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Not long ago I wrote an article on (one of China’s most followed internet startup blogs) about social marketing tactics Chinese startups could employ in hope of tapping long tail markets overseas. With the emergence of big data powered social media monitoring vendors, cost efficiency of running multinational campaigns in fragmented communities has been boosted dramatically. Conversely, I realise, tremendous opportunities are also opened up for startups in Southeast Asia to benefit directly from Chinese consumers in the wake of mobile SNS age. This is made easier than ever with the dazzling growth of WeChat (Chinese name Weixin), which for the first time provided a single platform connecting the mainland SNS users with the rest of the world.

Chinese tourists spending power is currently overlooked by IT startups
Most of us have heard stories of mainland tourists snapping up hermes on Champ-Elysees in a shopping-spree style. Myths aside, the average spending per trip by Chinese overseas tourists already ranks No 3 in the world, at US$ 3,679 based on a recent study by Visa. Also, according to UNWTO report, the number of outbound tourists from China has risen to 83 million in 2012 — their total spending leapfrogged by 40 per cent from 2011, which now accounts for 24 per cent of global international tourism spending. The thing that matters most to O2O startups in neighbouring countries, aside from the fact that 9 out of 10 most popular destinations are entirely Asian, is the underlying generation shift where young, independent individual travellers replaced tour groups as the dominant force of overseas travel. The stream of visa relaxations and the passage of a tourism law in China this year which banned tourist agencies for promoting “zero-fee” tours have created a sudden surge in demand for overseas travelling tips, something evident in view of the rapid rise in new users on mobile travel booking sites such as Ctrip. SNS is where one can directly interact with the young, travel-loving, and financially capable yet under-served new generation Chinese tourists.

For those of us who live in Hong Kong and Macau, and now increasingly those in Seoul, Taipei and Bangkok, we knew too well about the formidable power of the mainland individual travellers. These folks changed entire street views overnight by disrupting the original commerce ecosystem with their sheer spending power. Shops and brands they were informed of blossomed, while those who did not earn their awareness were soon swept away by skyrocketing rents. The hot air current was so strong that it sent a few smart local mom-&-pops in Hong Kong to national franchise level within a few years. Those who have learnt the game of inventing the image of “representing the best from Hong Kong” in front of these brand new tourists ended up scoring big.

How do I get a piece of the action here?
Drawing Chinese tourists used to be a simple game of buying the right media places (i.e. travel guides and travel forums) to condition those inexperienced and uninformed first time individual travellers. But nowadays with everyone equipped with smartphones, even CNN knows that the best solution to bridge the gap between the caterers and their Chinese patrons is via Chinese social media. With its ubiquitous presence in China and widespread recognition among Southeast Asian users, little has been explored on strategies to direct the flow of Chinese tourists to local businesses using its open API official accounts which already offers HTML5 level custom UI and integrated mobile payment platform. Come to think about it, a payment enabled mobile landing page with customer servicing features incorporated seamlessly in a mobile messenger SNS is simply an ideal O2O tool for local small businesses.

Imagine a web app of must-try local delicacies which updated with fresh native local contents versus the messy, often misleading and blatant advertising materials found on online forums. The contrast is a striking one, and needless to say local small businesses are soon to flock to you for partnerships. The time has come for even small retailers to adopt the ways of internet startup marketing. Look no further than the example of “Huang-Tai-Ji” in Bejing, a tiny pancake shop located at some corner of a shopping mall with mediocre traffic. If one looks it up on the country’s Yelp equivalent DianPing, its word-of-mouth rating is of nothing special, yet in reality the less than two year old franchise has already secured angel funding with a valuation of over US$ 6 million. Its secret recipe? The owner is an ex-Baidu designer who brilliantly exploited all wacky marketing gimmicks on SNS in a consistent way. He built a vast fan base by cheering them all day long! The underlying moral of this story is that today we live in a world where customer servicing and entertainment is simply part of marketing, and the fact that even the most traditional venture has something to learn from the lean marketing approach.

Cracking the Chinese wall may not be as difficult as some would think
Of course a few barriers remain for implementing an O2O strategy targeting Chinese tourists. For instance, built-in payment features and highly customizable official accounts are currently only made available in the Chinese Weixin platform which requires mainland Chinese company registration to apply. Also, skeptics will likely point out in haste that with the lack of language skills and on-the-ground resources, cross-border initiatives are doomed to fail. Yet for those who are committed, you should never allow such barriers to scare you away, for opening a shell company in China these days are hardly more difficult (though more expensive) than opening a BVI or Cayman Co if you check with the right accounting firms in Hong Kong. And while the path towards KOL (key opinion leaders) resources acquisition on Chinese SNS could indeed be both daunting and expensive, the good news is KOL network for expert overseas tourism is still under development. Many social media monitoring companies, particularly players in Hong Kong, can quickly devise a plan with data-backing to draw up a heat map for you. This sometimes reminds me of how entire untapped new markets could be sitting in the closet waiting for the inspired minds to uncover. You just got to look into the right places for tools to pick the lock.

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