Exploring the Chinese Social Media Landscape: A Not So Lonely Planet

When you write professionally about social media—be it in a blog post or client brief—you'll inevitably find yourself typing out some combination of "Facebook," "Twitter," and "Instagram" over and over again. You can sprinkle in a "Tumblr" here and a "LinkedIn" there (or "Yahoo Answers" for a crazy curveball), but there's simply no avoiding the major services, which are always grouped together like an interstate exit Walmart - Home Depot - Applebee's combo.


For a well-deserved break from this tedium, you can venture out into the wild international social sphere, where strange sounding services like Orkut (to be discontinued soon), Skyrock, and Tuenti attract millions of users and marketing dollars. In the months ahead, I'll be spotlighting some of the major global players, including Russia's VK (now Europe's second largest social network after Facebook) and the UK-based Badoo (a dating app as popular as olive oil around the Mediterranean).

But as the post title suggests, I'll begin by exploring China's social landscape. Even if you don't plan on adding new pages to your passport any time soon, it's worth having at least a passing familiarity with China's internet market, which now contains nearly twice as many total users as the U.S. has people. The vast majority of these users—500 of the 618 million—access the net primarily by mobile phone, and 91 percent of them have a social media account. Rankings of Chinese social media platforms (in terms of both users and influence) tend to vary from source to source, but by most accounts WeChat is rising, Renren is falling, and Qzone and Sina Weibo have reached an equilibrium. All four of these networks are, however, of interest to marketers because they represent a digital portal to the world's second largest economy.


Qzone is the main social media pillar of China's media conglomerate, Tencent Holdings. Tencent may not be familiar to American internet users, but it's the fifth-largest Internet company in the world after Google, Amazon, Ebay, and Facebook. Tencent's other massively popular services include the web portal QQ.com, nascent microblog competitor Tencent Weibo, and instant messaging services WeChat (discussed ahead) and Tencent QQ.

Originally developed in 2005 as a Blogspot-style diary community, Qzone gradually evolved into an open network social platform with more than 600 million users and 80,000 registered developers. Unlike Facebook, Qzone allows users to customize their profile landing pages, but a paid membership is required for full configuration flexibility. With its cluttered design and embedded multimedia elements, Qzone resembles pre-revamp MySpace more than Facebook or Twitter.


Successful marketing campaigns on Qzone have leveraged the service's customizable components to create interactive microsites. Nestle, for example, promoted its BenNaNa ice cream—which looks and tastes like a banana!—by creating a Qzone game site (pictured above) that allowed users to unlock virtual badges and upload pictures of themselves with the dessert.

Because Qzone isn't centered on dialogue back and forth between users, marketers have generally focused their efforts on more brand-friendly platforms such as Sina Weibo and Renren.

Sina Weibo

Twitter / Facebook-hybrid Sina Weibo (pronounced Seen-aWay-bo) is China's most high profile social media platform. The service's success reflects political factors as much as tech ingenuity. Weibo launched in the wake of the government's shutdown of many social media services—domestic and international alike—in response to mobile phone and internet-amplified riots in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in July 2009. The Chinese Communist Party allowed Weibo to proceed because parent company Sina had a strong record of keeping content deemed "sensitive" off its 20 million blogs.

This fortuitous political backdrop was leveraged with Sina's effective marketing strategy of courting high profile Chinese celebrities to establish accounts. Within three months of launch, Webio had 1 million registered users. By 2012, that number reached 300 million, and today the service boasts some 600 million registered users—although the number of "active" or "core" users is considerably smaller (only 10 million by some accounts). Furthermore, there has been a sizable exodus away from Weibo in response to a government-mandated requirement that users register their real names to facilitate liability for content. This ongoing hemorrhaging of users put a damper on Sina's recent IPO.

Weibo (微博) is a general term for microblogging—it literally means "tiny blog"—and can refer to a number of Twitter-like platforms in China, including rival services from Tencent and Sohu. For most internet users, however, Weibo is shorthand for Sina's service. The platform was initially quite similar to Twitter, with 140 characters (which are effectively "words" in Chinese) allowed per post and familiar follow and unfollow functions. As the service's user base expanded, however, so it did its features until it more closely resembled Facebook. (Sina employees actually refer to the service as “FaceTwitter.”) Weibo is now fully integrated with other services from Sina, including email and popular apps.

The service also has clear similarities with Quora. Particular posts can be "retweeted," but the comments underneath them are also shared. As such, user posts and comments tend to be oriented around ongoing discussions rather than breaking news.


For many brands, success on Sina Weibo is dependent upon reaching key influencers—namely, the verified accounts identifiable by their brightly colored "V" (for "verified") badges. On Weibo, only individuals and organizations with large numbers of followers are eligible for verified status. Orange Vs are for celebrities and other famous individuals (actress Yao Chen has a whopping 70 million followers, Jeremy Lin a more modest 3.8 million), blue Vs are for organizations and companies (French cosmetics giant Clarins has nearly 500,000 followers).

Simply reaching "verified" status isn't enough, however. Sina Weibo incorporates an internal Klout score-like function that provides a live ranking of its biggest accounts by both popularity (number of followers) and online influence (level of activity, combined with the number of active followers and the number of times their posts are shared).

Key opinion leaders on Sina Weibo include both celebrities and brand accounts, as well as grassroots influencers and industry experts in particular fields. For instance, former Google China president Lee Kai-fu (pictured above) in one of the popular Weibo users with 51 million followers. According to the BBC, Lee's posts are often shared thousands or tens of thousands of times. When Lee mentions a product or brand—even innocuously—interest surges.


WeChat—called "Weixin" in Chinese—is not, strictly speaking, a social media service. The Tencent app primarily facilitates one-to-one mobile text and voice messaging communication, and is often referred to as a Chinese WhatsApp. WeChat is available in eight languages, and maintains an active-user base of more than 396 million people—a simply staggering number.


[Image via Forbes]

500 Startups' Rui Ma makes a persuasive case that two features helped WeChat gain traction in the crowded mobile IM market: Hold-to-Talk and QR codes. The first one makes intuitive sense. The QWERTY keyboard is simply not optimized for the Chinese language (native speakers are nodding their heads vigorously right now), and thus an effective walkie-talkie-like system that allows users to send short audio messages to one another has tremendous functional utility.

The second one is puzzling. QR codes largely fizzled in the US (see: this hilarious Tumblr). But the fuzzy squares work for in China for the same reasons Hold-to-Talk does: they allows users to circumvent typing in Chinese. WeChat uses QR codes to quickly add new contacts and enter into group chats without hunting and pecking for the right characters. Rui notes that she includes her WeChat QR code at the end of every PPT presentation, and is still amazed to see "at least a dozen or so hold up their phones and send me a WeChat request right then and there."


Just like QZone, Sina Weibo, and any number of social media services you could name, WeChat's features have expanded along with its user base. WeChat now includes broadcast (one-to-many) messaging, Instagram-style photo / video sharing, and news feed options (imagine getting short updates from Politico or Gawker sent to a single IM folder). Rui argues that WeChat is now decidedly a social network.

Many other observers agree. Forbes' Junheng Li notes that the appeal of WeChat derives from the intrinsic privacy of its communications (always limited to direct one-to-one messages or defined "friend" circles—never "friend-of-friends" or otherwise public messages). These privacy barriers allows the service to circumvent the "taboo against sharing divergent opinions in public."

CCP officials have noticed this as well, and attempted to crack down on the service,  particularly on widely-followed accounts that may be—according to Reuters—spreading "rumors and ideas on violence, terrorism, cheating and sex."

The same privacy features that have stymied the Chinese government's censorship net have also puzzled marketers. WeChat severely restricts how and how often brands can communicate with users. Two types of public accounts exists that businesses or organizations can use to send one-to-many messages, but each has built-in limitations. Amy Bao at Sheng Li Digital does a nice job of explaining their differences.

Service accounts are better fits for brands that aim to interact directly with followers and answer questions. Tiffany & Co. uses its service account to provide further details about particular pieces of jewelry. But service accounts are limited to one message per month to any particular follower. Subscription accounts use push notifications (one per day) to communicate, but messages are sorted into a subscription folder.  Companies like Coca Cola use subscription accounts for standard promotional marketing, including audio clips.


AdAge notes that the most "ingenious" and "viral" WeChat campaign was executed by…. WeChat. Sina has tried to integrate more e-commerce opportunities into the service through its partnership with Alibaba, China's answer to Amazon. For the partnership to work, WeChat needed users to plug in their bank account numbers. To induce greater participation, the company created a hugely popular gambling app where users could wager real money in games of chance between friends. (Not sure you could get away with this in the US.)


Nearly every social media network in China is eventually described as a "Facebook clone." But Renren is the only one old enough to claim that it's a The Facebook clone. The service was launched in 2005 as XiaoneiNetwork (literally: "on-campus network"), and its user base was primarily university students. As the service attempted to expand beyond campuses, the name changed to Renren Network—"the people's network"—to reflect a broader appeal.


Renren's user interface was initially very, very close to Facebook's (see image above). If you were Mark Zuckerberg's lawyer, you might even describe it as "blatantly stolen!" That said, by most accounts Renren's functional approach to social networking is slightly different. Echouser's Sally Tang notes that while Facebook's "news feed" broadly covers all kinds of posting and events from friends, friend-of-friends, media sources, and brands, Renren is focused on close communication between smaller groups. Dialogue back-and-forth between users is often centered around longer-form notes rather than brief status update.

After early success and international hype, the service floundered following its IPO. A Seeking Alpha report notes that Renren's struggles have been due, in large part, to a self-admitted failure to monetize and effectively adapt to mobile. But the company even stumbled with gaming, an area where it seemed to have a decisive competitive advantage due to its developer-friendly open platform and popular in-house game production company. Five years after changing its name, the service's main audience remains students, and it has fallen well behind Sina Weibo an WeChat in both users and influence.

There is some good news for Renren: the service is still a strong presence with an important marketing demographic (the youth) and—like Nintendo—the company's in-house games (with titles like "Chaos of Three Kingdoms") are so strong that they'll continue to attract attention across platforms and keep old users checking back in.

Analysis: A Bright Constellation of Startups and Rivals

China's social sphere is constantly shifting due to a large number of players competing for users and influence. When a social startup starts to bloom in the United States, it's quickly snatched up by an established player—e.g., Facebook's aggressive acquisition of Instagram and Whatsapp. This is not always the case in China. Yes, the country's three giant internet conglomerates—Baidu (search engine), Alibaba (ecommerce), and Tencent (gaming and social)—control a lot of assets, but there is no shortage of startups fighting for users and marketing dollars, especially in the social sphere. These include Kaixin001 (another Facebook clone, popular with white-collar urbanites), Jiayuan (the largest internet dating website of China), and Douban (a social network devoted to music, books, film, and culture that has attracted an audience of intellectuals and hipsters). Competition between these services produces a vibrant—if crowded—Chinese social media landscape that marketers and investors should keep an eye on.

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