This paper is intended to be ‘Part 1’ of a 2-part look into how a foreign developer can release an app onto the Chinese market. This first part will focus on different aspects of the current landscape of the app industry in China:
- the platforms and marketplaces
- the design and feel of apps here
- legal aspects of maintaining an app
- user acquisition strategies.
In the second part I will create a simple app and launch it in China, giving a step-by-step guide into how it is done. If you would like assistance in launching your app in China, have any questions, or feedback, please get in touch – email@example.com or We Chat Longley1
Over 400 app stores
In the West, the 2 main competing stores are Google Play and Apple’s App Store. In 2016, Google Play reported 75 billion downloads and $3.3 billion in revenue, whilst the App Store had less downloads, 25 billion, but boasted $5.4bn in revenue (according to AppAnnie, 2016). In China the choice of markets for purchasing and downloading apps is much more diverse, on the left you can see the top 5 marketplaces, the largest holding less than 14% of the market. Many marketplaces are based around phone companies, others on technology service companies. Other marketplaces include MIUI App Store, Vivo App Store, Sogou Mobile Assistant, PP Assistant, Wandoujia, and Lenovo Le Store. Google Play only has around 0.15% of the market share (since Google is banned…).
You only need to target the big 5 to get started, on the left is 50% of the market. Also, Android (according to Baidu) phones make up 79% of the Chinese market. Apple is there though, as is iOS. The beauty of the Apple Store is it is not a fragmented market with hundreds of different app stores, there’s just 1 marketplace where you download Apple apps.
“The Chinese big data analyst Jiguang.cn recently released the Mobile Internet Industry Report for Q2 2018. While the report came up with some disappointing revelations for several top names, it also recorded some stunning performances by lesser known brands that saw them scale up on the market performance ladder. However, a general picture that emerges is of the growing dependence of the Chinese masses on smartphones.
The average time spent by Chinese mobile Internet users on apps has gone up from 3.9 hours per day in Q1 2018 to 4.2 hours per day in Q2.
The report also reveals that social media apps consume 94.3 minutes while video and news content apps keep users busy for 58.9 and 20.6 minutes respectively in a day.
The average number of apps installed during the period has also marginally increased to 43 from 42 in the previous quarter.”
Yun Nie – The Passage, August 2018
I’m using an OPPO phone and therefore using the “Oppo Software Store,” so my examples in this paper are all taken from there.
Above is the Oppo store front page. The two screenshots on the right show this week’s most popular apps: a video sharing portal, QQ instant messaging, Zhihu Q&A forum, CTrip holiday booking, and so forth.
Below I searched for “English” and was presented with some translation software, and apps that help you learn. The top one has had 4,884万 people install it, 万 is Chinese for 10,000, so 48,840,000 downloads. The third is at 1.5亿 ; (万万) or 150,000,000.
Remember the market’s main feature is sheer numbers, so you will need to focus on sheer numbers. Your competitors will probably be able to drop tens of thousands of USD into a marketing drive and drop their subscription prices against you. In the core game this means gaining or losing millions of users.
The two graphs below show (according to Google Trends) the number of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (a 2017 video game which has high popularity around the world) searches over the last year, in the USA above and in China below. Annoyingly Baidu does not have it’s own ‘trends’ page, and Google figures regarding China can’t be seen as 100% reliable, however given the number of sources that Google uses to collect this information, I am inclined to believe them. At the moment 35% of the world’s players are in China, with the US now holding 13%, down from 40% on release of around 80 million total players worldwide. The graph at the bottom, written by @SteamSpy on Twitter shows the sharp rise of Mainland downloads since June 2018. What’s interesting about the graphs is they correspond with the history of the mobile app’s release; you can see there was a lot of interest in China even before the game’s first release, though marginal downloads. It was only once Tencent released the app version in China in March of 2018 that it unlocked the Chinese market, before then the number of downloads and players was very low.
Because of the size of the market, initial launch consumes a lot of resources. And you definitely need to be sure your app design is picture-perfect before you start advertising. Market research, designing, testing, and alterations will take months and months before it is ready for market. As you can see though, if you get it right then it can really take off.
Testing of your app’s performance
It’s very important to make sure the usability and functionality of your app hasn’t any issues, and that its ergonomics suit the Chinese user. If I was launching an app, I would recruit a group of students from 4 big city universities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Wuhan. These will give you a good spread of the regional differences in China and be a better test for regional hiccups with payment functions, location settings, and so forth.
You will also need to check its performance in collusion with other apps, and make sure it doesn’t restrict the user’s phone. Added to that, on the e-payment side of things, it needs to have quick and flawless integration with Alipay and WeChat Wallet.
As an example above is an education app for early years children, and the writer has completely redesigned the Oppo Store interface to conform with their theme. This level of integration really stands out and makes the potential customer feel this app is more professional than the others.
Translating into Mandarin Chinese
…is not enough! The style of your app also needs to have a local character to it, that means it can’t look foreign or else people won’t feel accustomed to the style and feel of the platform. Likewise, it can’t just have a simple translation, the language in the app needs to conform with the sort of words and phrases that are typically used in Chinese apps. Using Google Translate and the stores listed above, you should be able to find an app similar to your own that you can download and have a play with, have a try going through the full user journey, though you may need some help from a Chinese friend.
Personally, I don’t particularly like using ICBC’s mobile banking app (above), in my opinion it is far too cluttered, and it’s difficult for me to tell which characters are just text, which are titles, and which are hyperlinks. Added to that is there is not a (functional) English version, the end result is I never click half of the available buttons simply because I don’t know what they do, so I never feel like I am making the most of the app. Seems likely that Chinese users using the Halifax Online Banking app will have similar feedback.
It is also worth noting that the following apps are blocked in China, and have all been blocked for some time, with little chance of their blocking being reversed. If your app in someway incorporates features from them, it will not function in China. YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, you can see a full list on Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Websites_blocked_in_mainland_China). If you want to have videos played on your app, upload to http://www.youku.com instead of YouTube. If you need to have a map or location services, use Baidu Maps. Bear in mind too that the Chinese Firewall also slows down any cross-border internet traffic, so if you host your app and its services from abroad, response time will be slower and user satisfaction will be lower, it is better to host from within China.
To reiterate the first point: it isn’t enough to simply translate your app into Chinese. The whole look and feel needs to be different. Common trends, even for serious professional apps are:
– anime-like characters (ICBC app has a big white elephant),
– colourful designs,
– tend to be very busy-looking,
– and have toy-like features.
Keep this in mind when reading through this paper. Western design focus over the past decade has leaned more towards simplicity and minimalised design (kind of like We Chat, come to think of it…), but the majority of Chinese apps and advertising are quite the opposite, for instance, below is Taobao’s landing page, and take a look at the screenshots below of a variety of different apps.
There’s a good chance that you will want your app to make money. The first thing to bear in mind with China is that most people don’t use their bank cards, rather they use electronic wallets. The main two are Alipay and Wechat’s Wallet, not many people will pay for in-app purchases with their bank card.
You will also need to do some market research into how much people are willing to pay for a similar app to yours. I have included an example below, but it would be prudent to research the market and similar apps to your own and see what they charge customers.
Like in the UK, your app needs to have a base free version with limited functionality, then full functionality that the user pays for, this way the user can test the app and its functionality before committing to it. For example, if you are releasing a teaching app, you could have the base app and 10 free classes, then the user pays for additional classes or can pay for a subscription.
Above is an app called Momo, an instant messaging and friend-finding app that is free to use, but also has a “VIP” and a “SVIP” (Super?) system that allows more functionality; being able to see who views your profile (like LinkedIn), create discussion groups, post more videos, etc. There are also in-app purchases available like sending people imaginary chocolate using the in-app currency. On the left image is the 会员中心, membership centre, where you can review the benefits of paid membership. Once you click to activate, the middle image, shows the different levels of membership available, from SVIP at £1 a month, to normal VIP for 3 months for £3, and below you choose your payment method. On the right you can see that Momo only allows payment through your WeChat Wallet or Alipay. No debit card, credit card, cash, nor cheque. The reasoning is, if you have a smart phone able to handle Momo, then without a doubt you will have WeChat too, and WeChat Wallet. Currently living in China, I never take my bank card or cash out with me, I literally pay for everything through We Chat.
Below you can see the quick and easy process of purchasing where the Momo app takes you to your WeChat wallet page. 10 clicks in total (6 of them being my PIN number).
Depending on what sort of app you release, you will also need to keep an eye on national holidays in China, and the associated discounts offered by other companies. Other holidays you can decide how you should promote yourself.
|Chinese New Year||Feb/Mar||Give Red Envelopes (money)|
|Valentine’s Day||14/2||Romance Discounts|
|Women’s Day||03/03||Discount on female products|
|Dragon Boat Festival||05/05||–|
|Nurse’s Day||12/05||Medical Discounts|
|Qi Xi||07/07||Romance Discounts|
|Single’s Day||11/11||Opposite of Valentine’s, biggest discount day. I call it ‘Taobao Festival’, it’s similar to Black Friday|
Copywrite Certification, IP Protection, Licensing
Whilst setting up your app, you also need to think about protecting your brand and product before you enter the Chinese market. This is honestly not as difficult or as daunting as it sounds, nor is it all that costly (under £400), however if you fail to get adequate protection then you risk losing market share, taking damage to your brand’s reputation, and possible exclusion from the market place (if you get registered second, you will be the copy-cat).
Ideally before you enter the market, but nonetheless at the earliest opportunity you need to get your core brand protected. To do this you need to register your company name and/or logo and anything else distinguishing about your brand as trademarks. As a ‘first to file’ system, you need to be quick in China before anyone else suspects you are entering the market and hi-jacks your brand, taking advantage of your brand reputation in the West, or making a profit selling the trademarks back to you.
The China Trade Mark Office (CTMO) handles domestic trademark registration. If you are familiar with the Nice Agreement division of trade mark classes, China is more specific, dividing these classes into sub-classes. You need to make sure you register in the correct class(es) or risk having the CTMO officer decide that some of your services fall outside of your sub-class and is thus not protected.
You will also need to come up with a Chinese name for your brand. If you enter the market with only your foreign name, users will come up with their own Chinese names for you, one will stick, then a local person could register a company with that name and cash in on your success. It’s better to have your company registered and trademarked with a Chinese name from day 1.
Software is also expressly protected by Chinese copyright law and is relatively simple to register with the Copyright Protection Centre of China (CPCC), the requirements for which are laid out in the box on the opposite page.
If you are uncomfortable depositing your source code with the CPCC, you can deposit it in the UK and have it notarised and legalised there and submitted that way.
Before starting, it is worth having a check to see if your name, logo, or product have already been trademarked. Patent searches can be made in English on the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) Website:
Trade mark searches can be made in English on the China Trade Mark Office (CTMO) website: http://www.chinatrademarkoffice.com
If someone copies your app or brand, you can get the app stores to have them removed. There’s little point filing a lawsuit as this will cost you a lot of money, and the likelihood is if one company is copying your app then 20 more are trying, you would just end up spending all your time playing whack-a-mole. Get in touch with the app store and show them your license and certification, then some screen shots comparing your app to theirs, and ask for it to be removed.
If you have taken shortcuts in the registration process or have not fully legalised yourself then it will be difficult to get Tencent Support to remove a copy-cat, or worst-case scenario, the copy becomes the official app before you do.
Every mobile or web business in China needs a special license. This is only given to Chinese companies, or Joint Ventures, so foreign developers will need a Chinese partner, with all servers based in the country. You can read my separate blog regarding how to go about setting up a company in China (engageeast.wordpress.com) or get in touch. This is quite important and there are a lot of requirements relating to if and how you can set up a company in China, so it’s best if you check through to make sure it will be possible for your company in particular.
Artificial user reviews and download numbers
Cheeky, but effective. There’s a score of companies available that can generate reviews for you and increase your standing on the app market, typically you want scores of young people writing nice reviews and keeping your download-count high. Companies also run competitions and host give-aways during a launch, just like in the UK.
Paid promotion on the app store
Paying the ‘Oppo Store’ and other marketplaces to give more emphasis to your own app, especially in the “hot releases” column should coincide with the artificial reviews and downloads you conduct above. In the first weeks of your launch you want as many people as possible visiting your app’s landing page, and hopefully downloading. Paying the stores themselves to always bring your app to the top of the search menu will go a long way in attracting serious volume and conversions.
Online advertising, social media marketing
Naturally you can’t use Google for your advertising so you need to research where in China is the best place to plant some adverts for increasing installs. The below table shows the biggest social media platforms in China, you need a familiarity with these and the sort of content which is popular. For We Chat I’ve also shown how a sample company advertises on the portal, something you will need to have designed to coincide with your main app’s launch.
|900 million||It can do everything|
|340 million monthly||Twitter of China, micro-blogging|
|869 million||Also on desktop, so popular with offices|
|Youku Tudou||580 million||You Tube equivalent, though contains a higher proportion of professional content than user-created|
|Tieba||660 million||Search-based discussion forum|
|Douban||153 million||Lifestyle and culture social media discussion group|
|Zhihu||250 million monthly page views||Q&A forum, very trusted|
|Dianping||12 billion monthly page views||Restaurant reviews|
|Momo||81 million monthly||Friendship building, social networking|
|Meipai||30 million monthly||Instagram for video|
If you are selling luxury cosmetics, you should recruit Japanese, Korean, and other East Asian make-up artists (there’s thousands of these bloggers) to review your products. Be warned, this can be expensive.
It would also be worth cosying up to 网红’s like 张大奕 (Zhang Dayi) on the right. Internet celebrities with large followings online, who frequently endorse or scathe the goods of different brands. Dayi has over 5 million followers on Weibo, in her post on the right she simply says,
“Lamenting past me being too young,
Live in the moment, Buy, buy, buy!”
which in the space of 6 weeks garnered 5,000 likes, and 267 re-posts.
Having her say something nice about your products would be golden. MNC’s use this tactic, why shouldn’t you?
You should also begin your own social media presence before your Chinese app is launched. Show the Chinese audience that you are big in the West, and try to create the same interest Playerunknown’s Battle Grounds had before it was even playable in China.
Business Development and Partnerships
In the UK, what companies, services, and products compliment your own? Partnerships work well in China too, with Offo bike-sharing teaming up with gyms and fitness apps, restaurants engaging with Deliveroo style bikers and so forth. Once your Joint Venture is set-up you can approach a local business and enquire about mutual co-operation.
Remember to review the market before entering. Who is your competition? When Uber tried entering the Chinese market, there were two brands already facing off to see who would be crowned the number-one of ride sharing apps: Didi Chuxing and Kuaidi. When told that Uber was attempting to enter the market, Jean Liu (CEO of Didi) said, “I find it quite cute.”
Within 2 years, Uber sold their China presence to Didi Chuxing.
Public Relations and Customer Service
You will need to have a small team in China to deal with customer enquiries, refund requests, technical issues, and so forth. They need to be based in China so they can pick up the phone at normal working hours (9am in China is 2am in the UK…) or have a 24 hour chat service.
Naturally you will also need a refunds policy that is clearly stated in the Ts & Cs, and be in a position to follow up on it quickly.
Teams like this are fairly straight-forward to set-up once your Chinese company is registered, or you can 3rd-party the service.
The Chinese market may appear complicated, and probably is for the uninitiated, but it functions very similar to the Western model, just with “Chinese Characteristics”. Hundreds of foreign companies have launched their app in China and seen success, the chart below shows some of the best, and yes, Beautycam really has had over a billion downloads! Though bear in mind that it has been around for many years, and Chinese people buy a new phone very often so it’s had many repeated downloads. Do you have what it takes to dive into the Chinese market?
My next goal will be to design and release an example app onto the market, screenshotting all along the way to give a user guide that will hopefully help with the launch of your own app. If anyone has any knowledge in writing a simple .apk, please let me know.