The Complete Guide to Localizing for China (Part 1)

Localization strategy

App localization is on everyone’s to-do list for 2020. Why? Because it’s increasingly proven itself as an effective way of gaining market share and sales globally. No matter where your app localization starts, get it right for the Chinese market, and you’ll hit the jackpot. China has, by far, more smartphone users than any country […]
Localization strategy blog category featured image | Phrase

App localization is on everyone’s to-do list for 2020. Why? Because it’s increasingly proven itself as an effective way of gaining market share and sales globally. No matter where your app localization starts, get it right for the Chinese market, and you’ll hit the jackpot.

China has, by far, more smartphone users than any country at over 850 million and is now the world’s biggest app market. We’re talking about revenues of $544 million in 2020, a 6% growth YOY! That’s not surprising when you consider that Chinese mobile users spend around six hours every day on entertainment apps.

In 2018, around 32% of the global consumer spending on mobile apps was from Chinese companies, compared with 22% from their U.S. based counterparts. Sounds too good to be true? Well, maybe because it is. Sorry to tell you this, but there’s a long road between your app and the Chinese app stores. App localization for China is anything but easy.

You need to adapt your app to a completely different customer, who has little or nothing in common with your current users. Then you’ll have to redesign for a different culture, respect local legislation, translate everything into Chinese and cleverly market your app. How do you do that? Check out our beginner’s guide to app localization for the Chinese market.

iOS or Android Apps in China? What the numbers tell us

Whether you’re an app developer or product manager, you know by now that iOS and Android were not created equal. When it comes to the number of smartphone users and their buying behavior, the difference is clear. And in China, the app market looks quite different from the West.

In the third quarter of 2019, Apple had only a 14% market share on the Chinese smartphone market. However, Apple fans in China are generally loyal to the brand, which gives a consistent audience for iOS apps. Entering the Chinese app market using the iOS App Store is easier, as rules regarding ASO and ranking are the same all over the world. Projections put the App Store revenue in China at $49.9 billion in 2023, a 90% increase.

Android, on the other hand, dominates the local market, but comes with many challenges for a non-Chinese app developer. It’s no secret that Google can’t keep a constant presence in the Chinese market. In terms of apps, this situation translates into a long absence of Google Play and over 200 local app stores, each with its own regulations.

If you want to localize your Android app for China, you’ll have to negotiate with each store individually. That means getting an app certification for each one and putting your app through the entire QA process every time you release in a new store. The most popular app stores for Android in China are:

Besides the third-party app stores, China has a series of manufacturer stores where you can sell your app. These include Xiaomi App Store, and a few carrier stores, like China Unicom WoStore and China Telecom Tianyi Store. Entering the Chinese market with iOS and Android versions of your app at the same time is expensive and rarely efficient. So, you should prioritize the one that will help you achieve better results. Apple users tend to spend more on apps than Android users, so if your target pays for premium accounts, choosing iOS over Android could be the right path to follow.

Localize efficiently: Is your app suitable for the Chinese app market?

One in four Chinese smartphone users installs foreign apps. This means around 212 million smartphones in China have at least one foreign application. However, local apps still dominate the Chinese app market. No matter how successful your app is in the West, it can fly under the radar of Chinese users.

Get prepared to enter a new market, where everything is different – from pricing strategies to business models and buying habits. Knowing if you have a chance to sell in a place where people have different interests from your current customers is essential, especially if you’re looking for profits and global success.

The most popular Chinese apps are used for instant messaging and communication, entertainment (games, videos, and music), and browsing the internet. No foreign app that provides social network services has been successful in this country so far. When it comes to foreign apps, Chinese users prefer games, online shopping, videos, photography, education, and finance.

In recent years, almost all users have shown a special interest for games. iOS users are more willing to install apps for fashion, online shopping, radio, and music. In contrast, Android users are generally more interested in watching videos, taking photos, and using navigation apps.

Education and finance apps are also slightly more popular among Android users. But, the Chinese app market is dynamic. What’s hot today can easily become history in just a few months. 25% of the apps downloaded are used only once. It’s tough out there, so make sure that you’re ready to go the distance with your app localization project.

Localize only if there’s a real interest in your app in the Chinese market. Ask yourself if you can keep up with the trends and - most importantly - if you can find enough room among local developers.

The first step in app localization for China: Get ready for new rules

App localization for the Chinese is different from anything you’ve done before! Not just because you’re going to see your app in a language, you don’t understand, but because there’s a series of technical details you need to factor in to fit in the local market.

You can encode with any of the following standards: EUC-CN, ISO-2022-CN, ISO-2022-CN-extension, or GBK. But, it’s wiser if you use Unicode (UTF-8), which supports all Chinese characters and allows for multiple language localization in the future.

It’s also essential to find a local server to host your app and to integrate your app to Chinese-based cloud systems. Otherwise, your clients will have difficulties accessing your services – think delays and disconnections. You’ll have access to Chinese servers only if you have a local partner or legal entity in China. If you’re not ready to go that way, you can use servers in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, or Singapore. Servers in Europe or North America are generally not recommended. China’s Great Firewall is one of the biggest challenges for any foreign app developer, so having a local partner can considerably increase your chances of success.

Pay attention to translation: Chinese is tricky

One of the most important steps in the app localization process is translation. So, where do you find a Chinese-English translation service? As many Chinese translators don’t have in-depth knowledge of Western ways of talking, you should look for a diverse team. Try to include locals and native speakers living outside of China. This way, you’ll make sure your message is translated correctly, respecting local syntax and terminology, and staying in keeping with your global brand. Give your translators details about your app, as they need context to come up with an accurate translation.

When localizing for China, it’s impossible to deliver a high-quality product using automated translation. So, don’t try to save money by using Google Translate or any other similar software. Chinese people like complex expressions and have different expectations when it comes to writing styles. You need human translation to make sure your messages are appropriate for the target audience. Translate all content, from titles, descriptions, texts inside images, error messages, and feedback requests. Don’t leave anything out, or your app will be instantly deleted.

If you’re not sure which Chinese language to choose for your translation, you should know that Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken languages and have nothing to do with your written content. The only case where you’d need to decide on using one or the other is if you include voice messages in your app. In this case, you should probably opt for Mandarin, as it’s the official language in both China and Taiwan. Chinese has two writing systems, though. Simplified Chinese is used in China and Singapore, while Traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Depending on your target market, you’ll need to choose one system over another.

Localization details for the Chinese market

App localization is about much more than just translating your strings and content to Chinese. You need to pay attention to all the details. Chinese customers are infamously picky, and any small mistake can have your app deleted as fast as it was downloaded. Chinese users don’t like apps and games that look translated. So, you need to customize your product to look like it was actually made in China. This means you should adapt your app to the local culture. If your concept is too “Western,” Chinese users won’t understand what you’re trying to sell. Many of them have little or no knowledge about the latest trends outside their country.

When working on your app layout and design, you’ll need to consider that:

  • Texts in Chinese usually require 30% less space than English.
  • Bright colors sell better in China, so increase the saturation. Get rid of dark colors, browns, and grays, especially if you’re entering the game market.
  • Colors have clear meanings in China, different from the associations we have in the West.
  • Animated interface elements are common.
  • Empty spaces and minimalist design, so appreciated in the West, don’t have too many fans in Asia. Chinese apps are often cluttered, full of text, colors, and links that show users all functions.
  • QR codes are extremely popular, and almost all apps have integrated them. Use them to link to promotions or any other interesting features that can improve user experience.
  • All CTA buttons should be redesigned, as most Chinese people don’t respond to messages that invite them to buy. In fact, “share” seems to be the trigger word in this market.
  • Numbered and indeterminate badges have a constant presence in apps. They indicate that new features are available, or that some new content has been added.

Don’t forget any locale specifics when going through the localization process:

  • The Chinese data format is year-month-day.
  • For the time format, you can use either the 24-hour clock or the 12-hour, adding 上午 / 下午(AM/PM).
  • The currency in China is RMB (¥). Chinese use commas as the thousand separators.
  • China uses the metric system for measuring.
  • The full name format is the family name, followed by the given name. Most Chinese family names have only one character. In fact, there are only 81 compound surnames in the whole country.
  • Chinese address format starts with the country, followed by the province and city, then the street name.
  • Chinese has some characters to represent numbers from 0 to 9 and different ones for larger numbers, such as tens, hundreds, or thousands. In commercial and financial contexts, they use different characters from the ones used in everyday life.

When it comes to app localization for China, forget about the social features you have in your original version. Most western social media channels aren’t active inside China, so you’ll need to replace them with local networks if you wish to build a brand in this country. Make sure your programmers are familiar with the methods the Chinese use to type characters and input texts in mobile apps. Pinyin is popular, as it allows them to trace characters by hand, while some users prefer voice message functions instead of introducing text manually. Try to handle both types of Chinese input to make your app simple for as many users as possible. This was part one of our guide. Stay tuned for the second part to learn even more about app localization for the Chinese market.