One of the unique features of the Chinese digital marketing landscape, when compared to the rest of the world, is the irrelevance of Facebook in the Middle Kingdom.
As a result of China government policies that were enacted in 2009, Facebook marketing in China isn’t a channel that marketers would typically consider adding to the mix. The only way to access Facebook from the Mainland is by using a VPN service.
During the 10 years of Facebook’s absence in China, local competitors have emerged and, dominate the market. Prominent among these are WeChat and Weibo which have taken the lead have reached the position of almost unrivaled dominance.
Although it's a fact that most China watchers ignore, Facebook does have an audience who use VPN services to access the platform regularly. The exact number of Chinese users is unknown because Facebook doesn’t release statistics for users by country outside of the U.S.
VPN’s by definition make it difficult to find out the origin of a user as well as traffic data, but most marketers say that the vast majority of the Chinese expat population uses Facebook, even if they are also using WeChat and Weibo. The same can be said of non-Chinese who are living in China, and who prefer Facebook as an English-language medium.
For companies who are looking to market their products and services to this very “niche” market, Facebook marketing in China can actually be a very effective tool. Products and services advertised on Facebook in China include expat services, such as health insurance and visa services, VPN services, as well as local events and venues targeting upscale Chinese and expats.
Most communications and marketing experts believe that Facebook will return to China within the next three to five years, since its entry would satisfy China-US political interests and offers little of any completion to local social media platforms.
If Facebook were to restart in China, it will have to be a different platform compared to the type of platform that we are familiar with. Content on the platform will be ”sanitized” and the platform will have to obey all Chinese rules that govern digital platform in the country, which include deciding which companies can use the platform for advertising.
Advertisers who want to associate their brands with a “Chinese Facebook” will have to go through the same approval process that are utilized by Chinese platforms like Baidu, WeChat and Weibo. This process can favor local Chinese companies over international companies and can also define and limit the types of ads and promotions that are used as well as the types of data that can be gathered and the governments ability to access data.
Rather than entering China on its own, its more likely that Facebook will reenter the market with a Chinese business partner or partners, who would own equity in a “Chinese Facebook” and would be responsible for interactions with the government.