Simplified Chinese

(This article first appeared in Figaro Digital's quarterly magazine)

Staggering statistics and amazing facts go hand-in-hand with any discussion about China. Did you know, for example, that there are 35 million troglodytes living in China, or that half the world’s pigs are Chinese or that the Great Wall is the only man made structure visible from the moon? 

The last of those ‘facts’ is a myth that I (and the rest of the world) took as ‘god’s honest’ until it was somewhat ironically debunked by Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei. It serves as a reminder that truth can be an elusive commodity, particularly in relation to the second biggest economy in the world. 

However, absolute veracity aside, when it comes to online the numbers are without doubt impressive. Of all the world’s internet users more than one in five of them is connecting from China, accounting for an average 1.3 billion hours surfing every day. And of those 676 million people, more than half are under the age of 29. That’s a hell of a lot of young people online.  

So how do you reach them?

As western designers, developers and marketeers there are some basics that we need to understand about China before we even begin to contemplate consumption habits, social channels and user experience.

The most fundamental consideration is one of language, both written and spoken. Confusingly there are two written languages commonly used in China and literally hundreds of mutually unintelligible spoken languages (or dialects) of which Mandarin and Cantonese are the most frequently used. Mandarin is spoken in most of mainland China and Taiwan whilst Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong provence. Don’t expect somebody who speaks Mandarin to understand Cantonese or vice versa. 

In written communication there is either Simplified or Traditional Chinese. Simplified was introduced by Chairman Mao as a move to improve literacy and is used in mainland China whilst Traditional is used in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Again somebody who reads Traditional Chinese cannot be expected to be able to read Simplified so, typically, Chinese websites are deployed with three regional variants: Mainland China (simplified), Hong Kong (traditional) and Taiwan (simplified).

If that all sounds daunting then don’t forget that understanding the cultural differences between east and west is just as important. In a country that places more emphasis than most on symbolic meaning the use of colour should be carefully considered. Some colours should be avoided, others used with caution and others embraced (sometimes!). 

In China black is associated with evil and corruption and a black border around a portrait photograph can signify that the person is dead. White too has associations with death and funerals whilst yellow is sometimes associated with pornography. We commonly think of red as being predominant in Chinese designs and whilst it’s generally a safe colour to use its overuse can seem clichéd and overly reminiscent of celebrations.

Having successfully negotiated the minefield of linguistic and cultural variations it’s important to understand how to reach your audience and the range of media and devices they’ll be using.

In China more people access the internet from a mobile device than a PC with more than 80% of netizens accessing the internet via mobile. Of those, 40% will use mobile payment services. This should make a ‘mobile first’ approach an important part of your strategy when trying to reach out to the Chinese market.

If you’re targeting desktop users beware the curse of legacy versions of Internet Explorer. The widespread piracy of Windows XP means that usage of the operating system’s 14 year old browser, IE6, is rife with China accounting for 77% of all IE6 users worldwide. As any web developer will tell you supporting IE6 (or 7, or 8 for that matter) is a pain in the backside. However, depending on which set of statistics you use, between 35 and 50% of all desktop browsing in China is done through Explorer so ignore this at your peril.

If you’re developing an app then consider that Android is by far the most popular mobile OS, accounting for around 75% of installs with iOS coming in at around 20%. Don’t imagine though that you can just submit to Google Play and/or the iTunes store. In China there are more than 500 app stores and Google Play isn’t one of them (although iTunes is). If you’re going to try to submit to all of them then stock up on pain killers and prepare for a major headache.  At Corporation Pop we’ve taken a pragmatic approach and tended to just submit to a small handful of stores – not least because the developer registration and app approval process can prove to be extremely onerous. 

Of course YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are banned in China so if you’re planning a social campaign you’ll need to understand the social media landscape. Choice of platform will depend on your target demographic and planned activity but popular sites in China include QZone, Weibo, WeChat and Ren Ren. We recently deployed an advergame to Weibo for one of our clients which was a challenging, though ultimately very successful, experience. Whilst the technical integration with the platform was relatively simple and not dissimilar to developing a Facebook app the process of interpreting an SDK (Software Development Kit) written entirely in Chinese required us to hire specialist translation services. These services came in handy too when we received numerous oblique rejection messages during the protracted submission process!

Put off by all the above? Don’t be. China offers amazing opportunities and with the right help and support the results can be very rewarding. However it is essential that your team, or the team you hire, has access to specialist native Chinese input. The complexity, fluidity and size of the market combined with the social and cultural differences require an in-depth understanding that is hard for even the most seasoned of western sinophiles to acquire.