Walls Fall Down: Building community and building trust with Chinese consumers


For nearly any company with an eye on future growth, the road to success invariably runs through China.

However, expansion into this market is not as simple as merely exporting a successful business model overseas; it requires a transformation of products, services, and messaging to resonate with the unique cultural norms and evolving preferences of the Chinese consumer. This, in turn, presents a need for flexible and innovative research methods that enable relationship-building and allow consumers to engage in a way that is real, honest, and true-to-life.

In this study, we examine three of Communispace’s private, Chinese-language online communities, representing over 1,000 consumers (N=1,107). Various engagement measures established that our communities were not just viable, they were on par with our English-language communities. Members displayed high levels of participation across a wide range of activities, interacting with each other and proactively generating discussions. But we wanted to understand more about the member experience: What drew them to the community, and what kept them coming back? Was the community perceived as a credible and trustworthy source? Were they being honest with their feedback?

Through a series of community activities and informal interviews, we explored community dynamics and drivers with members and facilitators, respectively. What emerged was a holistic picture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for participation, how members perceive the community in relation to other online venues, and the various characteristics of an environment that engenders trust, honesty, and mutual sharing. In particular:

  • Password protection, small size, and a stringent recruitment process all signal to members that the community is a safe, credible environment in which to share. Given the central role of family and the home in Chinese culture, a warm, welcoming feel and the ability to build long-term, intimate relationships serve as major points of distinction.
  • A targeted membership, based around common interests or life stage, makes the community feel purposeful, gives members a sense of belonging and engenders relevant member-to-member conversations around shared experiences and challenges.
  • Skilled facilitators play a critical role in modeling and celebrating personal sharing, providing guidance and support, and ensuring that members feel heard. As content managers and subject experts, facilitators also help the community feel professional and well-maintained.
  • While members are thrilled to serve as brand advisors, they appreciate a low-pressure, ad-free environment where they can speak their minds without fear of reproach. Providing unbiased information and informed points of view help to engender credibility and positions the brand as a respected authority.

Finally, we distilled our experiences thus far in translating our own business model to China into lessons for any company hoping to break down the barriers to customer engagement.