Strategic guidance is necessary to penetrate the Chinese app market. Especially since both the Chinese Internet and the app market are strongly regulated by Chinese laws, prohibiting various apps that are used and popular in the West. Among others these include Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp. Additionally, many services such as the Google Play Store, and Facebook-/Google Logins cannot be used. Therefore, a strategy tailored for the Chinese market is essential.

This article entails the unavailable services and cultural adaptions which are suggested to tailor the apps' appeal to the target audience. These cultural differences can be substantial, and can therefore, strongly influence the success of an app in China and Asia in general.

1. Make ethnic-centered app adaptions

The first subject to keep in order to penetrate the Chinese app market are ethnic-centered app adaptions, such as the name of the app, Chinese symbolysm, features and a high gamification.

App translation to a Mandarin name

Next to fully translating and localizing the app into ‘simplified Chinese’, names are also really important in China. More precisely, the meaning the app name represents. Having a meaningful name will make the brand look much more appealing to local users.

A phonetic translation of a company’s brand name is only beneficial when that company already has a reputation in the Chinese market, such as Kraft “卡夫” (pronounced Kǎfu) – which means Kǎ: card / Fu: husband. A literal name helps with penetrating the Chinese market since users will immediately know what your brand is about. Examples include the following:

  • Uber in China is优步 — which means “nice ride.”;
  • LinkedIn chose 领英 — which means “best talent”;
  • Mercedes-Benz is 奔驰 which means “dashing speed” (the closest phonic approximation was “bensi”, which sounds like “rush to death”).

In summary, Chinese brand names must be easy to remember and the meaning should describe the product or brand in a positive way.

Symbolism, colours and numbers

Besides naming the app, attention has to be brought to the symbolistic meaning of colors and numbers in the Chinese culture. The symbolism of numbers is deeply rooted in superstition and Asian culture. The number 4, when pronounced, sounds much like “Death” in Chinese and is therefore considered as an unlucky number (similar to 13 in Western culture). This superstition is taken very seriously, given that many skyscrapers in China do not have a 4th floor (the number is skipped in the elevator). Because of this, this number should be avoided when it comes to for example, pricing an app. On the other hand, the number 8 is recommended since it is the Eastern lucky number and is often seen in price tags ($X.88 instead of $X.99).

Similarly, colors can influence the perception of brands, products and apps. A prominent example is the color red. In Western culture its connotation is rather negative or signals danger. However, in Chinese culture red is very positive and stands for good fortune. Other examples are, purple (“wise & elegant”), white (purity but also death and funerals). As a result, it is highly recommended to take these factors in mind when tailoring the app to the Chinese market.

Provide many features and a rich detail page

Western tech companies have embraced minimalism as a center philosophy for design and UI choices. Google prominently has only 2 buttons on its main page and many apps like Instagram feature a 5-point-bottom menu. On the other hand, Chinese companies tend to give the user as much information as possible. Judging from popular apps, the high amount of options and information is not perceived as ‘clutter’ in Eastern culture.

Similarly, this mantra seems to be true for app logo designs and detail pages, as the Chinese seem to put detail richness before aesthetic minimalism.

High gamification

Chinese apps and websites tend to be less ‘serious’ than western ones. Anime-like mascots and characters, toy-like designs, bright colors, busy website looks, and many gamification and customization options. For example, random prizes (shareable with friends), flash sales, the possibility to gain ‘Didi points’ (Chinese version of Uber) to use within the app or in restaurants. All are common for a Chinese user and entice him/her to become loyal to the brand. This should be kept in mind and be considered when tailoring the app to the Chinese market. 

2. Consider the app functionalities

Next to the aesthetics of the app, it is advised to consider the functionalities of the app, such as how the user logs in, making use of QR-codes, payment types and alternative back-end services.

Social media login

As mentioned before in the intro, Facebook and Google are blocked, and thus not accessible via the Chinese internet. Therefore, it is also not possible to give users access to the app via Facebook or Google accounts. The Chinese alternatives for primary login methods are WeChat and Weibo. Alternatively, the use of QR codes is also common.

Additionally, the input forms for sign-up are sometimes different due to Chinese naming tradition. Sometimes the user is asked for his/her “generational name” (in addition to the name and the surname).

High emphasis on QR-code

QR codes are an integral part of the Chinese daily life. In China QR-codes are frequently used for a variety of things, including buying take-away food, getting laundry done, ordering a taxi and more.

This is for one thanks to the fact that they go hand in hand with essential apps such as WeChat and Weibo. Though similar to WhatsApp and Facebook, WeChat and Weibo are even more integrated into the Chinese daily life. By means of WeChat-QR codes, users are chatting, playing games, shopping, reading the news, paying bills, and posting their thoughts and pictures. Nowadays, you can even book a doctor’s appointment or arrange a time slot to file for a divorce at the civil affairs authority. Because of this, when designing an app for the Chinese market, QR codes should be the main method of sharing content and reaching people. 

Payment

Apps such as WeChat are central to the daily life of Chinese people. One major reason is because many vendors offer the ability to pay for everyday transactions via WeChat and AliPay. This is usually done by scanning a QR code that the vendor provides. As this is the preferred way of payment, an app that is targeted at the Chinese market should implement AliPay and/or WeChat as possible payment options.

Alternative back-end services

Since many Western companies are banned there is a need to find local alternatives for the services they provide. Examples include:

Social networks: WeChat SDK login (instead of Facebook/Google) Notifications: Baidu push notifications for Android (instead of Google’s GCM) Maps: AMAP solution for Android (instead of Google Maps).

3. Which app store

For iOS the Apple App Store is available, although some limitations apply given the Chinese regulations (for example, no VPN apps are being offered, and every submitted app needs to be approved by the Chinese government). The procedure is fairly straight forward and it’s basically the same as the rest of the world. Therefore, it is advisable to initially launch just an iOS app in China, so user interest and feedback can be considered.

Android apps on the other hand are more fragmented, since the Google Play Store is blocked in China. Because of this there are more than 100 different Android stores and the chance to be visible is lower.

The largest Android stores in terms of Market Share are the following:

  1. Tencent MyApp (13.7%);
  2. 360 Mobile Assistant (9.8%);
  3. Oppo Software Store (8.8%);
  4. Baidu Mobile Assistant (8.6%);
  5. Huawei App Market (8.2%).

When launching in the Chinese Android stores, it is advised to be bold on paid user acquisition strategy, which includes localized marketing campaigns, and promotion through larger apps like WeChat (similar to a Facebook campaign).

4. Publishing strategy - Get an insider

Opening any kind of business in China (publishing a mobile app in China in particular) can be cumbersome, as many levels of authorizations and approvals are needed. For example, permission is required to receive a login function via WeChat app, which is easier if you are Chinese. Furthermore, gaming apps need a Chinese partner and even approval from the Chinese ministry. Because of these reasons, getting a Chinese partner on board is widely advised as a needed strategic decision.

A feasible option is distributing the app through a local distribution service provider’s account. Although this requires a financial investment, this option is faster than self-publishing (approximately 2 weeks) and provides a higher likelihood of success, as Chinese app stores see local publishing accounts as more trustworthy. This leads to a much smoother approval process, which could result in saving money. Another advantage is that these services often come with market analytics tools (whereas Google Analytics is blocked). To publish an app through a distribution service provider, the following items will be needed:

  1. Localized App APK;
  2. Localized App Name, description, screenshots and app icons;
  3. Power of Attorney Letter.

Examples of distributers with large Western clients (KLM, DuoLingo, The Economist) are AppInChina and APPTUTTI. Depending on the distributer, an IP protection service can be offered which is a requirement for games entering the Chinese app market.

Technically it is possible to publish an (Android-) app independently, but as mentioned, this comes with many hurdles. Therefore, it is not advised to do so without prior experience. 

5. Conclusion

All in all, when entering the Chinese app market, several adaptions have to be made in order to tailor to the local customer needs and legal regulations.

The uncertainty within the Android environment is also the reason why it is recommended to start with the Apple App Store first. Additionally, this will help to gauge the success of the app before fully committing to Android. This keeps the ‘paperwork’, and financial and time investment to a minimum, since the iOS requirements and application procedures are similar to the general application process.

As a short summary general tasks and adaptations include the following:

  • Translation of the app into ‘simplified Chinese’;
  • Adaptation of services (remove all Google related services);
  • Setting up local services, such as WeChat Pay;
  • Potential design adaptations to appeal to the target audience;
  • For Android: find a partner/publishing agency that helps with the launch and promotion.

We know how important it is to come up with a strong strategy in order to penetrate the Chinese app market. Do you want to go through the possibilities of publishing your app in the Chinese market? Please contact us, as we are happy to discuss it with you.