Where does a standalone webshop stand in China eCommerce?
For many western brands, China could be one of the only few markets that brings about very strong mixed feelings. On the one hand, you can effortlessly find on pretty much all the major news outlets jaw-dropping stories about how some Western brands are making millions, if not billions, in China’s online world. On the other hand, just the thought of opening up a webpage filled with Chinese characters or speaking to a rude and sometimes unprofessional Account Manager from one of the large eCommerce companies may already give you a headache. And I have not even started with the censorship. However, China is also no mystery. Just like doing business in all other emerging markets, you just need to figure out what is the magic button.
When thinking of China eCommerce, the first thing that pops into your mind might as well be Alibaba or Jack Ma. Indeed, Alibaba keeps surprising the world with its strong capacities to engage Chinese e-shoppers and to monetize on their shopping sprees. On the 2017 edition of Singles’ Day, it only took Nike 59 seconds to achieve a gross merchandise value of 100 million CNY or 13 million EUR. As a result, such B2C marketplaces are still the top choice for market entry to China’s ever-evolving eCommerce world as they account for majority of Chinese consumers’ online shopping activities.
Over time, Chinese millennials, or the post-80s/90s generations, are taking over as the main force that drives China’s consumer market forward. They are well-educated, demanding, and suspicious. It takes more than product reviews or a simple KOL live streaming show to convince them that your brand is worth their attention. What they ask for, probably without realizing it themselves, is a complete and topnotch online touching point experience. Many Western brands, larger or smaller, are racing to deploy a multichannel online experience.
In a consumer study by iResearch, stand-alone brand websites come in 3rd, right after eCommerce marketplaces and offline stores, as the most often used information channels for Chinese e-shoppers.
So to launch a standalone brand website would be a crucial part of a winning China eCommerce strategy. There can be many benefits of having an official brand website, with or without shopping functionalities— among which are greater exposure opportunities, positive associations, higher retention rates, and diversified investment portfolios. Yet, the most important benefit of having a standalone website would be the ability to test, experiment, validate all your hypotheses. It may sound like a “moo point” to you but please keep in mind that the marketplaces, like JD, Tmall, and Suning, all have very strict rules on your webshop layout, UX model, product offerings, and so on; all of which means very little room to be creative and flexible.
How the crocodiles do it?
Below are a few cases in which Western brands are making use of their websites for something otherwise either taboo or simply impossible on Tmall or JD.
Adidas. Adidas has launched the customization services, Miadidas, on their standalone website. It’s rather unimaginable that a Chinese marketplace could break their own rules to allow companies offering such services.
Lancôme. The French luxury giant integrates their e-Magazine on their official eCommerce website, as an additional benefit. The customers can still have almost the same shopping experience with the brand store on Tmall/JD.
IKEA. IKEA integrates their own membership system with what looks like a pilot eCommerce website as they can only ship to customers in Shanghai, for now. By joining the membership online, one can shop with the member-only price both online and offline.
Again, these benefits may seem trivial on the Western standards. When it comes to China eCommerce, the tradeoff between channel adoption – what a marketplace can GUARANTEE –, and freedom to CUSTOMIZE, – benefit of having a standalone website-, has always been a pickle for eCommerce Managers accustomed to Western landscapes.
Since the past few years, we have seen an increasing number of brands utilizing both eCommerce channels. It seems that more Chinese consumers are accepting standalone websites as a credible sales channel—both Adidas and Lancôme have achieved a month onsite traffic higher than 2 million already. Indeed, why not to become a front runner and have both—a well-operated listed Tmall store and a well-crafted standalone website?
Powering through your project in baby steps
Then, the question becomes how? Well, launching a website in China can be a bit different from the Western norms. They are usually seven steps before you can start directing traffic and improve engagement intensity on your website:
Step 1. Getting the right legal documents
The Chinese government requires all companies hosting a website in China to have the Internet Content Provider certificate. To acquire this certificate, a Chinese Business License is required.
Having troubles with applying for the Chinese Business License? Hosting in Hong Kong can be a quick-and-easy solution. Alternatively, you can look up webshopinchina?
Step 2. Confirming your objectives
It is advisable to start this step by reviewing your internal resources—Marketing, Merchandising, Fulfillment, IT and Customer Care, to name a few. Then, project scoping is of utmost importance—you would need to make sure all your objectives are mirrored by the corresponding designs or features and all the redundant ones are left out. After all, missing out important features will render the whole project valueless, while being a scope creep would cause otherwise avoidable delays. In addition, doing competitive analysis, conducting user research, and planning marketing/sales efforts in this step is also highly recommendable, if not absolutely necessary.
If you are still new to China, then a website alone may NOT offer the greatest sales prospects at first. Instead, it’s advisable to focus on rolling out compelling contents—nice stories, videos, and/or interactive campaigns made with HTML5 webpages—that can faster gain trust from your consumers. You might also want to ensure that Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, are all replaced with Weibo, WeChat, Tencent Video and/or Douban.
It’s also advisable to work with a Chinese partner just to ensure that you are putting the “correct” priorities in your wish list. Before diving into the development process, have your IT staff and partner to work on a list of toolkits that have Western equivalents and are available in the country. The ones you have possibly taken for granted for might not be accessible from China.
Please also keep in mind that Chinese consumers can be a bit more difficult to impress than you were expecting. Stereotypes such as the Chinese prefers more text, screaming designs, and tacky visuals should be put to a non-recyclable trash bin forever. At this point, it’s better to have your Chinese partner or Chinese speaking staff to perform a competitor analysis summarizing a UX model that your top 5 competitors are seem to using.
Step 3. Development
Next, registering domains, visual designs, and backend development will be main deliverables. Closely communicating with your IT vendor and monitoring the project rollout is an important task. Plus, you should definitely spend time maintaining, updating and circulating all documents created in the previous step. All stakeholders, internal and external, should stay on the same page at all time.
As over 80% of online transactions in China take place on mobile devices now, you would also need to make sure that your partner will make the site fully responsive to mobile devices.
Step 4. Pre-launch
You don’t have to launch your website after everything is done to perfection. In fact, it’s recommendable to launch a semi-finial version and let your audience tell you if the current version is a keeper or not. But needless to say, SEO proofing, User Acceptance Tests, and other QA measures should be performed whether you are going lean or sticking to the classic way.
Before (lean) launch, you might also want to consider using some of the UX applications to monitor user interactions and elicit visitor insights.
Step 5. Maintenance, Optimization, & Integration
Post-launch maintenance should not be neglected in any way. It’s one thing to protect your website from virus, hackers, and breaches. It’s another to make sure your product offerings, contents, and designs are up to date and everything in the backend is working properly.
Make sure your Chinese partner has registered your website at Baidu, Sogo, and/or 360 and start building your e-reputation by crafting a Baidu Knows page, starting a stream on Zhihu, the Chinese Quora, or planning Baidu PPC campaigns.
You should also have your Marketing staff or your Chinese partner report to you weekly how the website is performing. It’s advisable to use Baidu Analytics but Google Analytics may also do the job, if you insist. One or two times of (micro) optimization is recommended every one to three months. It cannot be overemphasized how important it’s to keep your site not just nice and shining but also relevant.
That will be all for now. Hope you have a better idea about how to get a well-functioning standalone website in China!
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Zi is an eCommerce Specialist at WebshopinChina.com.