Ecommerce and marketplaces progressively rely on a communication strategy that is increasingly focused on social media to stimulate their commercial performance.

Though communication strategies are often well formulated, their implementation on social networks to increase sales remains complex and the goal is usually not achieved. This is due to the fact that there is a larger focus on the use of the most popular social networks, leaving out the less popular ones. Secondly, because a lot of social networks are started without the proper identification of the ones mostly used by clients and prospective clients. Lastly, and unfortunately not the least, because the competition and the social networks’ algorithms make organic visibility nearly … invisible.

So, is communication on social networks useful to ecommerce? This article shows the examples of Cdiscount and Taobao in France and China, with the aim to share some insights and ideas for international strategies.

Before starting, why Taobao and Cdiscount? Despite a substantial difference between these two leaders, Taobao being C2C and Cdiscount B2C, they share several similarities: they are both marketplaces, primarily for consumers and they use similar social networks, Sina Weibo and Twitter. It is the latter that led the choice of these two platforms.

How did Taobao and Cdiscount become the leaders in their market?

Taobao was launched by Jack Ma in 2003, as a part of Alibaba Group. During its first years, to confront eBay’s aggressive competition in China, they decided to offer vendors free access. Forced to keep its paid-access business model, eBay’s market share dropped dramatically and had to quit the Chinese market.

After reaching the top of China ecommerce rankings, Taobao created a new branch with a more demanding and paid B2C business model; Taobao Mall, which became an independent entity called Tmall in 2011. Since then, Taobao focused on the C2C, free and open-to-all-vendors model, while Tmall on the B2C, selective and strict model.

With an easy-to-use interface, reliable logistics and a large variety of merchandise sold by millions of sellers, Taobao now has nearly 650 million users annually. At the end of 2018, its gross merchandise volume (GMV) reached 359 billion euro in Mainland China, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Founded in 1998 by the three Charle brothers, Cdiscount was initially an online CD discounter. It soon began its gradual differentiation strategy, remaining focused on CD related segments, until 2000 when Casino Group invested its capital. Since then Cdiscount accelerated its expansion in other sectors, becoming a general e-merchant and marketplace, subsequently expanding to other countries like Belgium, Spain, Italy, etc. through its subsidiaries as well as through third-party marketplaces.

Cdiscount is now just behind Amazon France, and before La FNAC, in French ecommerce rankings and among the top 15 in Europe. For the first quarter of 2019, Cdiscount reached 906 million-euro GMV, +9.2% from the previous year, and over 9 million active users.

China vs France: a geographical and digital crevasse.

China is a special market, so there is a difficulty in comparing it to other markets, especially because of the restrictions and the censorship enforced to anyone, of Chinese origins or not. Despite that, the use of ecommerce and social media remains significant in China. Ecommerce started over 20 years ago and has being growing year after year ever since. According to the latest reports today, Tmall, with Taobao, and JD rank as the alpha platforms. They benefit from more than a billion consumers. The number of Chinese online shoppers represent 71% of China’s population, 3/4 of whom do it via mobile phones. The same number of people use social media, and entirely through smartphones, for an average of two hours every day.

In France, ecommerce also started about 20 years ago. Amazon is considered the initiator and the industry then evolved with LeBonCoin, Vente-privee.com, Showroomprive.com, etc. Even though France had a potential for it, ecommerce growth was never as phenomenal as in China. Differences in the historical, political and economic landscape are possible explanations for most of that result, they are however not the only ones. The French digital environment is also different from the Chinese one and French people only spend a little over one hour, fifteen minutes on social media on the average per day.

According to the report « Digital in 2019 » from We Are Social:

  1. In France, out of a population of 66 million people, 92% use Internet, which is 61 million people, and 58% use social media, which is 38 million people. 75% of the Internet users do B2C online shopping, 26% of which by phone;
  2. In China, out of a population of 1.4 billion people, 57% use Internet, which is 800 million people, and 71% use social media, which is about 1 billion. 71% of the Internet users do B2C online shopping, 74% of which by phone.

Despite an Internet penetration rate of 61% higher than that of China, France attracts only 5% more e-consumers and 22% less of social media users.

Cdiscount and Taobao’s social networks strategy.

While Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram dominate in most western countries, social media are radically different in China where people use WeChat, Tencent QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Qzone and Youku. Although these names and language can be confusing for most people, the functions are surprisingly similar. In fact, as the popularity of any social network, whether western or Chinese, is based on functions that facilitate content creation and sharing under a variety of formats, like texts, images, videos, stories, voice, instant messaging, etc., such functions are pretty much similar all over the world.

Regarding Cdiscount and Taobao’s social media strategy, Cdiscount communicates on all the 5 western platforms mentioned above (and possibly others), with Facebook coming first, with over 1.6 million fans, followed by Twitter and Instagram, with about 300.000 followers. Taobao, on the contrary only communicates on

Sina Weibo and WeChat, but the latter cannot be considered for this article because it is more an instant message platform than a social network like the others.

Sina Weibo was created in 2009 following Fanfou’s closure, one of the first micro-blogs that came into existence in China. Ten years later, Weibo counts more than 460 million active users per month. It has many similarities with Twitter, which was created in 2006 and counts 330 million active users per month, for example: « trends for you » on Twitter and « real-time hot topics » on Weibo, the limitation to 280 characters per post, though Weibo now allows up to 2000 characters, several advertising techniques and even the possibility to purchase « popularity »…

Cdiscount’s “French Days” on Twitter & Taobao’s “Singles’ Day” on Weibo.