Social media in China has grown up – but have brands’ marketing campaigns kept pace with the key networks that have come to dominate its ever-expanding digital landscape? These days, it’s almost mandatory for a brand to have a social media presence, but the nature and form of that presence needs to work with and take account of the nuances involved in engaging Chinese consumers. They have specific expectations, and effective digital engagement must meet and exceed them, surprise and inspire them – one thing digital has taught us is that nothing remains new for long, and to stand still is to fall behind.

Digital engagement in China has to move beyond “likes,” through “loves” and into the purchasing patterns of the audience; social has become business.

The opportunities open to brands in the social space in China are limitless. The platforms in the infographic below are just a snapshot of those that are popular today, and Western social media platforms are also on the rise, each looking to extend their reach because in China social has become serious. It is important not to underestimate the commercial nature of social networking in China; it delivers results, works to KPIs, and expects to be paid appropriately. China leads the way in the world for paid authorship of blog posts and social amplification and the results they deliver.

However, China’s social media landscape is intrinsically more complicated than its European equivalent. Each network is looking to monetize faster and further than its competitors, and they are always looking to “upgrade” and “evolve,” making it hard for brands to match their pace and make effective judgments on where to focus their resources.

So how do brands looking to extend their presence socially in China navigate what is, on the face of it, a complex digital landscape?

Successful digital engagement in China comes down to five key points:

1. Have a crystal-clear brand vision for the territory, and stick to it. Know what you want to sell, and who you want to sell it to, whether it’s product, service, or brand awareness. Without a precise message for a precise audience, selecting a network from the plethora of options available will be very difficult, and you run the risk of fragmenting and diluting brand identity. In a nation where there’s plenty of choice, you’ll become invisible.

2. Think global, act local. While your overarching brand message has to be consistent to succeed, adapting your social presence to local behaviors and preferences pays dividends. When Ikea teamed up with Weibo, for example, it focused on building awareness and encouraging brand ambassadors rather than direct sales – one of its polls was titled “What is the most romantic thing you’ve done?” encouraging conversation and engagement with the “human” aspect of the brand, which was relevant and appealing to its target audience.

3. Spend time and effort researching the social networks available to you. As the infographic shows, each has its own demographics and audience traits. Fashion brands might look at Meilishuo, with its predominantly female audience of enthusiastic fashion pinners, whereas a brand wanting to promote male grooming should consider Sina Weibo, which has an older, more masculine profile. In terms of reach and engagement, it pays to put in this kind of leg work before embarking on – and paying for – a social campaign.

4. Be genuine – counterfeit goods are a real concern in China. TMall in particular prides itself on only offering official items from bona fide brands. Play to the strengths of your brand’s authenticity – make it a thread that runs through the fabric of all your social activity. There’s no substitute for building consumer trust – it’s fundamental to building sales.

5. Be prepared to pay. All the major social networks in China – WeChat, Weibo, and TMall included – have taken steps to monetize their services and offer tiered messaging/advertising rates depending on type and size of campaign. Given the size of the potential audience, it can be a worthwhile investment for brands serious about expanding their presence in the territory.

In the future, the truly successful social brands in China will be those that connect as their customers connect, talk as their customers talk, and act as their customers act. The socially tuned-in brand has a personality that consumers recognize, trust, and, ultimately, will want to buy from.

Statistics from the infographic are sourced from CNNIC, Alizila, Forbes, and ChinaConnect.