Asia Spotlight: China’s Great Leap Beyond Banners

In China, the Internet and digital marketing may be booming, but banner ads are being left in the dust.

China’s Internet universe is sprawling, boasting about 485 million Internet users, according to government figures. (In comparison, North America boasted 272 million netizens in March 2011, per Internet World Stats.) This suggests a huge opportunity for hungry ad-tech companies. But don’t look for the growing pool of Chinese marketing funds to flow into banner ads, say industry experts.

Online gaming and virtual goods have had a much longer history in China than in the West. People in China use the Internet more for entertainment — playing online games, messaging, downloading music and movies, and shopping — than for work. The practice of spending small sums for virtual items is fairly ingrained. What’s more, China’s Internet use is more geared to mobile rather than the banner-led desktop Web. The Chinese also place great stock in the opinions of online product reviewers. One in five consumers between the ages of 18 and 44 won’t purchase a product or service without first researching it on the Internet, reports McKinsey.

At the same time, the Internet ad market in China is very immature. Even more so than the West, ad budgets are tilted to traditional media. And within digital media, practices are rather rudimentary. Internet ads are often sold on cost per day, rather than on impressions or clicks. Sites won’t reveal total impressions, tracking is inconsistent, sizing is not standardized, and lots of cheap and illegitimate advertisers use banners, which makes consumers skeptical. And while some portals are popular, they are overly cluttered with banners, so each ad tends to get lost. Sina, for instance, has over 20 display ads on its front page. The market for the latest in programmatic buying through demand-side platforms and ad exchanges is barely getting off the ground.

The result: compared to other countries, China has both a low level of display spending per Internet household and a low click-through rate of around .09 percent, per MediaMind Research and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Chris Jones, executive creative director at Tribal DDB in Shanghai, sees the effect firsthand. He said that with declining click rates, Tribal clients like McDonald’s, Philips, Volkswagen and Johnson & Johnson are investing more in video and social networks than simple banners.

“Right now online advertising spending is doubling every two years, and Weibo (China’s Twitter clone) is driving a shift to social networks as a key channel,” he said. “Online video also continues to rise. With the audience spending so much time on these platforms, they are spending less time on the old-fashioned portal sites. A campaign has more chance if it is mentioned by someone on Weibo.”

Jesse Lin, president of Tribal’s parent, DDB Group Shanghai, said while the year started out with half of Tribal’s work involving websites and half in social and mobile, he anticipates that social and mobile will grab the majority share of the workload by the end of 2011.

Marketing insiders agree that digital word of mouth is more powerful in China than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Online community forums, called BBS sites, are still the top way for Chinese netizens to get information, since the government censors mainstream media.

“The reality is, you have to set aside budget to pay for ‘key opinion leaders’ on social sites and to seed content on BSS, and that takes away from display,” said a Chinese agency executive.

Ironically, display advertising for branding purposes continues to be popular with non-Chinese consumer brands wooing Chinese consumers.

“Banners are not going to disappear entirely,” said Jones. “For instance, our Unilever client demands that they be in the marketing mix for reach. The Chinese online audience is now overwhelmed with choice. It means that brands here have to cut through the clutter with something surprising, something that has shared value. This is the thing: Nobody is going to share a banner. “

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