How to Use Social Media to Tap Into the Burgeoning Market of Chinese Travellers
By Daniel Edward Craig
As the American and European economies continue to struggle, Western hotels and travel companies have been turning to emerging countries for expansion and growth. And nowhere are there greater opportunities than in China, the biggest growth market in global tourism, according to the BBC.
A recent HVS report cites numbers from the National Bureau of Statistics of China indicating that between 2000 and 2010 Chinese outbound travel increased at an annual rate of 18.5%, from 10.5 million to 57.4 million. Meanwhile, China is expected to replace France as the largest tourism attraction in the world by 2015, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
For advice on how to tap into this burgeoning market, I consulted Jens Thraenhart, co-founder of Dragon Trail, a Beijing-based technology and digital marketing company that specializes in the Chinese travel market.
Tell us about your company, Dragon Trail.
I co-founded Dragon Trail at the beginning of 2009 with George Cao, who also got his MBA from the Hotel School at Cornell University. While George has a vast background in travel technology both in the US and in China, my background is focused around strategic marketing and e-commerce.
At that time, just two years ago, people had started to actively look at the Chinese outbound tourism market, due to drastic changes in visa regulations, increased wealth in China, and a great appetite for travel to explore the world. When we [first] talked to tourist boards and hotel companies about the power of social media marketing in China, we received many blank stares.
We have since established ourselves as the leading travel technology and digital marketing company in China, focusing exclusively on China, travel, and digital. We help travel and tourism organizations connect to Chinese consumers by leveraging the Chinese online and social media landscape to develop and seed relevant content, executing results-driven digital marketing campaigns and enabling innovative technology solutions.
What is the state of internet usage in China related to travel?
China has the most Internet users in the world. With over 460 million Internet users, over 300 million mobile Internet users, and 92% social media engagement, the Internet has become the most influential medium in China, outpacing all other countries, according to the Digital Influence Index 2010 … E-commerce, while still small, is growing rapidly for travel purchases.
Which social networking platforms are most popular in China?
The social media infrastructure in China is very developed, and all the same services, from micro-blogging to video sharing, are all available and active – and most importantly, more relevant to the Chinese market than their western counterparts.
Popular sites such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter are blocked in China. The Chinese Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo, is projected to overtake Twitter in terms of numbers in less than a year, and it was only launched in 2008. Facebook has started to model applications after RenRen, one of the major social networks in China and once dubbed as the Chinese Facebook clone. Chinese domestic social media channels dominate and will do so for the foreseeable future.
Other key sites include Kaixin001, Douban, QZone, Youku, Tudou and Taobao, as well as Baidu, the Google of China.
[For more info check out Socialnomic’s Chinese Social Media: 6 Critical Sites and Mailman Group’s China’s Top 15 Social Networks.]
What advice would you give to travel-related companies that want to expand into China and use social media as a marketing channel?
The first advice I would give is to set your expectations right. I have done e-commerce and online marketing in Europe and North America, and the rules of engagement, the metrics, and the channels are vastly different. Second, develop a strategy (in partnership with a trusted partner in China that knows the landscape, has the relationships and the experience in travel as well as in social media in China and globally). Make sure that the strategy is a layered plan, and not an ad-hoc campaign (like spending some money on Baidu and advertising).
Develop a website that is relevant, and not just a translation of the English site. Website hosting in China is critical in order to ensure organic local search engine optimization and optimal accessibility. Constant optimization of the social media landscape is critical in order to ensure content seeding, consumer engagement, and brand reputation. A solid technology partner is vital, especially when running campaigns, to ensure data quality and to protect the database from hackers.
In short: Do it right, invest appropriate resources, and be patient, or don’t do it all.
Are traveler reviews as influential to Chinese travelers as to Western travelers?
Yes, and probably even more so. Over 60% of Chinese Internet users make purchase decisions based on online reviews, compared to just over 20% in the US. The Chinese hotel review space is fairly new compared to the west but has been growing extremely fast.
Are the hotel and tourism industries in China engaging in online reputation management practices?
Yes. Obviously in a market where social media has such a high engagement rate, monitoring a brand’s reputation and performance on these channels is critical.
When it comes to hotels, there are various sites that offer reviews to Chinese consumers. TripAdvisor runs a Chinese version of its site called Daodao.com, and it is probably the leader. Hotel OTAs such as Ctrip to eLong have also integrated social media and review functionality. So from that standpoint, it is pretty easy to manage a hotel’s reputation, and sophisticated technology and software is probably pre-mature. Of the leading hotel reputation management companies, nobody is active in China, and the only one (to my knowledge) that has integrated Chinese hotel reviews from Ctrip into its dashboard is Brand Karma by Circos.
When it comes to tourism, there is really no system on the market that helps tourism organizations manage their reputation online. It is also a much harder task, given the wide nature of tourism related topics that could be monitored. There are various iWOM (Internet Word of Mouth) monitoring companies, and the leading one is Shanghai-based CIC. But none of these is focusing on tourism.
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