Thinking of expanding into the China market? Here are some things you might take for granted that can trip you up. For instance, you might think it's a great idea to use email registration and login for your website or app for your new Chinese customers; if so, you'd be wrong.
Since the invention of email in 1965, email has been an essential communication tool, and it is common for websites and mobile applications to ask users to sign-up with their email addresses. However, in China, email registration is far less popular than other registration methods such as mobile phone numbers or social media.
Less is more may sound like a cliché, but it’s 100% true when it comes to usability. Email registration normally requires more effort from users, as they need to log in to another platform to find the activation email and then jump back. Not to mention that the rules for password settings are often complicated.
In comparison, SMS registration is easy. All you need to do is enter your mobile phone number, and you will receive a verification code by SMS, which can be automatically filled in or manually entered to complete your registration process. What’s more important is that, with SMS registration, users do not need to remember their passwords and never have to go through the pain of “Forget your password?”.
Recently, I worked with a client who changed their product login method from email to phone number verification. This client deployed their server in Germany. Whenever a Chinese user needs to log in to the product, they will have to enter their email and password, and these login details need to go through the German server and back to China, which is usually a slow and error-prone process. It leads to user dissatisfaction and a low number of active users. To solve this problem, the product recently introduced a localised solution that allows users to register and sign in via mobile number, plus a verification code, only requiring them to enter more information when they need to use specific services. This new solution optimised the user login and registration experience and lowers the barrier to use the product. As a result of this update, the time it takes from page load to login complete has been reduced from 16 seconds to 4 seconds, greatly improving the user experience.
Mobile phone number sign-up process is not only potentially less time-consuming for the customer, but is also more reliable in the long run. A user could apply for multiple email addresses, and for a number of reasons, some email addresses may be abandoned. In contrast, mobile phone numbers are more stable. In mainland China, phone numbers require real name authentication. If someone wants to get a new mobile phone number, they need to bring their government ID documents and register in person. This means that obtaining the user's phone number can avoid invalid user accounts.
The overall number of Internet users in China vastly overtakes the number of email users. According to Xinhuanet, as of March 2020, the overall number of Internet users in China is 904 million, of which 897 million users use mobile phones to access the Internet, representing 99.3% of the overall number of Chinese Internet users. A user's mobile phone number means getting the best way of reaching that user and business providers could easily identify the user they are serving, therefore provide more user-centric services.
In 1987, email was first introduced in China. In 1997 NetEase was born and created China's first free email system, and it remains the most popular email service provider in the China today. In 2010, Apple released iPhone 4, announcing the arrival of the mobile Internet era. The following year, Tencent launched WeChat. WeChat is now the most dominant social network in China. It is an all-in-one platform that contains so many functionalities which almost cover people’s daily life. Its popularity far exceeded NetEase email service (NetEase has 595 million active users compared to WeChat’s 1.2 billion active users).
In addition to its ubiquity, WeChat offers brands official accounts and mini-programs, which connects brands and consumers directly, and is undoubtedly one of the best ways to reach your target users. This is why many Chinese websites and apps nudge customers to use WeChat social login to register for services or platforms, as these accounts often contain richer user information beyond the mobile number. In contrast, email registration has lower business value. This makes WeChat another valuable platform for registrations.
Email registration is still popular around the world for various reasons. First, it has been used for a long time and systems were built to handle email as the customer identifier. Secondly, it is convenient for brands to send email campaigns to customers all around the world.
That’s why many of my clients (all multi-national corporations) naturally think of using email registration in China. However, WeChat and mobile phone number registration is more convenient for customers in China, and it is also beneficial for companies to obtain richer customer data and a more stable unique ID. Customers who prefer the ease of an SMS or WeChat login may be deterred by an email registration, potentially affecting the overall number of sign-ups. Therefore, email is not recommended for companies accessing China as the prime method of registration, but it can be used as an alternative way to reach a broader audience.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.