When Chinese consumers are online, they’re usually accessing the web via mobile phone. And while they’re using their mobile phones to go online, there’s a good chance that they’re spending their time on a mobile app. This is the case for Chinese internet users whoever and wherever they are, but especially so for Chinese travelers before, during, and after a trip.

The growing amount of travel-related information and inspiration available on mobile apps such as WeChat, Weibo, Ctrip, Fliggy (Alibaba’s travel service platform), Mafengwo, and live streaming and video platforms such as Douyin, Yizhibo, Huajiao, and Miaopai means that the influence of traditional websites is declining. As a result, websites that were once a must-have for brands are no longer necessary as travelers turn to mobile and social platforms and peer-to-peer networks throughout the entire journey.

The Chinese Traveler Journey Starts and Ends on Mobile

To truly grasp mobile’s dominance in China, consider this for a sense of scale: By the end of 2017, there were 772 million internet users in China, accounting for over 55 percent of the country’s population. Of these internet users, 753 million –– or 97.5 percent –– are mobile internet users. On average, they go online for 26.5 hours each week on their mobile phones. A staggering 35 percent of that time is spent on WeChat.

Mobile is now key to every phase of the Chinese traveler journey, from when they initially seek inspiration, to when they plan and book, to when they share their experiences through social media once the trip ends. Because of this, travel marketers should think about mobile platforms first and foremost as the best way to reach this growing group of travelers.

Digging Into Digital Platform Usage Across the Chinese Travelers Journey

Chinese travelers use different digital platforms on their mobile devices depending on what phase they’re in on their journey. These platforms are not only well-developed and user-friendly, but contain an abundance of insightful and helpful quality content, often coming from real people and fellow travelers. Because of this, travelers no longer have to rely on official tourism board, airline, or hotel websites for information. Here, we look at some common mobile platforms Chinese travelers access throughout each phase of the journey:

Inspiration: The WeChat and Weibo mobile apps often serve as starting points for trip inspiration. On WeChat, a user might see a post from a brand’s official account or a picture of a recent trip a friend posted on their Moments that spurs a travel idea. On Weibo, a user might participate in a conversation about a destination led by a Chinese digital influencer. Livestream apps such as Yizhibo and Huajiao, as well as short-form video platforms such as Miaopai and Douyin, often inspire travelers as well, as users broadcast their opinions and ongoings of their daily lives to viewers.

Research: Once a traveler reaches the research stage, he or she will often start with a query on a mobile search engine such as Baidu, China’s biggest search engine. Official accounts on WeChat and Weibo serve as resources, allowing travel brands to communicate their services and spark engagement with their followers. Social trip-planning platforms such as Mafengwo and Qyer, which offer travel guides, suggested itineraries, and photos and tips from other users, help inform travelers as well. Mobile app-based online travel agencies such as Ctrip, Qunar, and Fliggy show travelers flight and accommodation prices for optimal travel dates before plans are set.

Booking: When it’s time to book, Chinese travelers use these online travel agencies (Ctrip, Qunar, and Fliggy) to make reservations, and are increasingly booking trip activities through e-commerce features offered through Mafengwo and Qyer. Travelers can also turn to Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce platform, to book flights, hotels, and even apply for visas.

During the trip: There are a number of resources Chinese travelers use to seek out information during their trips. Mobile app-based online travel agencies and social trip-planning platforms are common go-to’s. WeChat mini-programs –– cloud-based native apps available within the larger platform –– and Dianping, a business-listings platform similar to Yelp, also help guide travelers.

Return home: Travelers commonly use WeChat and Weibo to share their travel experiences with friends and family both during their trips and after they return. They’ll often write blog posts, reviews, and give tips on platforms such as Qyer and Mafengwo to share their experiences with fellow travelers.

One of the main factors driving the popularity of platforms such as Qyer and Mafengwo is that user-generated content accounts for so much of the information available through them. This type of content is often seen as more trustworthy than content from official brands. For example, there are 135,000 travel blogs generated monthly on Mafengwo, accounting for two-thirds of all online travel blogs in China, as well as 415,000 travel Q&As added each month. Mafengwo claims more than 100 million registered users are contributing and consuming its content, and its mobile app has nearly 4 million active monthly users, according to online data company Analysis Qianfan.

It’s also important to note that WeChat and Weibo are different when it comes to how information is shared. Through WeChat Moments, users share information that only other users they’re connected to can see. Engagement is more intimate and direct –– and not easy for brands to leverage. Weibo operates on a “one-to-many” basis and can be leveraged by brands more easily. The different ways the two platforms operate help define how brands engage with key opinion leaders (influencers) to promote their message to their followers.

WeChat Infiltrates Nearly Every Aspect of Daily Life in China

The biggest difference between Chinese digital users and those elsewhere is that in China, users have a one-stop shop for virtually all of their online needs through WeChat –– something that is especially useful for travelers. WeChat, China’s most popular app, has infiltrated the daily lives of its one billion monthly active users.

Travel brands looking to grasp the nuances of China’s digital ecosystem need to understand that unlike traditional social media platforms, WeChat is a peer-to peer-network first. Through WeChat Pay, a feature which enables users to complete payment transactions between individuals, and between users and businesses, users can access a wide variety of services. They can pay their utility bills, book medical appointments, purchase movie tickets, or even order food delivery, all without ever leaving the app. This feature is one thing that makes WeChat different from other social media platforms, and it’s driving the rapid growth of China’s mobile payment economy.

Like traditional social media platforms, WeChat also allows users to send direct and group messages, make video and voice calls, play games, and share photos, status updates, and more. There are also “Official Accounts” that allow companies, organizations, and high-profile individuals to establish a presence on the platform, share content with audiences, and communicate with customers.

Launched in January 2017, WeChat’s mini-programs are expanding the platform’s services even further. These cloud-based programs can help connect users’ digital activities to their “real” lives, thanks in part to a search option that finds mini-programs relevant to the user’s current location. Mini-programs are separate from, but often tied to, Official Accounts, and can be customized to provide additional functionality for WeChat users. At WeChat’s January 2018 Developer Conference, the company announced that 580,000 mini-programs were live on the platform, with 170 million daily users.

While WeChat seems like a no-brainer when it comes to reaching Chinese travelers, brands –– especially those who may be unknown in China’s market –– should note that it’s becoming increasingly competitive to stand out and more difficult to grow a following on the platform. Despite this challenge, WeChat is still a vital piece of the puzzle for brands looking to build a presence in China. WeChat can be a valuable way for destinations and brands to create a social community, share content, and engage with audiences, especially as websites grow increasingly irrelevant.

Building a website targeting Chinese travelers can be an expensive, and frankly, an unnecessary, investment. Michael Lin, business director of Mailman X, a Shanghai-based agency focused on destination marketing for today’s Chinese outbound traveler, further explains: “The cost to build a website in China is significant, not only in cost of the development of the page itself, but in the translation, creation, and implementation of an SEO and SEM strategy to help drive traffic to the site. Destinations are much better suited to build out their Official Account or explore mini-programs to serve as a website within WeChat.”

Destination marketers looking to reach China’s outbound travelers market need to consider their digital presence in the country. To learn how your destination can best engage with these travelers, visit Mailman X.

This content was created collaboratively by Mailman X and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.