Article: WeChat study: Living with HIV in China

Rachel Howard, October 2020

WeChat studyAs a company, Research Partnership has been exploring new digital market research methodologies as a way to capture deeper insights. In a previous article, I investigated how WhatsApp can be used as a quick, exploratory, multimedia messaging platform for market research in LATAM due to its ubiquity in the region. Subsequently, we wanted to see whether WeChat could be used in a similar way in China, given its dominance across the country.

In order to determine if this digital methodology could really deliver in-depth emotional insights, we wanted to test it with people who may be particularly sensitive to sharing information. Learning that you are HIV positive is not something many people can relate to. The disease carries a lot of stigma and many people living with HIV are sensitive about sharing their personal experiences, due to a lack of understanding and perceived judgement. We therefore wanted to understand the impact of HIV in China through the eyes of people living with the condition.

We worked with our partners Cathaya Research to conduct a digital ethnography study using WeChat. Through the app, we asked five males and five females living with HIV to share their experiences in real time over the course of a week. Here are some of the key insights we collected.

A bad day with HIV
One respondent shared an image of an animated character from an online video game. The character is obviously sad and upset. The respondent highlighted that the reason for selecting this image is that the character represents the phrase ‘I thought you would never choose me’.

The image and accompanying description personifies a lonely figure, and on a bad day, the respondent would: “Lock myself up, smoke a lot of cigarettes and try to immerse myself in this bad mood.” Another respondent shared how a bad day living with HIV can affect working life, stating, “Three days after I joined my company, I received a request for a medical examination. I had to quickly pack up and escape.”shutterstock_1422455345-smoking-image-for-wechat-_279x186 Unsurprisingly, the day someone is diagnosed with HIV can have a huge impact. One of the respondents revealed, “The worst day was when I was diagnosed… this tangled mood, the helplessness of being diagnosed, and the despair that the current level of medical treatment cannot completely cure me.”mpanying description personifies a lonely figure, and on a bad day, the respondent would: “Lock myself up, smoke a lot of cigarettes and try to immerse myself in this bad mood.” 

Challenges living with HIV
Some common themes emerged in response to questioning around the challenges of living with HIV. One respondent stated, “I take a lot of medication each day, and I have to face them with a smile. I win if I live.” Another said, “The biggest challenge I face is whether I can take my medicine on time every day. I still have to live, but I don’t want others to see and know when I take the medicine.” Clearly, the challenge of having to take medication at a certain time, and especially out in public, can cause an issue for those living with the condition.

 shutterstock_1148139773-man-looking-out-of-the-window-wechat-article-_267x178A number of respondents described their biggest worry and challenge of living with HIV as having to face the opinions Rachel Howard 6 of friends, family and members of the public. One respondent shared an image of a man dressed in a suit seemingly standing over and grabbing another man in a threatening way. This was used to represent the respondent believing that “The general public has a negative view of our disease, which prevents us from being able to get open, fair care and treatment.

Impact on relationships was another consistent challenge. One respondent said, “My family and friends don’t know about my diagnosis and I am not prepared to let them know, due to confusion and hope of future life. As a result, I don’t have a deep relationship with others.” He or she also shared an image of a figure looking down, looking frustrated, wanting to say something aloud but not being able to find the words.

WeChat as a methodology – our verdict
The insights collected from this pilot study, were rich, in-depth and insightful. WeChat is a very convenient platform for people living in China today; most have the app on their smartphone, tablet or computer and what was clear from our study is respondents were able to send answers when it was most suitable for them. Another benefit was the sharing of real-time responses and sharing of multimedia material with a range of images, videos and even voice notes.

Although monitored by the Chinese government at a broader level, the relative anonymity for communicating over WeChat can support the feeling of protection around respondents’ privacy, especially if talking about a sensitive condition or topic where face-to-face communication may be less desirable.

Participants in our study told us they felt more comfortable to open up about life with HIV via WeChat than ever before. The set up on WeChat is also very conversational and colloquial, particularly as people are currently used to talking to family and friends via the app, therefore offering wider reach. While seniors are the smallest age group in China on the platform, there are still over 50 million monthly active users aged 65 and over, meaning its potential as a methodology isn’t just limited to conditions affecting the younger generation.

As with all methodologies, there are some drawbacks to the use of WeChat in market research. Firstly, it can be time consuming for respondents to provide lengthy answers. The functions are more limited than they would be in a specialist platform or app designed specifically for market research, and the issue of wider privacy may be a concern due to the government being able to monitor the app.

Our study undoubtedly provided rich insights into people living with HIV in China. The WeChat platform has great potential to not only complement traditional methodologies, but also to widen the use of digital platforms in market research. The use of WeChat still requires careful planning and approval and whilst it will not fully replace qualitative conversations, it certainly appeals to respondents as a convenient, familiar and easy platform to use, even when sharing information about the most sensitive of subjects.

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