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China's Old-School Networking Has Little Place For LinkedIn

Chinese networking usually happens offline
Chinese networking usually happens offline
Cunfu Riji

BEIJING — In China, the core users of the professional social networking site LinkedIn are white-collar and managerial-level staff of large companies, particularly multinationals or joint ventures with foreign firms.

Still, the network has a long way to go if it wants to recruit native Chinese.

The users it can claim in China tend to speak English and are comfortable and familiar with the email-based social exchanges of LinkedIn. Many of them have studied or worked abroad and naturally find their place as users, thanks to foreign connections.

But local Chinese who don’t have the same kind of global exposure have totally different needs and social habits. For starters, there is no place in Chinese society for the type of online community of strangers LinkedIn promotes. According to LinkedIn’s global research data, middle and high-ranking administrators use the platform mainly for industry social networking (22%) and developing their businesses (20%). A large proportion of these exchanges go through strangers, or semi-familiar people — a connection of a connection, for example — looking for business cooperation, making the acquaintance of peers, or promoting businesses.

In the United States or multinational cultures, LinkedIn is a relatively credible platform on which strangers social network professionally. Generally speaking, users are willing to publicly disclose their personal information and communicate directly with each other.

Buy in local enterprises where Chinese culture dominates, networking usually happens offline and through someone familiar instead of through a cold call with a stranger. The introduction via a friend, even a not very familiar one, is usually more effective than a blind email introduction. In addition, unlike multinational managers, Chinese senior administrators are usually reluctant to disclose their personal information. They prefer to keep a bit of mystery. This cultural barrier makes it challenging for LinkedIn to develop high-end, native Chinese users.

There are other obstacles too. Among them is that the Chinese have a relatively weak email culture. The majority of LinkedIn’s information delivery or reminder messages are conducted through emails, whereas in China emails are only infrequently used by managers and white-collar workers. They prefer either mobile phones or talking directly with coworkers.

There is also no alumni culture in China as there is in the Western world. In Chinese society, a fellow alumnus isn’t necessarily a ready resource with whom trust is established because of a shared connection.

A unique marketing tool

As LinkedIn’s global statistics show, 64% of the traffic from social media sites to company websites originate from LinkedIn. By contrast, Facebook accounts for only 17%, and Twitter for only 14%. Unfortunately, because of its limited base of users, this method of company promotion doesn’t necessarily translate in China.

LinkedIn’s most winning characteristic is that it tends not to disturb its users. None of China’s similar platforms have been able to establish a solid user base because users have had bad experiences. Since users need to provide personal information, a platform’s respect for this information is particularly important. Many white-collar workers or headhunters also use these Chinese platforms to look for jobs or to recruit. But the common nuisance is that the more they use the platform, the more likely they are to be spammed with exhibition messages, ads, business promotions or irrelevant job posts.

LinkedIn users enjoy a far better experience in this respect. The platform sends alerts via email, user group information, contact changes or invitations. It also has a more friendly advertising style better suited to the user’s purpose. It’s night and day compared to Chinese-based social platforms, but so far not enough to give LinkedIn a real foothold in Chinese culture.

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