When it comes to ecommerce, last year in China often means this year (or next) in the U.S. Numerous online shopping trends have swept China before landing stateside one or two years later. This is happening now with super apps (e.g., WeChat and DoorDash), meaning platforms that customers initially use for one purpose (like food delivery) and then end up using for other types of transactions too (like ordering flowers). I’ve also written about the impending arrival of live shopping, aka shopatainment, which has proved to be extremely disruptive to China’s retail landscape. While we’re starting to see live shopping surface in the U.S., especially as social platforms integrate shopping, the trend is still in its early days here.
Another Chinese trend I’m studying closely, which I believe could be on the horizon for American ecommerce, is called private traffic. It’s a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy that emphasizes direct communication between brands and customers. Unlike with super apps and shopatainment, I suspect the American version of private traffic will look very different from China’s for two reasons: Western marketers still rely heavily on email, and our communication methods are fragmented across different channels (e.g., email, SMS, WhatsApp, and DM).
In the U.S., email marketing is the default way for brands to initiate and maintain relationships with customers, and it has been for years. But email isn’t popular in China — a lot of people use WeChat for all of their messaging needs, including for business. Private traffic is basically what Chinese brands came up with as an email-free equivalent of email marketing, and it seems to be an even better engagement tool. Why? Because private traffic enables two-way conversations. Customers expect a real back and forth whenever they communicate with brands, and in some cases interact not only with brands but also with other customers. In fact, some of the most popular private-traffic strategies could double as a crash course in how to incorporate community into the product experience — something that’s become a priority, and a challenge, for many American brands.
Imagine being an American brand in 2022 and not having the option of using email to reach customers to promote new products, announce big sales, or send order and shipping confirmations. That was the scenario in China, where mobile phone users check their email 22% less than global users on the whole, according to Deloitte’s 2018 China Mobile Consumer Survey. A 2017 WeChat behavior report found that about 88% of the 20,000 respondents surveyed used WeChat daily for work, compared to 22.6% using email.
Low email penetration, combined with data privacy practices, forced Chinese brands to find an alternative engagement strategy. The solution was private traffic, an umbrella term for various forms of digital brand outreach that are much more personalized than the one-to-many, one-way email marketing model we’re used to. The traffic is “private” because brands fully own the channels where they communicate with customers and can contact those customers anytime, as opposed to conversations transpiring on third-party sites (like Instagram and TikTok). Popular forms include customer group chats; one-on-one messaging; shopping groups on the retail marketplace Taobao; a brand’s own store, website, or app; and brand mini-programs, which are third-party app-like experiences that live inside WeChat and don’t require customers to download anything.
Here’s one example of how private traffic might work: Let’s say you go to a store to buy a barbecue set. If the sales rep you talk to recommends a specific grill, they might say, “Hey, after you purchase this, why don’t you add me as a contact? You can message me if you have any questions about installation, or any aspect of using your grill. If I come across cool barbecue recipes or accessories for your new set, I’m going to send them your way.”
You agree, allowing the sales rep to start a one-on-one chat with you. What’s the impact? You’re more likely to buy the barbecue set because you have this sales rep’s personal support, and you’re less likely to return it because you now have a direct connection with them. This kind of private, two-way conversation also helps brands understand their customer better, which in turn helps breed deeper customer loyalty.
Taking customer relationship-building a step further, Chinese brands also experimented with group chats. Here’s an example I wrote about previously, which illustrates the power of this method: Ctrip, the biggest travel company in China, started something new a couple of years ago. If you booked an international flight for a week-long vacation, you’d have the option of joining a group chat with other travelers who booked tickets to the same destination, around the same time. There would also be a sales rep in the chat to act as a travel concierge before and during the trip. They’d answer questions about anything from what to do about a lost passport to which type of outlet converter to bring. But the best part is, once your vacation starts, you’re not only asking the customer sales rep questions — often, you’re talking to other group-chat members too. You might ask how long the line at an amusement park is, or see who has sightseeing recommendations, or even invite people to meet up for dinner. Essentially, the group of strangers becomes a community.
Two-way interaction is what enables Chinese brands to bring community into the product experience. While you probably wouldn’t respond to a promotional email from a mattress brand and expect a real conversation to unfold, that’s exactly what happens with private traffic. Whether a Chinese customer is in a group chat with a sunglasses sales rep, or asking about swimwear sizing on a brand’s app, the assumption is that they’ll get a timely response to their question. In many ways, this is a natural evolution of the commerce experience in China.
For many years now, Alibaba has put chat front and center in their flagship commerce platforms Taobao and TMall, making fast responses from sellers a standard consumer expectation. Customers can even chat with sellers to negotiate things like bulk discounts or check in on delivery timelines — the opportunities to connect with customers are endless. Chinese brands use messaging to expand the boundaries of marketing because email isn’t an option. And, to me, it’s the reason many young brands in China can quickly create a loyal community. In the U.S., we talk a lot about building community with our buyers. But unless there’s true, direct interaction between the brand and a customer — or, better yet, between customers — those customers aren’t your community.
Private traffic isn’t solely an online shopping trend. For household goods and clothing, the most common way to join or even hear about a brand’s private traffic is through shopping in physical stores. That means sales reps and cashiers are the ones who introduce customers to the communities or one-on-one chats where they can learn more about their new purchases, or get deals or coupons on other products. Imagine being able to join a moderated group chat with other first-time parents or first-time dog owners in your zip code. In the U.S., older generations might use Facebook for this purpose. But what will Gen Z use?
In the last couple years, the retail industry has been thinking a lot about how to make brands and products more accessible to customers. A lot of Western brands have interpreted more accessible to mean more relatable, and leaned into the idea of making people think we’re just like them. Even if this strategy isn’t a slam dunk in every case, it’s worked well for plenty of brands. Dove’s “real beauty” ad campaign, a pioneer in this approach, has anchored the brand for 18 years. More recently, Gen Z-focused brands such as Aerie and Glossier have embraced a similar ethos in selling lingerie and makeup, respectively. In contrast, many Chinese marketers came away with a different interpretation of accessibility. They seized on the literal definition of the term, using technology to make it easier for customers to reach brands and vice versa.
Now the question is: What will private traffic look like in the U.S.? I don’t know the answer yet because email marketing is still so prevalent. (And, yes, at least it works great.) But I do know that one-way blasts can’t compete with real-time, two-way messaging, especially when Gen Z’s on one end of the conversation.
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