QQxoo, 2011)

(2) Another method of creating electronic word-of-mouth in China is consumer engagement (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014). Here, companies put people into a more active role when interacting with a brand on social media and increase their loyalty (Algesheimer et al., 2010). Coca-Cola China is a good example of online consumer engagement. In 2013, the company implemented a campaign to offer customised Coca-Cola bottles and cans with nicknames (Weixin Yidu, 2015). Coca-Cola started a four-day contest on its Sina Weibo Site, where people could repost their favourite nickname. Then the company picked 99 participants and sent them a bottle with their nickname and a gift (ClickZ, 2013). It was an easy and interesting way for customers to engage in the campaign and show their favourite nickname to many other people. This clarifies the new active role of consumers to generate electronic word-of-mouth, which Coca-Cola is leveraging (Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2004). Also, the nicknames showed the company’s cultural understanding of China, as some of them were popular internet slang names, for example “Mr. Perfect” (高富帅). This increased the people’s trust in the company and the likability to share it online for creating electronic word-of-mouth.


(3) Furthermore, firms can foster positive electronic word-of-mouth by having a fan-centric social media strategy (Shih, Lin & Luarn, 2014). This means, incorporating the concern for the firms’ fans in internet communication and facilitating interactions with them, based on passion, respect and trust (Shih, Lin & Luarn, 2014). A good example of this strategy is the Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi. The company has a huge presence on all important social media websites in China, while it puts extra effort in marketing on Sina Weibo. With social hubs for each of its products and services on that platform, Xiaomi can better address the various interests of its fans (ReferralCandy, n.d.). At the same time, the company is very dynamic and constantly delivers radical updates on its customised Android user interface “MIUI”. These big and fast paced changes facilitate hype-like discussions between the fans about new innovative features in upcoming versions on the tailor-made MIUI hub (Tong, 2016). Hereby, Xiaomi makes it convenient for its fans to engage in positive electronic word-of-mouth and spread reviews of the new software features on Weibo (Shih, Lin & Luarn, 2014).


Image: Social media hub of MIUI on Weibo (Xiaomi, 2016)

Key Learnings for Success

Overall, the article delivered an explorative theoretical overview of the electronic word-of-mouth phenomenon. It became clear, that the internet shift to a more interconnected character creates important opportunities for electronic word-of-mouth marketing on social media. On the Chinese market, companies have to bear in mind the local social media landscape, which differs from other countries. Furthermore, the case examples showed the necessity for most companies in China to act with the right methods on Chinese social media to evoke electronic word-of-mouth for creating a brand’s awareness and (ultimately) sales. 

The presented theoretical considerations and case examples suggest the following managerial implications for companies aiming to generate electronic word-of-mouth in China:

  • Companies on the Chinese market should not forget the importance of an online presence on Chinese social media.
  • QQ, QZone, Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku are the most popular social media websites in China and should be considered first.
  • Different social media websites have different purposes and should be chosen properly for electronic word-of-mouth marketing. The Western counterparts can be used as a reference to define the type.
  • Monetary and physical incentives to spread reviews of products or brands are important to generate electronic word-of-mouth on Chinese social media
  • Customer engagement on Chinese social media helps to make consumers identify themselves with the brand better and increases their likability to engage in electronic word-of-mouth
  • Cultural adaptions and a deep knowledge of popular Chinese internet slang words can help to increase trust and the likability of electronic word-of-mouth
  • Social media hubs for all product lines and services on all important Chinese social media websites create the basis for a successful fan-centric online strategy and facilitate electronic word-of-mouth

Although this blog article explores some concepts of electronic word-of-mouth in China, limitations have to be made. The phenomenon is introduced and analysed in a simplified way, with a limited number of case examples. Additionally, the presented social media in China are the most used ones, but they do not cover the whole fragmented entity of local social media websites. Further research could give more insights in how companies make use of electronic word-of-mouth on social media in China to deduce possible best practices.










Literature list

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