It was sad news for Durex when they found out that only less than 10% of
sexually active Chinese people were regular condom users. Moreover,
inefficient distribution systems increased costs; counterfeits worked
against their premium pricing strategy; and expensive television
advertising brought them little increase in market share. As is often
the case, things that worked elsewhere, may not work in China. However,
Durex’s sales have tripled in the last a few years, driven largely by
gaining and engaging with millions of followers on social media. This in
a country where the topic of sex is still in some sense taboo even among
young people and hundreds of sex related “sensitive words” are censored
online by Chinese government.
The benefits of effective social media management are no secret to many
businesses and their customers worldwide. Even for “old-school” formerly
state owned postal services, as a customer you can often get better
service and satisfaction via Twitter than more traditional methods such
as hotline or email. In China, however, there are additional
complexities when it comes to engaging with your target market. In China
there is no Facebook, no Twitter, and no YouTube, which makes you
wonder, how did Durex engineer this change in fortunes using Chinese
Social Media when facing such obstacles? How was the above written with
not one double entendre?
Aza Raskin from the Centre for Humane Technology said social media
companies deliberately use addictive technology in their apps in order
to lure us in to spending as much time on their platforms as possible.
Before addressing the more pertinent of these question and attempting to
identify and replicate the success of Durex when building your product
or service to China, there are two more fundamental questions to
人文技术中心（Centre for Humane
• What does China’s social media landscape look like?
Aza Raskin invented the endless scroll – the app feature that means
you don’t have to click to get to the next page and can keep scrolling
for far longer than maybe necessary or healthy.
• What are Chinese netizens fond of?
Aza says he did not intend to hook users with it but says the
business model of many social media companies is designed to maximise
user time online. He says this encourages designers to come up with
technological tricks that hook users.
How Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest Hook Users
China’s Social Media Landscape
The tactics that the best digital brands use to stay relevant in users’
minds and lives.
In China, most Western mainstream social media platforms are blocked
through government control. Nevertheless, the growth of China’s
indigenous social networks has been staggering, particularly from 2009
onwards. China is now home to roughly 700 million netizens, with social
media household names such as QQ, Renren, Sina Weibo, WeChat and Youku.
Sandy Parakilas, who was a platform operations manager at Facebook
in 2011 and 2012, said there was definitely an awareness that Facebook
was habit-forming when he worked at the company.
Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your
search bar and add the word “addict” after it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try
“Facebook addict” or “Twitter addict” or even “Pinterest addict,” and
you’ll soon get a slew of results from hooked users and observers
deriding the narcotic-like properties of these sites. How is it that
these companies, producing little more than bits of code displayed on a
screen, can seemingly control users’ minds? Why are these sites so
addictive, and what does their power mean for the future of the web?
So what do these social network services provide and how are they used?
Some people would offer this simple answer:
We’re on the precipice of a new digital era. As infinite distractions
compete for our attention, companies are learning to master new tactics
to stay relevant in users’ minds and lives. Today, just amassing
millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find
that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits
they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new
reality, others are already cashing in.
Renren is the Chinese Facebook; Weibo is the Chinese Twitter; Youku is
the Chinese YouTube and so on.
Facebook and Instagram have told the BBC that their apps are
designed to bring people together and that they never set out to create
The social media ecosystem in China is, however, more than just the
carbon copy of the West, and in many ways is far more diverse and
evolving more rapidly. Take Tencent’s WeChat as an example. The WeChat
app has about 600 million daily active users, 93% saturation rate in
first-tier cities, over 600 million users subscribing to official
accounts, and more than 3 billion daily page views. With a strong focus
on user experience and usability, WeChat has successfully attracted
users aged from 10+ to 60+ by integrating a host of features including
chatting, friend finding, sharing of photos, videos, status, exercising
monitoring, charitable donations, payments, and many more. In China this
feature rich and accessible medium has led to so called “WeChat
lifestyle”, also known as “WeChat addiction”:
A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its
bottom line. For one, it creates associations with “internal triggers”
in users’ minds. That is to say, users come to the site without any
external prompting. Instead of relying on expensive marketing or
worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to cue
themselves to action by attaching their services to the users’ daily
routines and emotions. A cemented habit is when users unconsciously
think, I’m bored, and Facebook instantly comes to mind. They think, I
wonder what’s going on in the world? and before rational thought kicks
in, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.
– In the morning people wake up and check chats and Moments (posting
– Read articles on Moments on the way to work;
But how do companies create a connection with the internal cues needed
to form habits? They manufacture desire. While fans of Mad Men are
familiar with how the ad industry once created consumer desire during
Madison Avenue’s golden era, those days are long gone. A multiscreen
world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered
Don Draper’s big-budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest
brands. Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a
series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these
experiences Hooks, and the more often users run through them, the more
likely they are to self-trigger.
– Buy breakfast with WeChat Wallet;
I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to help others
understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. The book
highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming
and online advertising industries. While my model is generic enough for
a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on applications in
consumer internet here.
– Check chats from time to time at work;
From “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal
– After lunch share the bill via WeChat Transfer;
endless scroll 无限下拉滚动
– Browse Moments to see friends’ status;
The trigger is the actuator of a behavior — the spark plug in the Hook
model. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming
technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an
email, a link on a website, or the app icon on a phone. By cycling
continuously through these hooks, users begin to form associations with
internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and
emotions. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a
certain way. The internal trigger becomes part of their routine
behavior, and the habit is formed.
– In the evening purchase groceries or buy dinner using WeChat Wallet;
business model 商业模式
For example, suppose Barbra, a young woman in Pennsylvania, happens to
see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a
rural part of the state. It’s a lovely photo, and since she’s planning a
trip there with her brother Johnny, the trigger intrigues her.
– Watch shared videos, read articles on Moments, join group chatting,
or walk with WeChat Run (exercise monitor) after dinner;
– Browse Moments again before going to sleep.
After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage
two pulleys of human behavior: motivation and ability. To increase the
odds of a user taking the intended action, the behavior designer makes
the action as easy as possible, while simultaneously boosting the user’s
motivation. This phase of the Hook draws on the art and science of
usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer
Before using social media to raise brand and product awareness,
understanding some of the detail of the landscape helps you determine
via which platform and at what time to target certain groups of people
Using the example of Barbra, with a click on the interesting picture in
her newsfeed, she’s taken to a website she’s never been to before called
Pinterest. Once she’s done the intended action (in this case, clicking
on the photo), she’s dazzled by what she sees next.
In China, platforms like WeChat can be considered as closed or
semi-closed. Users are mainly connected with people they know through
direct contact, therefore “word of mouth” spread tends to depend on an
initial impetus such as a push notification from official account where
the user is a subscriber or content shared via WeChat Moments that can
only be seen by friends. When it comes to mass publicity, Sina Weibo
(“Weibo” = micro blog) is a comparatively easier place to manage. With
roughly 200 million MAUs (monthly active users), Weibo provides users
the platform to interact with celebrities, companies and organizations,
such as Tom Cruise, Macy’s (the American department store), United
Nations etc. Basically one post can be pushed to the Weibo home page or
reposted by KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) via certain promotional features,
thus increasing potential reach to millions of users. Additionally,
features like polls and lotteries can further increase reach. These are
cost-effective channels to get feedback and attention from a large
number of users.
The evolution of China’s mainstream social media networks has been
driven not only by WeChat and Weibo but other interest-based social
networks, for example, Douban where mainly music, movies and book lovers
gather, Baidu Tieba (forum) where about 50 million active users are
scattered across more than 8 million forums, and Momo where people
What separates Hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop is their ability
to create wanting in the user. Feedback loops are all around us, but
predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your
fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep
opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the
mix — say, a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time
you open it — and voilà, intrigue is created. You’ll be opening that
door like a lab animal in a Skinner box.
User engagement patterns over these various platforms can play an
important role in your strategy when scheduling social media activities.
For instance, on WeChat the peak engagement time is normally between
22:00 and 22:30, while on Weibo the “rush hours” are rather scattered.
Weibo Data indicates that during weekdays followers of education and
finance accounts are more active in commenting and reposting from 9:30
to 11:00; online shoppers prefer the time between 14:00 and 15:00; there
are more interaction between users and local merchants from 21:00 to
23:00; and generally more events occur on Wednesday and Thursday.
Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that
companies use to hook users. Research shows that levels of
dopamine — the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure
center — surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing
variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state,
activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although
classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards
are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.
Chinese Netizens’ Taste
When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she
intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering
objects. The images are associated with what she’s generally interested
in — namely, things to see during a trip to rural Pennsylvania — but
there are also some others that catch her eye. The exciting
juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain,
beautiful and common sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the
promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on the site, hunting for
the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45
minutes scrolling in search of her next hit.
On the second major question; namely “What are Chinese netizen’s fond
of?”, and what draws the attention of various groups on these platforms?
When looking at age demographics the answer appears to be that this
correlates fairly closely to the West in a broad sense. For example, if
you happen to be in a WeChat group with your 50+ year old relatives, it
is very likely that you may often receive shared articles with scare
head like “100 health care tips that 99% people do not know”. Any of the
health related headlines can instantly stimulate the nerves of these
people. Similar to family groups, there are classmate groups, mother
groups with certain age bracket, and groups categorized by hobbies such
as food lover groups, shopper groups. The size of some groups reach the
With the knowledge of groups and their subjects, you can further polish
your social media strategies by identifying what the netizens like. This
will direct you to the pursuit of Chinese society nowadays: high-end,
diversified and convenient.
The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work.
This phase has two goals as far as the behavior engineer is concerned.
The first is to increase the odds that the user will make another pass
through the Hook when presented with the next trigger. Second, now that
the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward
in the previous phase, it’s time to pay some bills. The investment
generally comes in the form of asking the user to give some combination
of time, data, effort, social capital, or money.
High-end – As an example of a high-end brand who used social media
to build a strong community following, Moleskine (producers of high
quality notebooks) managed to position their brand very well in China.
They focused on their story and vision. The story of the humble black
notebook being adored by and synonymous with artists and intellectuals
in Europe for more than two centuries. This imagery and association
resonated with thousands of Chinese via platforms like Weibo, especially
Douban and Zhihu where art lovers and high profile intellectuals gather.
Similarly, a formerly unknown designer, has turned himself into an
ad-talent by building stories around art pieces on a WeChat official
account and achieved 100,000+ ad exposure for each work.
But unlike a sales funnel, which has a set endpoint, the investment
phase isn’t about consumers opening up their wallets and moving on with
their day. The investment implies an action that improves the service
for the next go-around. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building
virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments
that improve the service for the user. These investments can be
leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the
reward more exciting with every pass through the Hook.
Diversified – When people follow your account, they do not only want
to see the brand / product updates, but also peripheral information.
Durex’s success is in some degree thanks to its diversity strategy. It
created a cute and animated condom-like character called “Little Dudu”
who shares love stories, sex education, and health information to
encourage Chinese people to talk openly about sex on social media sites.
It’s entertaining and humorous style of posting some little nothings of
daily life has drawn a great deal of attention across mainland China.
Durex leveraged on this momentum with active postings relating to
trending topics. During one torrential rainstorm in Beijing where people
found themselves stuck at work late in the evening, a Durex OP team
member posted “I feel lucky to have two f Durex in my pocket today!”
together with a picture showing how he had used the condoms to cover his
sneakers. This simple post hit the 6000 repost record by midnight and
won more brand followers. Meanwhile, Durex’s mascot “Little Dudu”
connected its online presence to the offline world through events such
as Valentine parties and package design competition streamed via Weibo,
once again winning thousands of followers overnight.
As Barbra enjoys endlessly scrolling the Pinterest cornucopia, she
builds a desire to keep the things that delight her. By collecting
items, she’ll be giving the site data about her preferences. Soon she
will follow, pin, re-pin, and make other investments, which serve to
increase her ties to the site and prime her for future loops through the
Convenient – Of the approximately 700 million Chinese netizens, more
than 89% are regularly online via mobile. “Fast” and “Convenient” have
steadily increased as major key words for many socially aware services.
More and more Chinese are turning to online verification via chat app,
bank accounts and cards bound to chat apps and virtual wallets such as
WeChat wallet, and daily transactions via QR code. Interestingly, when
compared to their Western counterparts, many Chinese netizen’s appear to
fall into the “early adopter” category and tend to be more open to new
business models that offer greater convince through technology. As a
further illustration of this, Chinese people are not used to browsing
new arrivals in online stores anymore; instead, their purchase decisions
are guided more by recommendation engines and push notifications from
apps based on their shopping history and preferences, as well as updates
from social media sites (e.g. brand and retail subscription accounts).
According to a research institute that more than 77% Chinese expect a
brand to have a social media presence. These trends do not only apply to
people’s everyday life, but also to some traditions such as lucky money
that Chinese people prepare in red envelopes as gifts for occasions like
weddings, birthdays or the lunar New Year. In recent years you will see
red envelopes fly around in WeChat groups, on Weibo, QQ, Momo, etc. In
2016, over 8 billion “red envelopes” were sent via WeChat during Chinese
New Year period.
A Bonus Question
A reader recently wrote to me, “If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a
superpower.” He’s right. And under this definition, habit design is
indeed a super power. If used for good, habits can enhance people’s
lives with entertaining, and even healthful, routines. If used to
exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.
What else do you need in order to build connections between you and
Chinese netizens via social media? The straight answer would be at least
the experts who are always aware of what are the trends in the country,
what is no-go, culturally, politically and legally, as making friend
with the government is as important as making friend with netizens in
But, like it or not, habit-forming technology is already here. The fact
that we have greater access to the web through our various devices also
gives companies greater access to us. As companies combine this greater
access with the ability to collect and process our data at higher speeds
than ever before, we’re faced with a future where everything becomes
more addictive. This trinity of access, data, and speed creates new
opportunities for habit-forming technologies to hook users. Companies
need to know how to harness the power of Hooks to improve people’s
lives, while consumers need to understand the mechanics of behavior
engineering to protect themselves from unwanted manipulation.
As every coin has two sides, the speed of social media broadcasting can
build brand awareness rapidly, but it can also bring you into the path
of very public and visible criticism or crisis if not managed with care.
Even seemingly innocuous cultural differences can open you up to a
degree of public ridicule, therefore you need local expertise with the
larger strategy as well as content review. For example, it would be
ill-advised to develop a gifting strategy with a clock in the content
(sending Chinese people a clock means “I send you to death” due to the
homophony), a man wearing a green hat means that his wife cheats on him
(one reason why St. Patrick’s day can be quite amusing to Chinese
people), and an image of chopsticks in a rice bowl is associated with a
memorial ceremony for the dead. There are political sensitives to
consider too, some more obvious than others; e.g. references to the
Dalai Lama, Taiwan, Tibet and Uygur etc. Should an influencer harbor
negative feelings for your product and feel strongly enough about it as
an unsatisfied customer, this can result in that opinion leader taking
out their frustrations on said product by smashing it and sharing the
video across Chinese social media channels. This is a trend that has
become more common in China.
Nothing is static, so when your company does decide to enter or expand
in the Chinese market, you will need to look carefully at the current
state of play in terms of tastes, trends, and regulation across China’s
social media landscape. Things change fast, and they change faster in
China, including laws and regulations. Nevertheless, with the help of
the right partner with local market expertise, social media can be a
great tool in building brand love and your brand community in China.
The degree to which a company can utilize habit-forming technologies
will increasingly decide which products and services succeed or fail.
Habit-forming technology creates associations with “internal triggers,”
which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging, or other
Creating associations with internal triggers comes from building the
four components of a Hook — a trigger, action, variable reward, and
Consumers must understand how habit-forming technology works to prevent
unwanted manipulation while still enjoying the benefits of these
Companies must understand the mechanics of habit formation to increase
engagement with their products and services and ultimately help users
create beneficial routines.
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com. For more
insights on using psychology to change behavior, join his newsletter and
receive a free workbook.
Article by Run Zhang. For the use of the content, please contact the
author. Thank you!