70.2 May 2023

Comparing the Multimodality of Chinese and US Corporate Homepages: The Importance of Understanding Local Cultures


By Wenjuan Xu and Xingsong Shi


Purpose: In this cross-cultural study, we investigated the similarities and differences in the multimodality of Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.

Method: We collected the homepages of 35 Chinese and 35 U.S. companies’ local websites. We developed a framework for annotating different types of multimodal elements presented on corporate homepages. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, we compared the verbal-visual composition and arrangement on Chinese and U.S. homepages in terms of textual, pictorial, diagrammatic, and video elements.

Results: We found salient differences in the use of multimodal resources between Chinese and U.S. homepages. Chinese homepages overall made greater use of textual and video resources, with emphasis placed on directional textual elements and Flash animations and videos. They also tended to arrange multiple news titles in a list, employ parallelly placed pictures, and use more QR codes. In contrast, U.S. homepages preferred to present individual news headlines with news summaries attached, use one large background picture with subordinate elements embedded in them, and offer more social media icons for further connection.

Conclusion: The differentiated approaches to deploying multimodal resources betweenChinese and U.S. corporate homepages were closely associated with the distinctivecultural orientations and communication styles between these two countries.

Keywords: Cross-cultural Differences, Multimodal Elements, Corporate Homepages, Online Communication, China versus the U.S.

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Provides an overview of how corporate webpages being used as a communicative medium allow co-deployment of different multimodal meaning-making resources that all have particular affordances. These multimodal elements are orchestrated to fulfill the intended communicative goals online.
  • Shows that local cultures impose crucial influence on how multimodal elements are composed and arranged on corporate homepages. Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages show salient cross-cultural differences in their deployment of different types of multimodal resources.
  • Suggests that corporate communication practitioners properly address cross-cultural differences in the deployment of multimodal elements on webpages. It is advisable to take adaptative or localizing strategies in designing website layout when communicating to an overseas audience.

Of various types of digital platforms, corporate websites are widely considered as one direct and effective delivery medium for corporate communication (Simões, Singh, & Perin, 2015). They are hybrid manifestations of multimodal communication that combines a variety of visual or auditory channels and modes other than merely verbal texts (Pauwels, 2012). Though it has been repeatedly emphasized that webpages should be viewed as an integrated meaning-making system with visuals and other media playing equivalent roles to verbal language (Chik & Vasquez, 2017; Taneja & Wu, 2019), few studies have comprehensively examined the visual–verbal interfaces of corporate webpages. Yet such an investigation may help further our understanding of how various verbally- and visually-based modes are orchestrated to fulfill their communicative goals online.

In addition, previous multimodal studies of webpages were usually conducted from a single-cultural perspective (Cheng, 2016; Brookes & Harvey, 2017). Little research has looked into these digitized artifacts through a cross-cultural lens and examined how their multimodal meaning construction is correlated with their cultural background. Corporate websites, as typical vehicles for marketing and advertising communications, have long been considered as unique carriers of contemporary culture and reflect specific cultural orientations and preferences (Baack & Singh, 2007). Whether potential cross-cultural differences exist in the use of multimodal resources among corporate websites from distinct cultural contexts is a crucial and interesting question that deserves thorough investigation.

In the current study, we aim to identify the similarities and differences in the multimodality of Chinese and U.S. companies’ homepages. Following previous literature (Kong, 2013), we define multimodality as the verbal-visual composition and arrangement of contents on homepages. Specifically, we identify and compare four primary types of multimodal resources including textual, pictorial, diagrammatic, and video resources that are presented on corporate homepages (Kong, 2013; Tan, 2010). We chose to study homepages because they serve as the gateway to the sites while fulfilling the essential communicative function of initiating and encouraging further exploration of the sites. The composition and arrangement of various verbal and visual features on the homepages can substantially impact web users’ impressions of the sites and ultimately influence the effectiveness of web communication (Cheng, 2016).

We select Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages for a cross-cultural comparison for two reasons. First, these two countries generally demonstrate distinctive orientations and preferences towards major cultural dimensions and follow differentiated communication styles (Shi & Wang, 2011). These cross-cultural dissimilarities provide a better chance to observe culture’s impact on corporate communication. Second, as the world’s two largest economies, China and the U.S. possess dynamic business environments and large multinational enterprises with highly developed Internet infrastructure. A cross-cultural investigation of their web communication styles may provide practical and valuable insights into online international business communication for multinational companies, both in and out of these two cultural contexts.

In the following sections, we first review literature pertinent to multimodal and cross-cultural studies of webpages. Next, methodological issues are discussed. Then, the research findings are presented and discussed. The last section draws a conclusion, outlines managerial implications, and suggests the avenues for further research.

Literature Review

Multimodal Characteristics of Webpages

The term modality can be defined from different perspectives. Modality is sometimes used in connection with physiological or sensory channels as well as capacities such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling (Pauwels, 2012). It can also be defined from the perspective of the medium, referring to different types of semiotic (relating to signs and symbols) resources or expressive systems such as texts, images, music, vocal and non-vocal sounds (Pauwels, 2012). Whenever at least two input (senses) or output (medium) modes are involved, they can be considered to be multimodal. Thus, in terms of both senses and medium, a webpage can be characterized by its multimodal nature, as it involves at least two senses (sight and hearing) and a variety of semiotic meaning-making modes (texts, images, etc.).

The multimodal characteristics of webpages have drawn much attention from academia in recent years. Bateman (2008) and Kong (2013), for example, proposed that a multimodal page document basically contained three types of semiotic elements: textual (such as words), pictorial (such as images), and diagrammatic resources (such as charts and diagrams). They also emphasized that for webpages, one should not ignore multimedia resources, such as videos and audio. In addition, Tan (2010) conducted a detailed analysis of a movie campaign website and argued that the multimodal resources presented on a webpage included verbal texts, visual images, photographs, graphic displays, animated items (such as speech, music, and sound), and more. Similarly, Michelson and Valencia (2016) studied a university promotional website and found that some of the most important semiotic resources on a webpage were linguistic items (such as written texts and hyperlinks), visual items (such as images and icons), and audio and video items (such as music).

In general, previous studies tend to agree that webpages as a communicative medium afford the co-deployment of different types of semiotic meaning-making modes that all have particular affordances. Textual, pictorial, diagrammatic, and audio and video elements are some of the most salient semiotic or multimodal resources presented on a webpage. Therefore, based on previous literature (Kong, 2013; Tan, 2010), we classify the multimodal resources of a webpage into four types: textual (such as verbal texts and textual hyperlinks), pictorial (such as images, photographs, and icons), diagrammatic (such as diagrams and figures), and video (such as Flash animations) resources. The subordinate components of these four types of multimodal resources are discussed in detail in the Methods section of this article. Audio resources are excluded from the typology because based on a pilot study (which is illustrated in the Method section), we found that audio elements were seldomly presented on corporate homepages.

Multimodal Analysis of Webpages

Although some recent attempts have been made to interpret webpages through a multimodal perspective, it is still much of an understudied area considering the overall paucity of relevant literature. Previous studies have mainly explored how people deploy a variety of verbally- and visually-based resources to fulfill interwoven communicative goals on the web. For instance, an early study from Knox (2007) investigated the visual, verbal, and visual–verbal communication on webpages of online newspapers and identified that a genre-specific visual grammar was emerging for online newspaper webpages in response to the demands of the new medium and historical and social trend in news reporting. In a similar vein, Johnson and Carneiro (2014) analyzed the ensemble of multiple modes of communication on the webpages of ethnic museums and their role in the presentation of the ethnic identity and cultural heritage of the museums. Cheng (2016) studied the visual and verbal resources utilized in hotel webpages and found that different discursive strategies were adopted in the selection of semiotic resources to construct differentiated brand identities of the hotels.

Collectively, the above studies provide valuable insights into the multimodal nature of webpages and how various verbal and visual modes make meaning through interaction in combination. However, these studies still leave room for further exploration. For instance, previous research mostly takes a discourse analytical approach, concentrating on examining the socio-psychological characteristics of the documents and emphasizing the historical and social specificity of meaning production (Knox, 2007; Johnson & Carneiro, 2014). Little research has taken a structure-based perspective and explored the textual-visual interfaces of webpages. In addition, much research is qualitatively oriented and focuses on a restrained number of webpage samples (Michelson & Valencia, 2016; Brookes & Harvey, 2017). Despite all the strengths associated with qualitative analysis, it has its own limitations, such as lacking statistical representation and limited scope of generalization (Flick, 2009, p. 374-377). To contribute to this field of literature, we conduct a systematic study on the multimodality of Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages, specifically focusing on their similarities and differences in verbal-visual composition and arrangement. In the current study, we take a more rigorous empirical approach by combining both qualitative and quantitative analysis of a collection of corporate homepages.

Cross-cultural Analysis of Webpage Discourse

There have been calls in recent years for cross-cultural research to investigate the social and cultural integration and differentiations in digital communication materials (Kong, 2013; Pauwels, 2012). Some preliminary findings have shown that there are salient differences in the deployment of verbal and visual resources among webpages from different cultural contexts. In a study of McDonald’s local websites around the world, Wurtz (2005) found that websites from high- and low-context cultures showed significant differences in the use of visual resources, as websites of high-context countries used more visuals than the ones of low-context countries. Later, Pérez (2014) examined textual elements on webpages and had similar findings that the rhetoric and interactional meta-discourse strategies adopted by Spanish and U.S. companies were significantly different from each other. Similarly, Belova (2017) found distinctive patterns in the use of personal pronouns and forms of address between Spanish and Russian corporate websites, reflecting their different cultural orientation towards power distance.

Most comparative studies on webpage discourse are based on well-established cultural theories, with Edward Hall’s (1976) and Geert Hofstede’s (1980) frameworks being used as their major cultural parameters. Hall (1976) proposed the concepts of high-context and low-context cultures to differentiate between societies based on the styles in which people communicate. High-context culture relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues, whereas low-context culture depends on explicit verbal communication. Hofstede (1980) decoded cultural differences from a different perspective and distinguished social groups mainly based on five cultural orientations: Individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term/short-term orientation. Admittedly, these two cultural models have sparked criticisms over the years about their theoretical validity, methodological reliability, etc. (Callahan, 2005; Cardon, 2008). Yet they have been two of the most extensively used cultural theories in cross-cultural discourse and communication studies and are empirically validated to be major predictors in communication styles (Arasaratnam, 2015; Wurtz, 2005). Following previous studies, we will employ both Hall’s and Hofstede’s theories to interpret the similarities and differences in the multimodality of Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.


In order to fulfill the research objectives of the present study, we mainly followed four steps to conduct the research:

  • Adapting previous models to analyze corporate homepages,
  • Developing our own framework for annotating corporate homepages,
  • Collecting the sample homepages, and
  • Analyzing the sample homepages.

The following sections will elaborate on each step in the sequence.

Adapting Previous Models to Analyze Corporate Homepages

Developing a valid annotation framework (i.e., a systematic framework for analyzing the multimodal elements presented on webpages) lays the foundation for performing a quantitative- and qualitative-based multimodal analysis on corporate homepages. Because almost no previous studies have constructed such a framework specifically for corporate homepages, we developed our framework by taking inspiration from the Genre and Multimodality project which is accordingly called the GeM model (Bateman, 2008) and from the frameworks proposed by Kong (2013) and Thomas (2014).

The GeM model is a framework for systematic and empirical investigation of page-based multimodal documents. It treats a multimodal document as a multi-layered semiotic artifact and distinguishes five principal analytical layers: the GeM base, layout base, rhetorical base, navigation base, and genre base (Bateman, 2008, p. 108). Among the five layers, the GeM base is the starting point for analysis and identifies the basic units which are the elementary and minimal elements any page deploys to carry its meanings; the layout base is another fundamental layer that characterizes the page in terms of layout properties and structure (Bateman, 2008, p. 108-112). In the current study, we aim to examine how various multimodal resources are composed and arranged on corporate homepages, and these purposes can mainly be achieved through analyses at the GeM base and layout base. Therefore, our study mainly focuses on these two layers.

Based on the GeM model, Kong (2013) and Thomas (2014) established their annotation framework for analyzing page-based multimodal documents and investigated the verbal-visual composition and arrangement of newspapers and product packages, respectively. As webpages can be treated as multimodal page documents as well, we take a similar approach to examining the verbal-visual structure of corporate homepages.

Developing a framework for annotating corporate homepages

To develop our own annotation framework for corporate homepages, we first thoroughly analyzed all the base units suggested by the GeM model (Bateman, 2008, p.111) and by Kong (2013) and Thomas (2014). Then we carried out a pilot study on the official local websites of five Chinese and five U.S. companies to detect and confirm the elements they had as the base units of the new framework. These 10 companies were randomly selected from the 2020 Fortune Global 500 list. Each identified base unit was carefully examined to ensure it was up-to-date and actively appeared on corporate homepages. It also should conform to the original theorization of base units proposed by the GeM model. Based on the pilot study, we made necessary revisions to the framework and its sub-items.

The finalized framework contains 4 types of multimodal resources, including textual, pictorial, diagrammatic, and video resources (discussed in the Literature Review section), and 31 subordinate base units. The detailed annotation framework along with the explanations is presented in Table 1. The annotation framework concerns the base unit analyses of corporate homepages, based on which further investigation at the layout base is conducted.

Table 1. Annotation Framework for base unit analysis of corporate homepages.
Table 1. Annotation Framework for base unit analysis of corporate homepages.

Considering that corporate homepages consist of a variety of multimodal resources and the investigation of trivial variations across homepages is not the focus of this study, the framework mainly concentrates on the most salient and essential semiotic resources that play crucial and fundamental roles in meaning-making and message conveying. The base units identified also should fall into the four-category typology of multimodal resources recognized by the present study. It is noteworthy that the webpage header and footer are considered as two integrated base units because these two sections are respectively located at the very top or the bottom of the webpage and usually contain such information as language choice as well as legal and registration information that is formatted in a quite similar and uniformed way. They rarely affect the overall structure and layout of the homepage or present salient cross-cultural differences in multimodal composition and arrangement. Therefore, we treat these two sections as composite base units and do not dig into their internal verbal-visual composition and arrangement.

Collecting the homepages

In the study, we randomly selected 35 Chinese and 35 U.S. companies from the 2021 Global Fortune 500 list as sample companies for data collection of corporate homepages. These 70 companies do not overlap with those in the pilot study. They represent a wide range of industries, including energy, construction, banking, insurance, technology, and such. The sample companies are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. The sample Chinese and U.S. companies
Table 2. The sample Chinese and U.S. companies

We used the mixed-method data analysis software MAXQDA (VERBI Software, 2018) to collect the multimodality data on the homepages of the 35 Chinese and 35 U.S. companies’ local websites (Chinese homepages in Chinese versus U.S. companies’ homepages in English). The MAXQDA Web Collector, an add-on for the Internet browser Google Chrome, was used to save the screenshots of the entire webpages in MWEB format, which is specially developed for storage and further processing in MAXQDA. Videos and Flash animations were separately downloaded and imported into the software. As constant changes and updates on websites may affect the consistency and accuracy of the analyses, we followed Shin and Huh’s (2009) approach and collected the homepage of each company on the same day. We collected all the homepages from August to December of 2021.

Analyzing the homepages

The two authors of this study strictly followed the annotation framework and annotated the 70 sample Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages with MAXQDA. The frequency of occurrence of each base unit was counted for each individual homepage. For example, if a homepage contained a horizontal menu with multiple menu items, the specific number of the items listed in the menu would be counted. Insets were identified separately. When a base unit intruded into the space of other base units, the intruding base unit was counted separately. Figure 1 presents an example of how base units were identified. All the quantitative annotation data were exported into and processed in SPSS.

Figure 1. An example of base unit analysis of a corporate homepage.
Figure 1. An example of base unit analysis of a corporate homepage.

Results And Discussion

Overall Findings

The overarching goal of this study is to explore the similarities and differences in the multimodality between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages. The frequencies of the four types of multimodal resources exhibited on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages are presented in Table 3. The sample Chinese homepages make use of 2876 base units in total. On average, each Chinese homepage employs 82.17 base units, with 65.74 textual elements, 15.20 pictorial elements, 0.94 video elements, and 0.29 diagrammatic elements. In contrast, the sample U.S. homepages employ 1678 base units in total, and on average, each U.S. homepage makes use of 47.94 base units, with 34.51 textual elements, 12.94 pictorial elements, 0.31 video elements, and 0.17 diagrammatic elements. The results indicate that both Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages are text- and pictorial-dominated multimodal artefacts in which most of the semiotic resources deployed are textual and pictorial elements.

A series of independent-samples t-tests were further conducted to compare the mean frequencies of multimodal resources presented on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages. As presented in Table 3, significant differences in the usage of multimodal resources were reported between these two parties. Chinese homepages overall feature significantly more base units than their U.S. counterparts (p < .01). This difference is mainly attributable to their distinctive usage of textual and video resources as Chinese homepages make significantly greater use of both textual and video resources than U.S. homepages (all p < .05). Yet no significant differences are found in their use of pictorial and diagrammatic resources (all p > .05). These findings reveal that Chinese corporate homepages typically accommodate more multimodal resources than U.S. homepages, with particular emphasis placed on textual and video elements. The specific usage of these four types of multimodal resources between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages will be addressed in detail in the following sections.

Table 3. Distribution of multimodal resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.
Table 3. Distribution of multimodal resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.

Use of Textual Resources

Table 4 presents the mean frequencies of textual units used by Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages. The five most frequently used textual units on Chinese corporate homepages are vertical news items, vertical menu items, titles of columns, top menu items, and dates. Whereas the five most used textual units on U.S. corporate homepages are top menu items, sentences, vertical menu items, news headlines, and titles of columns.

A series of independent-samples t-tests show that Chinese corporate homepages make significantly greater use of vertical news items (p < .01), vertical menu items (p < .05), texts in picture (p < .01), digit buttons (p < .05), dates (p < .05), titles of columns (p < .01), items in menu matrix (p < .05), and top menu items (p < .01). While U.S. corporate homepages feature significantly more news headlines (p < .01) than their Chinese counterparts.

Table 4. Distribution of textual resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.
Table 4. Distribution of textual resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.

A closer look at the differences in the use of textual resources between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages leads to another two important observations. First, Chinese corporate homepages compared to their U.S. counterparts employ more menu items, digit buttons, and titles of columns. Chinese homepages’ preference for these types of elements is possibly correlated with Chinese collectivistic and high-context cultural orientation. In the first place, China, as a typical collectivistic country, attaches great importance to rapport building (Shi & Wang, 2011). In online communication environment, elements such as menus, column titles, and buttons are typical directional aids that can facilitate web users to navigate around the websites (Kim, Coyle, & Gould, 2009). They are the fundamental building blocks of online interactivity, serving not only textual function of organizing content but also interactive purpose of rapport building (Kim et al., 2009; Wurtz, 2006). Influenced by Chinese collectivistic culture, Chinese companies may strive to promote interaction with web visitors by resorting to these directional aids. These elements can constantly provide navigational guidance to the visitors and invite them to further explore the websites. Similar findings are also reported by Kong (2013) who found that Chinese newspapers, compared to British newspapers, showed higher tendency to build interpersonal relations with audience by using a larger number of directional titles and arrows to facilitate navigation.

In addition, the higher frequent usage of elements such as menu items, digit buttons, and titles of columns may also reflect Chinese high-context communication. Influenced by the high-context culture, Chinese generally prefer indirect and implicit communication, heavily replying on message receivers’ ability to grasp the meaning from the context, instead of explicitly articulating the information (Wurtz, 2006). Items such as menus, clickable buttons, and column titles only indicate the theme of the content and provide a gateway to the information, rather than offering elaborated details. Web visitors need to proactively click on the items to obtain further information. These items thereby provide a less direct but more exploratory communicative experience to the visitors. This communicative process essentially conforms to the high-context communication norms valued by the Chinese culture. Conversely, the U.S., as a typical individualistic and low-context country, put less emphasis on rapport building and rely more on direct and explicit communication (Wurtz, 2006). Therefore, U.S. companies show a lower tendency to make use of directional elements than their Chinese counterparts.

The other intriguing observation is that Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages show significant differences in their use of news-related items. Chinese homepages make greater use of vertical news titles and dates, while U.S. homepages feature more news headlines. This dissimilarity mainly results from their differentiated deployment of news-related elements. When organizing the news column, Chinese homepages prefer to arrange multiple news titles into a vertical list and attach a date to each title, without showing news summaries. Each news title is considered as a joined element to the entire news column. Conversely, U.S. homepages tend to exhibit an individual news headline with a brief news summary situated right beneath or aside. Each news headline along with the summary or other linked elements are structured as specific and separate entities. Figure 2 presents two example homepages, along with their base and layout analyses. The news column on the Chinese homepage contains six parallelly-listed vertical news items and each item is followed by a date in the same line. In contrast, four separate news columns are observed on the U.S. homepage, and each column has its own news headline and news summary (a sentence) attached beneath.

Figure 2. Examples of news columns and their base unit and layout base analysis
Figure 2. Examples of news columns and their base unit and layout base analysis

The above findings partially echo those from Wang and Wang (2009) in their study of Chinese and German technical manuals. Wang and Wang (2009) found that, in terms of content organization, the Chinese manuals were often structured as entities with interrelations or context—in another words, the texts often consisted of one topic and a few subtopics as attached elements, while the German texts tended to be structured with specifically and separately organized individual elements. Wang and Wang (2009) attributed this phenomenon to the distinct thought patterns between China and Germany: The Chinese, with synthesis thought patterns, tended to join separate elements in their way of holistic thinking; whereas the Westerners, with analysis thought patterns, usually followed an imaginary dissection of a whole into its parts and of a system into its elements.

In addition, the dissonance in composition of news column between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages may also be associated with their differentiated communication styles. As discussed above, China as a high-context country prefers indirect and implicit communication (Wurtz, 2006). Influenced by such communication styles, Chinese homepages arrange multiple news titles in a list, without explicitly providing further details on each news item. The information is generally provided in an indirect rather than a straightforward way. Web visitors are left with the freedom to make decisions about whether to proceed to seek further information (i.e., whether to click on the hyperlinks to certain news items). On the contrary, U.S. homepages, under the influence of U.S. low-context culture, tend to take a direct and explicit communicative approach by exhibiting both news headlines and news summaries. No matter whether web visitors click on the headline or not, they can grasp the main points of the news content by reading the openly displayed news summaries.

Use of Pictorial Resources

As presented in Table 5, the most frequently used five pictorial elements on Chinese corporate homepages are pictures, icons, company logos, social media icons, and theme pictures. While the most used five pictorial resources on U.S. corporate homepages are pictures, social media icons, icons, theme pictures, and company logos.

Several independent-samples t-test analyses show that Chinese homepages feature significantly more pictures (p < .05), buttons (p < .05), and QR codes (p < .01) than U.S. homepages; whereas U.S. homepages contain significantly more theme pictures (p < .05) and social media icons (p < .01) than their Chinese counterparts.

Table 5. Distribution of pictorial resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.
Table 5. Distribution of pictorial resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.

The analyses indicate that one major difference in the use of pictorial resources between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages lies in their use of pictures. Despite the extensive use of pictures by both parties, Chinese homepages feature remarkably more pictures than U.S. homepages. Meanwhile, Chinese homepages tend to use multiple small-sized pictures arranged parallelly in a horizontal or vertical list or a matrix; whereas U.S. corporate homepages prefer to deploy one single large-sized picture as the background, with other textual or visual elements embedded within or placed aside it. Figure 3 presents two example homepages, along with their base and layout analyses. On the Chinese homepage, the picture column contains eight atomized pictures placed parallelly, with a textual caption embedded in each picture. In contrast, the picture column on the U.S. homepage uses one large background picture, in which other base units (including one picture, one sentence, one company logo, etc.) are mapped as subordinate elements.

Figure 3. Examples of picture columns and their base unit and layout base analysis
Figure 3. Examples of picture columns and their base unit and layout base analysis

The above observations are in accordance with those from Kong (2013) who reported similar patterns in picture placement between Chinese and English newspapers. Kong (2013) found that Chinese newspapers often used multiple pictures as nuclei and rely on the column title as the meta-theme to anchor the meaning of more fragmented picture clusters, whereas English newspapers tended to rely on a larger background picture as the meta-theme of the column, with other semiotic items placed underneath or inside it. Kong (2013) contended that Chinese newspapers’ preference for the more fragmented approach of atomized pictures, characterized by multiple entry points into the text, is in line with the traditional writing pattern in Chinese. With similar findings, our study indicates that such conventional layout of multimodal information on paper-based medium may have been transferred to the online communication contexts.

In addition, the differentiated deployment of pictures by Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages may also be associated with these two countries’ distinctive communication styles and thinking patterns. As explained by Wurtz (2005), high-context cultures tend to use indirect and vague language and believe that truth will manifest itself through non-linear discovery processes, without having to employ rationality. High-context cultures are thus characterized by implicit communication and cyclical thinking. In the current study, Chinese homepages substantially follow Chinese high-context communication norms and take an indirect and reiterative approach in interaction. In pictorial arrangement, subsequently, they tend to arrange multiple similar-sized pictures in the picture column. To interpret the intended messages, web visitors need to go back and forth of the provided pictures to recognize and reconstruct the communication context in a cyclical way.

Still taking Figure 3 as an example, the picture column on the Chinese homepage illustrates the firm’s “core business” (核心业务) which consists of eight business sub-functions. These sub-functions are respectively presented by the eight pictures with an explanatory text embedded in each picture. The pictures and texts combined create a unified and palpable context. When interpreting the meaning of the column (understanding the core business of the firm), web visitors need to go through all eight pictures in a cyclical way. They may start with anyone of the pictures and go to the next in any order or just go back and forth of all eight pictures. But they will not grasp the complete meaning until they finish reviewing the entire picture column.

In contrast, low-context cultures prefer direct and precise communication and usually employ linear thinking that emphasizes logic and rationality (Wurtz, 2005). As a result, U.S. homepages tend to use a background picture and enclose other subordinate elements into it, integrating them into one hierarchically organized artifact. Web visitors are expected to treat it as a composite entity and decode the messages from one hierarchical layer to another hierarchical layer in a logical way. As in Figure 3, on the U.S. homepage, a series of subordinate elements are embedded in the background picture, and web visitors are expected to interpret the elements from one layer to another.

Another striking difference in the usage of pictorial elements between Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages resides in their presentation of QR codes and social media icons as hyperlinks to their social media platforms. Chinese homepages use more QR codes while U.S. homepages feature more social media icons. Chinese homepages’ preference for QR codes may be closely associated with the recent digital payment boom in China. According to China Internet Network Information Center (2022), China is leading the usage of mobile payments in the world, with more than 904 million mobile payment users by the end of 2021. Most mobile payments in China are facilitated by QR codes scanning, which has become a ubiquitous practice in the country. Driven by the upsurge of QR codes, more and more Chinese companies start to incorporate these square-shaped bar codes into their websites, treating them as substitutes for social media icons and lead magnets for other marketing tactics. However, QR codes have not gained equivalent level of popularity in the U.S., and most U.S. companies still stick with standard social media icons as gateways to their social media platforms. Examples of Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages in use of social media icons and QR codes are presented in Figure 4.

Use of Diagrammatic and Video Resources

Finally, concerning diagrammatic and video resources, as presented in Table 6, both Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages have used a limited number of tables, figures, videos, and Flash animation. As tables are more likely to be used for in-depth information, these sites may have more tables on interior content pages. The results of several independent-samples t-tests show that Chinese corporate homepages make greater use of videos (p < .01) and Flash animations (p < .01) than their U.S. counterparts. No significant differences are found in their use of tables (p > .05) and figures (p > .05).

Table 6. Distribution of diagrammatic and video resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.
Table 6. Distribution of diagrammatic and video resources on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages.

The findings reveal in detail that the larger number of video resources on Chinese corporate homepages is mainly attributed to their more frequent usage of both Flash animation and videos. Wurtz (2005) and Kim et al. (2009) came up with similar findings that websites from high-context cultures tended to integrate more multimedia contents, such as videos, Flash animation, and interactive functions, than the ones from low-context cultures. As explained by Wurtz (2005), high-context communication underscores the importance of face-to-face communication and is characteristic by an extensive use of nonverbal strategies for conveying meanings. The use of multimedia elements on websites is essentially an extension or transformation of nonverbal and behavioral language from real life interaction into online contexts (Wurtz, 2005). In this study, Chinese corporate homepages, under the influence of China’s high-context culture, endeavor to provide web visitors with a sense of human representation as well as necessary communication cues, analogized to contextual information embedded in real-life communication. In accordance, visualized resources, such as company introduction videos, Flash animated greetings, company news videos, and interview videos, are more frequently displayed on Chinese corporate homepages. On the contrary, nonverbal and behavioral communication is less stressed by U.S. low-context culture, and multimedia items are correspondingly less frequently seen on U.S. corporate homepages.

Conclusion, Implication, and Future Research

The current study has examined and compared the multimodality of Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages, concentrating on the composition and arrangement of four types of multimodal resources, including textual, pictorial, diagrammatic, and video resources. Although overall, both parties are dominated by textual and pictorial elements, Chinese homepages are found to make greater use of textual and video resources than their U.S. counterparts. To elaborate, in terms of textual resources, Chinese homepages feature more directional elements to fulfill the purpose of rapport building and implicit communication. They also tend to present the news column in a less explicit way by arranging multiple news items in a list of titles without revealing the news content. In contrast, U.S. homepages prefer to organize the news column in a more straightforward manner, by exhibiting individual news titles attached with news summaries that explain the gist of the news. Regarding pictorial resources, Chinese homepages tend to follow cyclical communication rituals and display multiple small-sized pictures placed parallelly; whereas U.S. corporate homepages often employ linear communicative patterns and deploy one large background picture with other subordinate elements embedded in it. In addition, Chinese homepages use more QR codes, while U.S. homepages feature more social media icons. Finally, concerning video and diagrammatic resources, Chinese homepages, compared to their U.S. counterparts, utilize more Flash animations and videos to provide needed context cues and a sense of human representation.

The findings of this study may contribute to the current literature in the following ways. First, in the study, we construct an annotation framework for systematically analyzing the composition and arrangement of multimodal resources on corporate homepages. The framework has been tested and verified in this research and can serve as the annotation instrument for other varieties of digital documents, such as social media platforms and mobile apps, to name a few. Second, departing from the traditional qualitative research approach, we adopt a quantitatively oriented method and provide a more nuanced and objective picture of the multimodal nature of corporate homepages. Third, rather than limiting the analyses in a single cultural context, we conduct a comparative study on Chinese and U.S. corporate homepages. The findings, based on a genre-sensitive and empirically grounded approach, verify the influence of culture on business online communication, and further attract our attention to cross-cultural variations in the verbal-visual interfaces on online communicative platforms.

From the findings, we can also draw some managerial implications. First, the study provides an overview of how a corporate webpage as a communicative medium affords the co-deployment of different multimodal meaning-making resources. These multimodal resources are orchestrated to fulfill the intended communicative goals online. Specifically, in this study, we provide a feasible and reliable way for corporate communication practitioners to examine the verbal-visual interfaces on their firms’ websites. We propose an annotation framework that can serve as a practical manual to assist corporate communication practitioners to inspect the status quo of the multimodality of their firms’ homepages. Based on the investigation, corporate communication practitioners may further modify or change how various types of multimodal resources are deployed and arranged on the sites.

Moreover, the study reminds us again of the importance of identifying cross-cultural differences when doing international business (Craig et al., 2005). Cultures have long been considered powerful forces that shape perceptions and behaviors (Hofstede, 2011). Propelled by the Internet boom, this cross-cultural challenge has been transferred from the offline environment to the virtual world. Similar as it is in the offline context, culture still acts as a decisive factor that exerts enormous influence on various aspects of people’s behavior and decision-making process online. The organized and widely practiced web communication approach adopted by firms in one culture may not be adopted and well-accepted by those in another. Corporate communication practitioners should be more sensitive to the potential cross-cultural differences as well as their impacts and be better prepared to make necessary cross-cultural adaptations to facilitate online business communication across borders.

Finally, the findings suggest effective ways for companies to properly address cross-cultural differences in the use of multimodal resources in web communication. When communicating with an audience from a collectivistic and high-context culture, corporate communication practitioners are advised to use more directional resources, such as menu items, buttons, and column titles on webpages, in order to fulfill the interactive purpose of rapport building desired in collectivistic societies. They may also arrange news columns in a less explicit way, by providing multiple news items in a list of titles without revealing much detail. In addition, the picture column may be organized with fragmented picture clusters which can be well-accepted in high-context cultures. Lastly, more multimedia elements, such as videos and Flash animations, should be used to provide necessary context cues and a sense of human presence to web users.

For the audience in a culture characterized by individualistic and low-context communication, corporate communication practitioners may take a different approach to organize news columns. They may provide more details about the news content by both displaying individual news titles and offering news summaries. Moreover, to follow the linear thought patterns in low-context cultures, they may organize the picture column in a more logical way, by presenting one large background picture and embedding subordinate elements in it.

The present study needs to be understood with the awareness of the following limitations. First, the cross-cultural comparison is limited to Chinese and U.S. companies, which leaves room for future studies to expand the research to other cultural contexts. A multiple-country comparison can be especially helpful to further demonstrate culture’s influence on corporate online communication. Second, we only focus on salient multimodal elements presented on webpages, excluding other informational semiotic items, such as colors, column delimiters, and such. Future research may consider incorporating a more complete pool of multimodal elements into the analyses. Finally, our analyses are based on a collection of sample companies that are randomly selected and come from a diverse range of industries. Future studies may limit the research to one or two industries or conduct an industry-wide comparison to test whether the industry effect applies to the multimodal composition and arrangement of corporate websites.

This work was supported by the [Doctoral Fund of Yunnan Normal University] under Grant [number 2021SK017] and [the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities] in UIBE under Grant [22YB04]. The authors contributed equally to the study.


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Wenjuan Xu, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Pan-Asia Business School at Yunnan Normal University of China. Her research interests include cross-cultural corporate communication, corporate online communication, and multimodal discourse analysis. You may contact this author at kellyhsu999@foxmail.com

Xingsong Shi, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of International Studies and the director of Research Center of Cross-cultural Business Communication at University of International Business and Economics of China. Her research interests include cross-cultural business communication, corporate online communication, and corporate discourse. You may contact this author at xsongshi@126.com.