China’s Digital Landscape (Finally) Explained

No Facebook, no Google, no YouTube. Oh, and no internet/laptop either. Print media? It’s another no, we’re afraid. Even cash is out. So what do China’s luxury consumers use for social, news, browsing, shopping, paying and life?


WeChat is God. Users? 1 billion. Not only the main social media tool, people in China work and live on WeChat. Emails and phone calls are over. When you meet people in China, even if only for work, they will offer to share WeChat and ask you to scan or be scanned to add their contact. Handing out a name card is so 2009. WeChat is also used to order meals, buy plane tickets, book a sports class, and everything in between.

Cash is definitely no longer King. In fact, Shanghai is pretty much a cashless society. People pay for any and all shopping with their WeChat account (linked to their local bank account), they book tickets and shop via WeChat to or within a WeChat shop itself – optimal for consumer convenience.

We often see articles on how M-Commerce ‘is the future’, when it’s simply the present.

Tencent’s mobile payment sees over 600 million monthly active users including WeChat Pay, connecting over one million retail stores.

Even if you are visiting China and without a local bank account, you can ask a friend/colleague to ‘load’ money into your WeChat Wallet and give them the cash, so that you can pay for anything with WeChat. If you stay in China for longer, then ICBC is the bank of choice for easy set-up, and subsequent linking to your WeChat Wallet.

WeChat is also crucial for attracting Chinese consumers to spend when on their holidays abroad. There are apps for them to create a shopping list and then be notified of geographical vicinity when they arrive overseas. Louis Vuitton’s own WeChat platform performs this same function for Followers. Companies are now creating interest in wealthy Chinese travellers before they even travel, giving the business two bites at the consumer cherry; sales in China and retail tourism when abroad.

WeChat ads can be surprisingly popular – we say surprising as sometimes the most Likes you can see on a post throughout an entire week will be for a paid ad. Chinese people are so keen to be seen as globally aware of high-end brands that they want other people to see their Like for a luxury product, be it a watch, car, clothing item and so on.


While WeChat is closed (you can only see Likes on friend’s posts if you also have the same contact, for example, and you can only search for people or accounts by exact username), Weibo is open – browsing, searching, commenting and sharing are all open on Weibo, making it more apt for branding campaigns and the aim for viral content.

Weibo is an ad-based platform – meaning that even if you have a KOL campaign, you still need to budget for increased reach.

Weibo features display ads, with targeting with keywords based on user searches, and displaying on other relevant accounts with followers of the same type.

You can also promote via the search engine, increasing visibility of not just your campaign but your own Weibo account itself.

There are also ‘fan tunnels’ and ‘fan headlines’, which can promote your brand to all Weibo followers, increasing visibility, which is especially useful for new-comers to Weibo or even China. You can target your audience(s) based on age, gender, region, interests and so on.


MiaoPai is a popular app for sharing videos directly to Weibo Stories (just like Instagram stories). There are easy to use editing tools, which sets it apart as superior to Weibo’s own Stories filming app. MiaoPai publishes to its own app separately to record in-app views and followers, as well as one tap to send it to Weibo.

Tmall and

TMall: The online shopping giant belonging to Alibaba. If you sell products, then you ‘can’t not’ sell them on TMall. Tmall is the “business” version of Taobao, the wild and unruly younger brother which can be compared to eBay. Taobao is famous for selling the most obscure items on Earth, while Alibaba also owns the auction site Xianyu, which is similar to eBay. Weibo and Tmall are owned by the same group, so link together seamlessly. is the other largest online retailer in China. You can buy your weekly shopping or a £100 million apartment in Beijing on the same website. As WeChat, is owned by Tencent, so shopping is done between the two.

Alibaba and are in direct competition with each other for luxury brands, with brands often choosing to work with only one of them. invested almost $400 million in Farfetch in Jun, while Alibaba opened The Luxury Pavilion, an invite-only (invitations given to previous top-spenders on Alibaba and ultra-rich users) platform. Alibaba is also a part-owner of, the luxury flash sales site.

These two websites are going further than mere retailing platforms by developing services for overseas companies in shipping, payment, customs and delivery services.


Toutiao is referred to as ‘the buzzfeed of China’. It’s not the same as buzzfeed, as content is not curated by an editor, but rather there is an unlimited stream of content which is targeted by algorithms, meaning that each user receives more and more accurate content.

With 180 million active users, Toutiao was recently valued at £15 billion. Advertising is done on Toutiao via paid ads, yet these are read more often as they are seen as newsworthy. Cost per 1000 impressions are around RMB 25 (£3).

The lighter content of Toutiao makes it suitable for lifestyle or FMCG companies.

Live streaming

There are scores of smaller live-streaming apps, with Meipai is the biggest (with linking to WeChat and Weibo of course). With its simple special effects and music effects, Meipai is popular with women who love beauty and fashion. Within the streaming session, users can make comments and also send ‘gifts’ and real cash value to the host. Just one example of the many luxury collaborations on Meipai was L’Oreal’s Cannes Film Festival, which had Chinese A-List celebrities giving behind-the-scenes streams, racking up almost 200 million Likes in the process.

Montblanc is another good example, working with popular astrology sage Uncle Alex, who hosted a live streaming show wherein viewers could enter in messages and receive a reply related to which flower they may like best. Over 2 million people watched this event in order to engage with the brand and their beloved Uncle Alex.


Singles Day, on the 11th of November (highlighting the ‘1’), is the biggest sales day of the year in China. Alibaba created VR experiences which allowed shoppers to use their phones in order to preview a product before buying. Another VR example is Zanadu, the luxury travel agency which invested in an entire VR store in Pudong, after receiving US$ 12 million backing from Tencent. Customers can visit the store and use the VR headsets to experience a variety of destinations in order to help them make a decision. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are all investing heavily in VR.

Travel Apps:

Qyer and Mafengwo: These travel apps help users with a wealth of info about both deals on tickets and bookings, but also tips on how to get a visa, insider travel knowledge and so on. They are apt for connecting to Chinese luxury travellers.

As active communities, they also have KOLs within these apps and co-operation with them inspires other users to take their recommendations.

Zhihu is similar to Quora, a Q&A peer-to-peer community. One good example is BMW Mini’s account, which answered questions related to a brighter urban life and gained more than 30,000 followers on Zhihu.

Successful Digital Campaigns

British Airways drew on the cultural factor of familial piety with its Flying the Nest Campaign, centered on a Chinese student receiving a surprise visit from her parents when studying in the UK. It called on the emotions of a golden only child studying overseas and the need to impress and take care of her parents when they go for a visit. It coupled with a travel guide – available within WeChat and via a QR code which could guide them on the cultural points of daily UK life.

Lufthansa almost identically copied this concept a few months later – the ad started with a Chinese man being taken to the airport by his taxi-driving Father, and then he decided to pay for his parents’ flight to Germany the next time. This led to more travel information for Followers.

MontBlanc played upon Chinese people’s love of superstition and horoscopes. Their “Spiritualist Moon Phrase Campaign” connected the shiny nature of their products with the stars, culminating in a campaign that mixed lunar cycles with general self-interest. Followers could insert their gender and birthdate into the Montblanc WeChat, then being given a ‘personal’ horoscope reading.

Uniqlo had one of the best O2O campaigns. Their “Style your life” campaign let customers try on clothes in-store, in front of large screens which reflected the person as wearing the clothes on a background of London, Tokyo or New York. The user could then take this photo which was sent directly to their own WeChat, from where they could share it to their Moments – ‘look at me, I like international travel’. Uniqlo recorded an increase of 30% and WeChat account followers growing from 400,000 to 1 million.

KOL collaboration – Mr. Bags and Becky Li. The most success has come from ongoing relationships wherein the brand worked with the KOL’s content plan, both before and after the key selling moment. One of the notable cases in 2017 was when Becky Li, a fashion blogger, sold 100 limited edition blue MINI cars, after having curated various recommendations of blue-coloured clothing in the previous posts. Read more about that collaboration here.