Over 50% of people would turn to VPNs if social media platforms like Instagram were banned in Hong Kong

HONG KONG SAR - Media OutReach - 11 May 2022 - Digital Business Lab and Standard Insights conducted a survey campaign in Hong Kong to understand the active population's perception, preferences, and opinions on potential restrictions of social media & communication platforms in the future. Hong Kong's media landscape has witnessed a seismic shift in the last few years. From films being deemed a threat to national security law and therefore banned, to public broadcasters such as RTHK's social media pages being paused, to social media platforms like TikTok being removed from app stores. There are 6.44 million active social media users in Hong Kong, equivalent to 85.6% of the total population, making social media one of the most influential media types in the city. During the research, 502 respondents, aged between 18 and 40 years old, were interviewed on their anticipated behaviours if international social networks were to exit the market.

The majority of people fear change in social media regulation.

68% of respondents expressed their concerns about possible limits on social media and communication platforms in the city, demonstrating the potential significant impact that platform regulations would have on the daily lives of Hong Kongers. 17% "did not know" how they felt when asked about potential restrictions, and the rest were not worried.

Currently, only 23% of respondents use a VPN to navigate online and 17% do not know what a VPN is.

The study, held at the beginning of 2022, found that 60% of respondents would use a VPN for YouTube and 55% of them would use one for Instagram if these platforms were restricted in Hong Kong.

The research discovered that Instagram, WhatsApp, and YouTube were the most popular social media and communication platforms in Hong Kong, with YouTube having the highest penetration rate.

Instagram is the top social media platform in Hong Kong, with 86.1% using it for following and sharing content whilst also using it to learn about new things.

WhatsApp surpasses all other platforms for communication and business, with 65.1% using it for such purposes.

The findings also showed that if YouTube and Instagram are restricted locally, WeChat, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu (RED) would be the top 3 preferred replacement apps.

Solutions & Opportunities for Brands and Marketers

As Social Media Specialists in the field, Digital Business Lab recommends 3 ways forward for brands and marketers to sustain close relationships with their audiences.

1. Sustain Continuous Communication with Audiences with or without a VPN

For enterprises in China, VPN is a grey area. If a VPN is to be used, a comprehensive legal check has to be initiated for eligibility to obtain a VPN licence and to source for a VPN operator. If a VPN is not the way out, the organisation's marketing plan will likely be restructured.

In-house research was carried out using Facebook Ads as a barometer to understand the impacts of targeting & retargeting. Facebook was used as it is the most popular social media channel (including Instagram) and has a full scale of functions.

Here are the key findings based on Facebook Ad Manager:
  • Geographical targeting will not be accurate due to inaccurate IP addresses
  • Ads might also become irrelevant due to geographical impacts (e.g. ads in Dutch might be shown to users who switched their VPN location to the Netherlands but are physically browsing from Hong Kong)
  • Retargeting VPN users through website data as a source will be impossible, as Cookies will not be saved correctly with anonymous website visits
  • Social media-based or customer lists (e.g., email addresses) as sources will not be affected

To accurately target audiences going forward, programmatic advertising technologies are the solution.

"Digital Business Lab suggests accelerating your marketing collaboration with your/our ad tech partners, focusing on audience identification. Approaches such as proximity marketing data or app data can provide highly accurate audiences & automated expansions. To illustrate, our ad tech partner Adsquare can tell us that 294K people in Hong Kong are using Payme."

2. Be Present in Replacement Apps

Without VPN services available in China, popular social media sites used by brands for global marketing campaigns, such as Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and WhatsApp, are not accessible to target audiences on the mainland, which might happen in Hong Kong in the future.

This is why brands and marketers should choose to develop their global online presence by joining replacement apps such as WeChat, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu.

A good starting point is to understand the local population's current usage of the Chinese Apps, and then prioritise the platform usage based on marketing objectives. For example:
  • Xiaohongshu would be a priority for lifestyle-related brands
  • Use WeChat and Xiaohongshu first for brand development
  • Use Douyin (Taobao), Xiaohongshu (for opening RED stores), Weibo (Taobao), and WeChat (JD.com or WeChat e-commerce mini program) if marketing objectives are Sales-focused

Whilst the unpredictability of the future social media landscape in Hong Kong may be unnerving for marketers, there are still great solutions and potentially exciting opportunities for marketers and users to discover.

3. Implement Both!

About Digital Business Lab
About Digital Business Lab
We are social media mavens with an international flair, supporting brands with creative storytelling, comprehensive strategies, professional video production, meticulous data analysis and social media management in their digital marketing campaigns and needs.

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About Standard Insights
At Standard Insights, we believe there is a better and more useful way to conduct market research. Our mission is to provide evidence-based, practical market insights and actionable recommendations to our clients in order for them to make fast and well-informed decisions.

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Digital Business Lab




11 May 2022


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