How to design your content strategy for the Chinese market

This article has previously been published in the magazine of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, issue 177 and has been modified slightly for the digital channel.

It’s a recurring question: how can we optimize our marketing communication for different geographical locations and target groups. We’ve already finished it for the western market, but how do we approach the East Asian market? For example, can we just translate our English website to Chinese? Well, No.

Previously, many East Asian websites looked very busy with lots of animated banners on the sides and even within the main text. A web designer nightmare, we would call it. Things have changed a bit recently and more and more sites start to follow somewhat cleaner designs (for a good exception to this, see www.zhaopin.com, which is a highly successful online recruitment site), but in Europe we would still consider most websites cluttered. There are different theories about what could explain why East Asians like this more than Westerners.

The big risk when studying the differences between East Asians and Westerners is that the resulting comparison ends in a ‘them vs us’ story, tending towards discrimination. Especially when it comes to suggested differences in the way of thinking and the emotions associated with those differences. Fortunately, there has been done a lot of research led by scientists at Asian universities but also universities in Europe and America that suggests that some biases might have a basis in facts.

A few years ago, I read a heavy book about the “Foundations of Chinese Psychology” by an authority in this field, Kwang-Kuo Hwang and it changed my way of thinking about cultural differences. Mr Hwang describes how so called indigenous psychology is different from western psychology and how it requires a different methodology to research it. This was the result from findings in research with East Asian subjects where traditional western psychological theories were found not to apply. Confucian psychology, which is the result from the Confucian society in East Asia in which the group is more important than the individual (simply put) is an example of this.

Are you a holistic thinker or a specific thinker?

A highly simplified but easier to understand theory than Confucian psychology, divides people in two categories: people that mainly use the specific thinking style and people that mainly use the holistic thinking style. Specific thinkers consider things outside their context when analyzing, making judgements or decisions, etc., while holistic thinkers consider the interconnectedness with its context. To illustrate: when asked to describe an aquarium, holistic thinkers will describe details in the background, while specific thinkers focus on the three biggest fish. In work environments, holistic thinkers would like to understand the context before being motivated to carrying out a task, while specific thinkers are happy to carry out single apparently unrelated tasks.

The specific thinkers, often called analytical thinkers, are more common in western, individualistic cultures, while the holistic thinkers are more common in the Confucian, East Asian culture. It’s important to note that in both kinds of cultures holistic and specific thinkers are common, just one kind clearly more common than the other. Also, both kinds of thinking have strengths and weaknesses. Most people will automatically use more or less holistic or analytical thinking styles depending on circumstances.

Communicating with holistic thinkers

How does this relate to websites or your marketing communication in general? It isn’t hard to reason that contextual content is even more relevant to the majority of the East Asian market. The most popular websites in China certainly confirm that it doesn’t harm to include a lot of content in the context. It’s clearly a deliberate choice by the Asian companies behind them, which is illustrated by the difference between their Chinese websites and their international counterparts. For example, compare www.sina.com.cn with english.sina.com. The English version has a much cleaner design, relatively speaking. I can only assume that user research and analytics have shown that both designs work best for their target group.

To be successful, the design and content of your Chinese website needs to be specific for the target group. Instead of translating your English website, you need to localize it. In practical terms, this means you could use side articles, references, images, text balloons or maybe even animated exclamation marks, to imply the quality or importance of the central message. Having a solid content strategy (or communication strategy) and testing the results in practice are essential to validate these assumptions.

Therefore, my question to you: Do you like the Asian culture? Are you a holistic thinker or a specific thinker? And, with which kind of thinker in mind has this article been written? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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