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Can LinkedIn conquer China when so many others have failed?

In the race for internet supremacy, LinkedIn has traditionally been the tortoise rather than the hare, a textbook MBA case study on staying focused.

My admiration for LinkedIn stems from the fact it could have wandered or morphed its way into becoming just another recruitment site.

It would have been easy to succumb to the pressures of becoming just another classified ads destination for human capital, or a downgraded networking site for all rather than the professional.

Yet despite what I am sure has been extreme external investment pressure, LinkedIn has stayed true to its roots. By never taking a short cut, it has slowly but surely built one of the most valuable digital properties on the planet.

So in what may be seen as an inevitable move, the site recently announced a concerted assault on the one professional market it has yet to reach, China.

With only four million registered members in a market of 618 million internet users, LinkedIn is currently a speck on the Chinese internet landscape.

But history tells us that mass penetration into the Chinese internet landscape has been almost impossible for Western internet brands.

Time and time again, local copycats and their micro innovation culture has almost always succeeded in the face of external competition.

Look at the examples… Taobao overtaking eBay, Youku out loading YouTube and even the mighty Google being demolished by Baidu. The reasons for these successes have all been fairly well documented over the last few years. What has not been discussed until now is why LinkedIn might actually succeed where others have fallen by the wayside.

From our long history of doing digital work in China, here are three rules that LinkedIn, or in fact, any budding Western digital brand, might want to consider when entering China.

Go premium and appear luxury: I challenge anyone to name three global luxury brands that have been born and bred out of China. The Chinese feel true luxury comes from the West and it is worth paying a premium for. You just need to witness the sheer numbers of Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores in Beijing and Shanghai and many tier two cities to understand just how powerful this perception can be.

By positioning LinkedIn as a premium destination for those at the upper echelons of business, LinkedIn has a real opportunity to tap into this aspirational culture.

Think mobile first: The average Western LinkedIn user first came to the platform via desktop, which may have been fine at the time, but with 330 million Smartphone users in China, the large screen mobile has become by far the number one platform of choice.

Launching a new product into a new territory such as China without a considered and updated mobile strategy will almost certainly make LinkedIn fall at the first hurdle, but having a mobile enabled launch could really set them up well.

Embrace celebrity: Traditional marketing approaches to cracking the Chinese market have relied heavily on celebrity endorsements, think Ashton Kutcher endorsing Lenovo, or actress Yao Chen promoting soap powder OMO to her 55 million Weibo fans.

Obviously figures of mass adoration in popular culture are far more suitable for big consumer brands. But identifying and partnering with China’s next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, credible superstars of business, would be a good start in playing to LinkedIn’s increasing content strengths.

What is interesting about these three is that none of them sit uncomfortably with LinkedIn’s core offerings. For most users,it has kept its premium feel when compared to other recruitment and content sites, embracing the use of business celebrities well.

Mobile is a different matter with the China LinkedIn handheld experience being at best okay, but by acting quickly that can be addressed. I think LinkedIn have a 50% chance of making it before Tencent or Sina copy and demolish their hopes as they have proven to do time and time again throughout history.

But 50% is an even chance and worth taking a punt on. With odds like that and the rewards being so enormous, LinkedIn China is certainly a gamble worth looking at.

Jackie Xu Rui  is managing director for Lowe Profero China.

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