01/31/2008 10:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chinese Youth and Their Internet: Deep Love

Even the savviest marketers are amazed at how deeply China's new generation is engaged with the internet. Americans tend to have a relatively "functional" relationship with the web -- finding cheap flights, researching medical conditions, day trading and so on. On the other hand, Chinese netizens, particularly logged-on youth, are emotionally dependent on -- just stopping short of addiction -- virtual buzz. Consider the following findings uncovered in a recent IAC/JWT survey on American vs. mainland young digital "mavens":
  • While a large minority of Americans agree that they live some of their life on line (42% for both sexes), more than double the percentage of Chinese youth feel similarly (86 percent).
  • The gap between the samples is even wider when respondents are asked whether they have a "parallel" on-line life; while only 13% of Americans agree they do, nearly five times as many Chinese agree (61 percent).

Chinese vs. American Digital Self-Expression

But the Chinese are not simply "engaged" with the internet. Unlike Western brethren, they flock to a virtual universe express themselves -- and forge new relationships -- in a way that is not possible in the real world. They do it, anonymously, no holds barred. In response to the statement, "Online I feel free to do and say things I wouldn't do or say offline" fewer than a third of young Americans agree (32%), and a large majority (41%) disagree. Among Chinese respondents, almost three-quarters agree (73%), and just 9% disagree. Similarly, there is a clear difference in outlook when it comes to the notion that "it's perfectly possible to have real relationships purely online, with no face-to-face contact." About a fifth of Americans agree (21%), while almost two-thirds of Chinese do (63%).

China's online emotional liberation is highlighted via obsession with video games such as "God of War," "Counterstrike," "Blood Rain II" and "Doom III." Parents fear wasted lives in chat rooms and on porn sites. According to state-controlled media, there are more than 60 million bloggers in the PRC, double the amount in the United States. Cos Play and Flash Mobs, street demonstrations held by costumed youth facilitated by the internet's mass anonymity, are common occurrences in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Middle Kingdom's love affair with the internet begs two questions: First, why is this so? And, second, how can marketers profit from this revolutionary "deliverance platform?"

Ambitious Regimentation

In the frantic, hyper-competitive, success-obsessed, capitalist-Communist amalgam that is New China, even the trendiest, ear-ring sporting, "Westernized" youth is under tremendous pressure. When pressure builds, it must be released. In a recent focus group, a seventeen-year-old male whispered with soft intensity, "Living like this day and night and living under such tremendous stress is driving me nuts. I feel like killing somebody. I feel like dragging somebody over his collar and punching him hard again and again. I'm exhausted!" (Crime rates in China, by the way, are low.)

Compulsion to excel is only part of the picture. Youth culture is also repressed; blatant demonstrations of "individualism" -- still deemed "selfish" -- are unsafe since "the leading goose gets shot down." Hopes, dreams and anxieties are held close to the vest. Chinese Confucianism, the nation's cultural blueprint, mandates hierarchical regimentation rife with Byzantine behavioral codes. Students, always in uniform, never question teachers. Pedagogy focuses on drills and memorization. Unlike in American high schools, there is no "sub-cultural tribalism." There are no marching bands, choirs, debate clubs or swimming and basketball teams. College criteria are strictly academic (culminating in the dreaded goa kao, the archaic nationally standardized entrance exam). To boot, contemporary China boasts a yawning generation gap, exacerbating the lack of expression in daily academic life. Parental expectations are law; dating before graduating high school is "bad."

For Americans, the internet provides an incremental increase in the huge range of options they enjoy in life. For young Chinese, the internet represents an exponential -- and anonymous -- expansion in choice and liberation. In contrast to off-line comformism, on-line expression is stunningly free-wheeling. In the words of one typical sixteen-year-old, "it's about letting out what you can't say at school. When you're on the internet you don't have to pretend. No one knows it's me!" Another quote: "The people I know best are my "fish friends." We became close in our chat room." (Interestingly, on-line political agitation remains muted, due to: both a) genuine apathy regarding representative democracy and b) strict government controls. There are more than 50,000 cyber police.)

Marketing Gold: Harnessing the On-Line Power

Marketers can increase profits by forging deep digital bonds with China's new generation.

Creative that Engages. First, we should reject passively-consumed "advertising" and embrace "engagement ideas" with which consumers actively "participate" to satisfy hidden passions. Ford's internet-based "21 Day Excitement Challenge," for example, provided a platform to infuse routine days with stimulation. The effort generated more than 200 million hits, not to mention dramatically strengthened brand equity. DeBeers' on-line "Crazy for Love" and "Love Is All Around" competitions let young men demonstrate depth of feelings for their girlfriends without losing face. (These programs are affordable because digital is much less expensive than mass media. While traditional television and print will always have a critical role in forging brand equity, they must not stand alone.)

Insight into Hot Bottons. Second, we can take advantage of new technologies that enable measurement of on-line "buzz" and analysis of website pathing (i.e., how users navigate within sites via click-through tracking). We can, almost in real time, adjust communications based on how they are being discussed and digested. For example, CIC Data, founded by Sam Flemming, is a pioneer in quantitative digital word-of-mouth analysis.

Higher Loyalty and Profit. Third, we must embrace the potential of customer relationship management (CRM) to forge enduring engagement with our most loyal consumers, many of them young with rich attachment to brands. Although off-line direct marketing remains underdeveloped on the mainland due to limitations in infrastructure and list availability, the interactive nature of the internet allows us leapfrog these constraints. CRM, as practiced by (relatively few) companies such as Hewlitt Packard, Nokia, IBM and Microsoft, maximizes the profit contribution of discrete shoppers over time. Digital creative should never be confused with analytically-robust, measurement-driven CRM.

In conclusion, a new digital age has dawned, liberating China's repressed and ambitious new generation. Marketers can harness its power to forge enduring bonds with grateful, avid technology mavens.