For many Australian businesses, a major barrier to getting a foothold in China is penetrating the great digital divide.
Tight Chinese government regulations mean the internet is a very different looking beast in China, at least compared with the online experience in Australia.
Online portals relied on by Australian businesses to expand their operations, promote their companies and enter new markets, such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, cannot be accessed in China, because of the government’s controls.
Instead, China has its own suite of search engines and social media channels.
Internet searches are done via Baidu rather than Google, while more than 900 million Chinese use WeChat not only as a replacement for Facebook, but also e-commerce sites such as Amazon or eBay.
And with the vast majority of the content on Baidu, WeChat, and Twitter-like platform Weibo only accessible in Mandarin or Cantonese, many Australian businesses’ expansion plans can be derailed.
However, it’s not just because of the language barrier, but also because of limited understanding of the nuances and vagaries surrounding how the Chinese platforms work.
That’s where Perth-based digital marketing agency Ignite Search comes in.
Established by managing director Cheech Foo three years ago, Ignite Search has been developing a suite of new services known as Ignite China.
Ignite China has partnered with digital agencies in Shanghai and Hong Kong to provide Australian businesses with comprehensive strategies to penetrate the whole gamut of the Chinese digital market.
Mr Foo said educating Australian businesses seeking to enter China around the potential of platforms such as WeChat was one of Ignite China’s key aims.
“This is a very new frontier, it’s a very new category,” Mr Foo told Australia China Business Review.
“WeChat alone has over 900 million users now and they only started four years ago.
“No company has done that, not even Facebook.
“A lot of companies are quite nervous because it’s quite foreign, WeChat is in a new language so they’re not sure what’s happening.
“And when you’re not sure of something, when you’re not confident, you tend to not look too deep or change your strategy to avoid it.”
Mr Foo said WeChat, owned by China's largest internet company, Tencent, was becoming increasingly powerful as its popularity grew, however, for Australian firms to benefit, they needed to understand how the platform worked.
Unlike Facebook, the only way to access a company’s WeChat channel is to follow them, and once followed, a user receives all the messages and information sent out via the platform.
Another key differentiator for WeChat, Mr Foo said, was that firms not based in China were able to establish WeChat channels, but foreign companies were not able to access Chinese users.
“With what we are doing right now with our partners in Hong Kong and Shanghai, we have the ability to help Australian users officially register WeChat Official Accounts,” he said.
“That is huge, it’s really big.”
Mr Foo said early market testing in Western Australia had drawn significant interest from the tourism and property sectors, industries that depend on increased exposure to the Chinese market.
That interest was largely based around the fact that WeChat had its own comprehensive search engine and category groupings, tools which Mr Foo said were increasingly powerful for business, particularly in tourism.
“For example, if you were part of an organisation that oversees promoting certain regions, like Margaret River, you can have a destination on WeChat,” Mr Foo said.
“Not only can you promote just one establishment or one entity, you can promote multiple entities within multiple categories.
“Margaret River has so much to offer in terms of experiences, and to have one portal that can share everything there is to share about the region with Chinese consumers, that’s a fantastic opportunity that can be opened up.”
Mr Foo said Ignite China’s services provided two main strategies – accessing Chinese people living in China, and accessing the 1 million-plus Chinese people studying, living and working in Australia.
“If you are looking to target the affluent, the wealthy and the educated, right now WeChat would be the platform for it, that’s very clear,” he said.
“But the most important thing to truly understand is, because it’s a new frontier and a new category, do not be limited to what people tell you, because Tencent is currently embarking on an international expansion phase.
“Therefore, the opportunities offered to Australian businesses looking to penetrate the Chinese market are only going to increase in scope and size, in terms of the business possibilities within WeChat.
“That’s the mindset you have to take, not just in a digital marketing aspect, but really in general, looking towards China.
“Things just don’t stand still in China, it’s all very fluid, so that’s why you have to move fast and continually experiment, test and refine your marketing activities.”