Is there a difference in marketing competency between individuals trained in China versus those trained in the US? In an article published in Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019 issue), I summarize four key market differences that lead to a different mindset and skill set that provides Chinese-trained marketers with—in some cases—a competitive advantage.

After the article came out, I received a note from Genie Ko, Product Marketing Manager at SmartNews, a news discovery app. She essentially said that she was living the challenge—being a western-trained strategic marketer trying to compete with Chinese firms. Below are her insights on the nature of the challenge.

Kimberly A. Whitler: Genie, can you share a little about your background for context?

Genie Ko: After obtaining my MBA at the Darden School of Business, I started at E. & J. Gallo Winery. I spent a few years there learning strategic marketing. How do you position a brand? How do you create growth through strategic choices designed to appeal to more consumers or generate higher levels of loyalty? I loved my experience but felt like something was missing. So I recently took a job at SmartNews. We are a news discovery app, app, aggregating multiple sources and competing with Google News, Apple News, Flipboard, CNN, Fox News and many others. With so much of the news being labeled as progressive or conservative, we found that many consumers want a single app that can provide news from all sides.

Whitler: How is your current role different from your previous experience?

Ko: In tech, many of the marketers are trained as performance marketers. For example, there are marketers solely focused on increasing consumer acquisition within a certain marketing channel (e.g., Facebook) with specific goals and metrics that they are held accountable to. My role at SmartNews is to complement this performance-based marketing perspective by bringing the strategic training I had at Gallo—segmentation, positioning, consumer insights, etc. However, I came here specifically to get more exposure to performance marketing, and I feel like I’m doing that.

Whitler: Can you talk a little about what you’ve seen as you compete with a Chinese-based company?

Ko: At SmartNews, we’re obviously competing with a large number of U.S. based companies such as Apple News, Google News, and Flipboard. But two of the newer competitors in mobile news are Toutiao, the world’s most valuable startup, which is currently beating Tencent News in China and, for the US, News Break owned by Particle Media, a subsidiary of Beijing Yidian Wangju Technology Co., Ltd. As a western-trained marketer, it’s been interesting monitoring these Chinese companies targeting US users.

Whitler: Do you have any insight on how they are able to grow faster?

Ko: I was trained to look for needs in the marketplace, identify gaps, and generate insights. You then create and develop solutions against this. In the case of News Break, they approached this market by testing over 20 value propositions via rapid iteration based on hypotheses their product team developed coming from their experience at Yahoo. They used a fair amount of A/B tests and analysis of data sources like Google Search volume and cost per user, then implemented these learnings and moved on to the next test. Once they found a “silver bullet,” they were able to rapidly deploy the cash at hand from a previous round of fundraising … and use those early metrics to raise more money in China. I was trained to understand and care about the “why” while driving towards business goals. In observing News Break’s actions and trying to infer what’s behind them, it seems to be less focused on branding and much more on acquisition-centered growth based on testing a broad array of user needs.

Whitler: When I was sent to an emerging market, the first group in was focused on driving mass distribution. It wasn’t strategic. The goal was to dominate shelves ASAP. I was part of the second group in. My job was to “right the ship”. The products, pricing, brand…nothing made sense. The first goal was shelf domination. The second goal was strategic preparation for long-term share growth. I’m wondering if the Chinese are approaching this market in the same way. Step one is user acquisition as fast as possible.

Ko: That could be a possibility. And because many American marketers have been trained to lead with strategy, perhaps that slows us down a little in traditional marketing organizations. At SmartNews we’ve had a lot of rapid product and marketing iterations while still laddering up to a long-term, overarching strategy, which is essential to helping us compete with companies from both the US and China. Take our TV ads for example where we have already optimized from over 40+ cable channels and 12 creative executions to focus on the best performing ads and channels in terms of cost per install/result. At the same time, we take these performance-driven learnings and apply them to our long-term opportunities in brand positioning and messaging.

Whitler: Do you have any insight on how they acquire customers?

Ko: They have a strong online ads strategy using local news as a hook to attract a broad US audience. To do something like that at scale is very technology driven and they would have had to invest the resources to make it work both in terms of funding coming from Chinese investors and in terms of the number of engineers to work on this. But if this engineering-driven approach works for acquisition, their automation is often their downfall when it comes to the quality of content. For instance, they pushed several fake news stories in the last 12 months just based on the intensity of the social signal (one recent example: the rumor that Silvester Stallone was dead was promoted as breaking news) while the SmartNews systems are built with a mix of machine learning + human responsibility to avoid such instances where one source can manipulate millions.

Whitler: What advice would you give somebody who is competing with a Chinese company?

Ko: In the past, Western-trained marketers put the power of branding and building a consumer-oriented strategy above all else. I don’t think they gave enough credit to growth-mindsets or the transformative power of speedy execution and testing — not just versus Chinese companies but more broadly. However, there are proven results that come from both. While what the performance-oriented marketers are doing might not seem strategic in the “traditional sense,” it is super-fast. For example, instead of months, it takes just mere days or even hours to learn what creative, messaging, or audiences resonate. I see this competition as an opportunity to learn and explore a “third way,” breaking down barriers between results-oriented growth marketers and strategic brand marketers.

Join the Discussion: @KimWhitler


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