The Complete Guide to Hosting Your Service in China

by Balazs Fejes, Director, Software Engineering, EPAM Hong Kong

Updated on April 20, 2017

At EPAM’s Software Engineering Conference many asked me to share how we help clients accelerate their digital growth strategies in China. In this article I am sharing critical insights that can make or break any brand's digital strategy for the world's largest eCommerce market.

Digital Engagement: Global Strategy?

When talking about Digital Engagement, I’m focusing on the needs of our typical customer base: global corporations, in all kinds of industries including finance, retail, life sciences, travel, and so on. What are the common goals across all these industries? It’s the need to reach out to their customers on digital channels such as web, mobile, and social – to share the stories of the brand and engage customers in a meaningful conversation that hopefully either results in a transaction or furthers the reach of the brand.

While offline engagements such as events, print media, and in-store experiences tend to have more local opportunities to adjust to local tastes and local contexts, global brands traditionally have tight centralized control over digital touch points. Centralized IT has a strong hand! When it comes to web development, building mobile applications, or building hosting infrastructures, more often than not local branches have limited input.

Perhaps they are able to localize the systems and run local campaigns through some form of CMS, with limited ability to customize, but most often they don’t get to lead IT service and product development programs. This approach is really not optimal for local customers, and limits the ability for the brand to show its best face.

In the rest of this article, I’ll describe some of the key challenges when it comes to serving Digital Experiences to the Chinese market both from a technical and user experience perspective, and why local branches need more freedom to engage with this humongous and exciting marketplace.

Challenges in China

In this article you will learn how to overcome digital challenges every global brand faces in China, starting from the underlying network connectivity fabric all the way up to the delivered user experience.

The key challenges are:

  • How to avoid the Great Firewall
  • Finding the best local/global hosting solutions
  • Manoeuvring the browser jungle
  • Engaging through the right social networks
  • Tackle User Experience differences

I’ll drill down into each area, highlight the challenges there, and propose some practical solutions.

How to avoid the Great Firewall

Let me start with something obvious here: Internet traffic in China is heavily firewalled. The so-called Great Chinese Firewall has a strong control over what goes in and out of the country, and it has a great impact on brands' ability to reach local customers.

What is the purpose of this firewall and some related systems? Certainly there is a political angle here: the Chinese government thinks it needs to maintain strong control over the flow of information to ensure political stability. There is also an economical angle: protection of local markets. With the ability to block or strongly discourage global providers entering the market, it provides plenty of opportunities for local, Chinese startups and businesses to provide these services.

Regardless of the purpose, from a practical perspective what it means for us developers is an unacceptably high network latency.

Really long waits for page loads, frequent timeouts, and a really degraded user experience impacts the pages served from outside China. If your service or site is not blocked, you can still face issues when using third-party services that are themselves blocked. You can break your own page load for example just by using externally accelerated/hosted JavaScript libraries. Things that are convenient and obvious choices in the West, such as using embedded Google Maps or Google Forms in your webpages, are blocked and result in a broken page overall.

 

Even lower-level network protocols like DNS lookups can take significantly longer than expected, so you have to examine the whole tech stack for use in the region.

My recommendation to overcome this challenge is:

  • Adapt your site, application, and/or service to the local realities - what this practically means is hosting locally, using the minimum number of locally-verified third-party services.
  • If you are absolutely not able to host within the borders of the Chinese firewall, at the minimum you’ll need to sign up with locally strong Content Delivery Networks to offload most of the requests to local edge servers.


Finding the best local/global hosting solutions

Due to the network issues described above, the best way to provide a good service to your Chinese customers is to host the site or service in China. The good news is that some of the main Cloud infrastructure providers do offer services in China; the bad news is that these are not exactly the same quality and range as in the West.

Amazon has the AWS cloud in preview mode, which means limited availability, limited reliability, and only one zone currently, to be extended with a second zone later this year. Just to sign up with AWS China you need a new account, and - yes, you read it right - a locally registered company. It is a manual workflow that requires some kind of approval, and I’ve found that it tends to work better if you find and talk to a local AWS account manager. And then, if you want to expose your server instance as a web server, you’ll need a specific content provider license to open port 80 or 8080 for the web.

Microsoft also provides the Azure Cloud stack for China, and it seems like a little bit more of a mature offering, with two availability zones. Both of these companies have to work through local partners according to Chinese regulations.

While these services are within China, you’ll probably also need to work with a Content Delivery Network to bring your content and assets closer to the end users. Again some of the big global players have presence here, like Akamai, but you might want to look at a multi-CDN strategy to maximize performance.

Sign up for AWS cloud hosting in China here, but be aware of the requirement of having a local company entity before you will be on-boarded. (Update: Since publishing, AWS has been fully rolled out in China. The main wrinkle remains that you need a separate AWS account for China specifically, with different credentials.)

No matter which global provider you trust, I urge you to continuously monitor and test the performance of the whole stack regularly, because there should be no assumptions made based on experiences with a brand-name platform elsewhere.

Maneuvering the browser jungle

So let’s assume we have our system hosted locally in China, and we ensured that we have the right connectivity to deliver the content. In this scenario, how it will be accessed by your target audience also has local challenges.

If you’re building websites, you probably already have a matrix of mainstream browsers to support – but get ready for some more! First of all, there are just more Windows XP-legacy devices out there, running old-old IE. Then there are local market-leading browsers you probably haven’t heard about: for example, the 360 security suite is so widely spread on desktop and mobile devices, its built-in browser is the #2 browser in China. There are also browsers specialized for online gaming, or built into other social apps.

On the mobile app side of things, you’ll also face an interesting challenge when distributing your apps. Yes, there is Android and iOS, but the Google Play store is not accessible in China, so you’ll have to rely on many-many specialized app stores instead. There are 500+ app stores, and you need to target at least the top ones to get a decent reach.

Recommendations for getting started:

  • If you want good SEO on the app, then you need to get listed in the Baidu app store
  • The 360 security suite also has its app store and you’ll want to tap into their huge install base
  • 91 HiAPK is very successful as they have good relationships with handset manufacturers and the app store is pre-installed on many devices
  • Anzhi is famous for having a very large forum community that comments on apps

Engaging through the right social networks

Any digital engagement strategy needs social engagement, so you’ll also need to tap into social networks to connect, listen, and keep in touch with your audience. This is especially true in China, where engagement rates are significantly higher than in Europe or US. (Source: ChinaInternetWatch via Hendrik Kühl

Facebook, Google+, and most of the major global players are blocked, so you have to work with the local market leaders. In terms of social networks, currently WeChat is the leading social channel, but it is markedly different from the way you can use it compared to Facebook. Instead of the usual brand pages and paid promotions, you’ll need to rely on other networks and influencers to drive people to engage with your WeChat presence.

If you invest in WeChat, it’s important to make sure you’re not just trying to use it as a Facebook page. You’ll have to align with the concept of “Chat as UI”, and drive the interaction through messaging your customers through WeChat Official Accounts and get your followers to share your news through WeChat Moments. WeChat has APIs that you can leverage to build a mini website and even add a WeChat shopping cart to it, with payment services integrated, so it can also be your mini storefront.

You’ll need to sign up for a WeChat Official Account. See some good instructions here, and remember that, yet again, you’ll need a local entity.

(Update: Since publishing, my team and I have invested heavily in making the barrier to entry lower for brands looking to unleash the power of WeChat for eCommerce and customer engagement. Check out our most recent research and accelerators if you’re interested:

Please contact us directly if you have any questions!) 

Tackling User Experience differences

There are many aesthetic differences: colors, shapes, and signs might have a different meaning in local culture. But you’ll have to study local best practices and customs related to user experience design as well. If you visit a typical Chinese eCommerce webpage, you’ll notice the significantly higher information density there.

This is at least partially due to network speed and reliability constraints: users prefer to have lots of information available on the page, without having to navigate away. Displaying detailed product listings and then filtering/drilling down is the preferred way to browse product, compared to the more minimalist, clean UI that requires page by page navigation.

Mobile UX tends to be a little bit cleaner and closer to western tastes, probably because apps on your phone don’t need to wait for the network to fetch the next page. But there are different UX patterns local consumers are used to. You can find a really useful article here that describes these key patterns.

Some of the more interesting ones are:

  • The Discovery menu item - while western apps typically rely on a hamburger menu to hide complexity and secondary features, Chinese apps have a Discovery section, which typically leads to a hierarchy of menus to drill down. How do you find your way around this? Intermediate (temporary) badges show you where to drill down for a new feature or content in the hierarchy, taking you through a trail of options.
  • QR Codes are largely ignored by western users, but they are everywhere in China. People use them to add contacts on WeChat, to bring people from print banners to sites or apps, and also you can use them as authentication tokens between apps, for example.
  • Chat-as-UI is prevalent. Not just WeChat, but many social apps use a one-to-one chat interface to communicate between brands and customers, or systems/menus and customers. People are comfortable with this paradigm.
  • If you walk around in a typical Chinese city, you’ll see people holding their phone in front of their mouths, talking into it, without holding it up to their ears. They’re using chat apps and sending voice messages instead of typing, as text input can be really difficult.

Key starting point recommendations:

  • If you use a social login in other regions, integrate with WeChat for China. See WeChat API help pages. You can also use third-party services to get your service or site integrated into WeChat.
  • Use QR codes for sharing, adding friends, and bridging between offline and online media, but also between banner ads and Mobile.
  • Consider voice input if you build any chat functionality in your app.


Summary

China is such an important market, so you’ll need to engage it in a customized, targeted way. This means you’ll need a specific digital engagement strategy to make sure people are able to find and engage with your brand. This requires local IT infrastructure strategy, as well as custom mobile and social development effort. Let us know if we can help!