Chinese Social Media

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Chinese Social Media Networks
China’s social networking landscape is diverse and thriving. No single player is nearly as dominant as Facebook in the U.S. and there’s a long tail of networks for different users (urban and rural) and different purposes (social, dating, and games). Social networking sites are growing in popularity, and the popularity of Twitter-like microblogs exploded over the past years.

Contents

Social media in China

Introduction to social media in China

Social media in China is still a fragmented market with fierce competition, although microblog sites seem to be on the rise. According to an analysis of the monthly tracking data in terms of “shares” and “click rates” for the top 5 sites from March to August in 2011, Sina Weibo and Tencent’s Qzone are the leaders in terms of both contents shared and click rates. Tencent’s Weibo also outperformed the others, with its content shares increase sharply over the past few months. Another two social networks, RenRen and KaiXin were hovering at 2-3% of total volume of content shared and their click rate weres below 5%. It is likely that the rise of Weibo sites had pushed the traditional social networks out of their dominant positions with the rise of microblog sites. (For each social site, ‘shares’ measure the amount of content that have been shared. And ‘click rate’ measures the number of clicks on those links; it is a measure of the quality of the contents and the activeness of the user base. After all, the ‘shares’ only matter if users click on them.)

Here are some examples of the most popular social media websites in China:

Sina Weibo: Highly popular micro blogging service that threatens China’s social networks with a new model.

RenRen: One of China’s leading social network which is very similar to Facebook where users tend to use their real name. It is setting the standard for social networking in China, but still faces challenges from other social networks.

Qzone: China’s largest social network and is built for Tencent’s QQ Messenger (China's MSN). Qzone is a social network with some similarities to Facebook, MySpace, and MSN Space but users tend to use a nickname. Tencent is also aggressively pushing its microblogging service, Teccent Weibo, in order to compete with Sina. However, it has been reported that Sina’s micro-blog controls 87% of time spent by Chinese users on microblogging, while Tencent holds only 9%.

Douban: The strongest community of any social network in China. It has never had explosive growth or a massive user base in China, but it attracts young urban Chinese to organize and exchange thoughts on movies, books, music, and events. It is a good network for hipsters.

DianDian: Light-blogging platform specialized for short, mixed-media content, such as text, images, music, links and videos. It offers real-time personal interests sharing and high-quality content publishing services to users.

Sina Weibo's Logo

Sina Weibo

Weibo, traditionally refers to as the Chinese microblogging, is a specialized social media platform that enables users to share real-time content or information to the right audience in a timely and flexible manner. Unlike a traditional blog, the microblog is a specialized media platform that constrains users with a 140 characters limit. Within the limited content volume limit, it allows users to exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, images, or video links. Sina Weibo is one of the most popular social media websites in China and have changed the way of communication in China.

Microblogs were emerging in China as early as 2007 as a series of Twitter clones. In August of 2009, the Chinese Internet giant SINA Corp. introduced Sina Weibo and set the stage for a new evolution of the microblog in China. At the meantime, although the other top portal sites, such as, Tencent, Sohu and Baidu all had their microblog-clones, none of them became dominant like Sina Weibo.


SINA Corporation

SINA Corporation, founded in 1997, is a Chinese online media company and mobile value-added services (MVAS) provider with a branded network of localized websites targeting Greater China and overseas Chinese. SINA Corp. mainly provides region-focused online portals, MVAS, microblog, blog, video and music streaming, photo sharing, online games, email, search, e-commerce and enterprise e-solutions through Sina.com, Weibo.com and SINA Mobile (MVAS). In order to strengthen its reach in the Chinese online community and enhance the attractiveness of its portal and microblogging properties, SINA offers a range of complementary offerings, which are all centered on its core online media business.

SINA.com offers free internet based channels that provides region-focused format and content, such as, news, entertainment, finance, technology, video, music, as well as interactive platform for users to share comments and ideas on books and a range of hot topics. The company’s microblogging platform, Weibo.com, enables its users to comment on the hottest topics online, and keep track of the government entities and their favourite celebrities’ movements, as well as follow the discussion related to the people they know and are interested in. The SINA Mobile service provides its users with news and information and enables the users to download ring tones, mobile games and participate in dating and friendship communities.

The company generates the majority of its revenues from online advertising and MVAS offerings and, to a lesser extent, from fee-based services.

Sina Weibo user demographics by age

User base

Sina Weibo users has been increasing significantly in the past 2 years and the site now reached over 250 million registered accounts with 90 million daily posts as of Oct, 2011. So who are actually using Sina Weibo?

• 76% of Sina Weibo's users are in the age between 19-30, which means the younger generation is still the mainstream user group of Weibo

• Male users accounts for 58% of total users, but between age of 15-22 female users are higher than male

• 67% of weibo users hold a diploma which makes them much higher educated than the general netizens in china

• 60,000 verified accounts for celebrities, sports stars and major brands under the real name system and the top 100 users have a combined 180 million followers.

• 5,000 companies and 2,700 media organizations have Weibo accounts

Reasons to use Weibo

• Weibo allows people to post in real time, which requires both publisher and audience to react and respond faster than traditional communication media channels. Many Chinese companies haven’t had experience in managing real-time communication, but Weibo’s mainstream popularity and immediacy is forcing them to pay more attention to this form of social networking. Although the real effect of marketing on the microblogging platforms is difficult to measure, it makes it easier for brands to deliver attractive product information and material to the brand followers and reduces the barriers to form relationships.

• Weibo offers a new and relatively free way to efficiently keep up on social trends, products, events, business and even some political gossip in comparing with the traditional Chinese media. It is designed to fit Chinese user behaviour and the format is designed to allow users to type 140 Chinese characters. Compared to English, 140 Chinese characters can present 3 to 5 times more information. By using that much of words, users can share heart felt emotion or the hottest news, their private lives or work experience.

• Whereas social networks such as RenRen and Qzone are mainly used for entertainment, Sina Weibo is seen as a professional or intellectual outlet. The more sophisticated nature of Weibo discussion (and its audience) has helped many B2B companies overcome their reservations about the importance of social media channels.

• Inline photos and videos, emoticons, and songs has been enabled as attachments on direct messages, which means files and photos can now be added as attachments and shared with friends.

So far, as we can see, Sina Weibo is not just a simple micro-blogging service any more. Sina eventually wants an all-in-one social platform which comes with games, e-commerce ad other applications etc.

Features of Weibo

Sina Weibo’s success in China has caught many foreign media’s attention. Foreign media has always described Weibo as the Twitter of China. Comparisons of the two social media platforms were frequently made. Despite their similarities in concept and functionalities, Weibo has several features that differ greatly from Twitter’s. Some of Weibo’s distinctive features include:

Verified account of managing director of IMF, Christine Lagarde
Verified Accounts

Weibo provides public verification service to all users at free of charge. This service verifies the identification of individuals and organizations. Verified accounts of individuals usually include pop stars, celebrities, famous writers, businessmen, government officials and average users. Similarly, verified accounts of organizations may include enterprises, agencies, non-profit organizations and schools. An account that has been verified by Weibo will have the “V” symbol next to the user’s name and a “Sina Weibo Verified” button on the user’s personal homepage.

Enterprise Accounts for Brands

Weibo provides special platform for verified enterprise accounts, in which the account users can enjoy some exclusive features. Companies can add modules such as company introduction, announcement, links, and activities to their homepages. Handy analytic tools are also available for companies to track user engagement and interaction.

Greater Multimedia Options

Weibo allows its users to have pictures, videos, audio, emotions and polls directly embedded in their posts.

Applications and Games

Similar to Facebook, Weibo provides free applications and popular online games for its users to enjoy.

Medal Reward System

The medal reward system on Weibo uses gamification to encourage users to be more involved and active on Weibo. Users are rewarded medals on their homepages if they fulfill the different expectations outlined for each medal. Some medals require the user to reach a minimum number of posts while some medals require the user to fulfill specific tasks and to participate in online events. This is also a very popular marketing strategy for many companies to incorporate their marketing campaigns with the medal reward system to induce user participation, attention and publicity.

Influences of Weibo

Not only is Weibo becoming increasingly popular and successful in China, many users from other countries are also adopting Weibo. China’s massive market has attracted many foreign companies, celebrities and politicians to sign-up for Weibo accounts to keep in touch their fans and clients in China. Many celebrities from Japan and Korea are actively using Weibo to frequently update their fans about their recent activities. Weibo users also include influential people such as Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Edmund Phelps, and Michael Spance. A page called “Hall of Fame” is dedicated to include a list of Weibo users who are celebrities and influential people from all over the world.

Business Model

Interactive advertisements

Weibo has become an important communication channel for marketers. Through Weichuanbo, it provides a platform that allows marketers to post their advertisements and pay people to “retweet” and comment on the advertisements. The launch of enterprise version enables companies to modify their profile pages, to add video or advertising function and to interact with customers (e.g., KFC posts videos to introduce new products and brings out a lot of coupons and deals which fans love on its Weibo account). Since the end of April of 2011, Weibo has more than 3000 third-party applications ranging from fortune-telling widgets to music-sharing software. By charging for value-added applications, Sina will share income with software developers. Goldman Sachs predicted that by 2012, Sina Weibo would have revenue of $21 million with advertising and applications as its two main revenue streams.

Social gaming

Sina has launched more than 10 social games on Weibo. They are free to play but users have to purchase in-game content to enjoy the full gaming experience. DD tank, for example, is the most popular multiplayer shooting game on Weibo. Going forward, partnerships with more developers will be formed by Sina to further expand its gaming platform which may include racing games like Need for Speed and family games such as Monopoly. Game developers will keep all their revenues in the first year and Sina will take 30 percent of their income from the second year after their launch. Social gaming is likely to further increase user retention rate as they play with their friends on Weibo. In the game center, there are links to users’ game currency accounts. Also, they can invite or challenge their “followers” to play or can check out what their friends are playing.

E-Commerce

As online shopping becomes more and more popular in China, Weibo is linked to existing e-commerce sites like 360 buyers and Taobao which are China’s top online shopping sites. These partners can sell their products directly through their official Weibo account page. It’s a common source of revenue for most of the social networks in China to sell VIP memberships and sell virtual gifts or decorations. Sina will launch its virtual currency “Weibi” in which that one Weibi is equivalent to one Chinese Yuan. These virtual goods such as cartoon figures used on a profile page can be purchased with Weibi. In Asia, it is prevalent to have customizable profiles amongst users.

Instant search

Like Google, Sina may add instant search abilities to Weibo and implement an Ad-words like service that is for companies to create advertisements and choose keywords which relate to their business. When people search on Weibo using one of the keywords, their advertisements may appear next to the search results.

Paid digital content

Sina considers developing digital content such as digital journal articles and ebooks which require users to pay for accessing and downloading.

Wireless value-added service

The last business model is to bundle Weibo with wireless devices. It will enable users to post Weibo entries through texting. It is estimated that more than 40% of users approach to Weibo through mobile devices.

Business Implications

Functions of Weibo Marketing

Product/service display

This is the fundamental function of Weibo marketing. Companies are able to show their products and/or services using multimedia, such as text, picture, and video. This function focuses on increasing exposure with low cost.

Interact with customer

Companies can use comments and replies to interact with their customer. Topics usually have a high range of variety. The goal for a company is to build an online community and then get people involved, bind their customers, and increase customer loyalty.

Product/service review

Product reviews are important since those comments would be forwarded and spread out to a wide range at a high speed, especially when customers complain about the product they bought. For example, a celebrity in China called Luo Yonghao posted a Weibo complaining about the quality of Siemens’s refrigerator and it was forwarded over 3000 times. However, Siemens replied on their official Weibo with unfriendly tone and simply denied the quality problem. This reply made the customers even angrier. It soon became a hot topic and this incident really hurt the Siemens brand and they had to apologize at last.

Promotion

Companies could hold online marketing events to promote their brand or a specific product. It is easy to acquire thousands of participants thanks to the numerous connection between users, which is a feature of social network sites.

Weibo Marketing Strategy

The strategy is composed of three parts, namely content strategy, interaction strategy and event strategy. For content strategy, it requires the company to be kind and warm when posting information. And they have to recommend service and product like a friend since no one would follow an account that is filled up with advertisements. Secondly, for interaction strategy, there are two common approaches for companies to interact with customers. First, they could search for tweets that mentioned their name or their product. Then reply or even forward them. It may take some time but customers would feel that you really care about them. The second method is find every @ and reply. It is much easier because if it is an @, the system would give notification automatically. Last but not least, event strategy is about how companies hold events to promote. The goal of holding event is trying to get people involved. The most common event on Weibo is asking users to forward the company’s post and @ several their friends at the same time. Then they will get a chance to win the prizes which it given by company as an incentive.

Reasons to Apply Weibo Marketing

The reasons why companies apply Weibo marketing include but are not limited in following aspects. First reason is the coincidence of target market. If a company targets the young and middle-aged, well-educated and upper medium class people, it would be a great choice for them to use Weibo because those features are all the characteristics that Weibo users have. The second reason comes from the value of social media platform. The connections between users help to involve people in conversation, advertise products socially and build brand image. At last, the third reason is it is easy for companies to perform post-evaluation. Simply, they can count the number of “re-tweets” and comments. Moreover, there are many existing third party applications that are able to perform data analysis, including growth trend of followers and analysis of followers’ demographic information. These data and analysis can provide marketers with valuable insights and guide future marketing strategy.

Problems and issues

Social media poses a threat to China’s freedom of speech policy. Although social media embraces the sharing of ideas, thoughts, news and other types of content freely, China has been able to incorporate social media into the society without losing control. Western social media websites are commonly blocked in China. In turn, China produces localized counterparts to these western websites.

Censorship

China has issued regulations on the Internet since 1995. However, the central government had not been heavily censoring content until the early 2000s. The Golden Shield Project (often known as the Great Firewall of China) is a censorship and surveillance project operating on behalf of the government since November 2003. Western social media are commonly blocked in China. In turn, China produces localized counterparts to these western websites.

List of western websites blocked in China

• Facebook

• YouTube

• Twitter

• Vimeo

• Google Plus

• Picasa

Sina Weibo

Sina hires around 700 employees to monitor Weibo posts. Sina does this for their own interest because if the government feels threatened by the operation of Weibo, Weibo could be banned just like Facebook and Twitter. These employees are responsible for monitoring tens of millions of posts 24 hours a day. Posting sensitive information would result in suspension or removal of the Weibo account. If a post contains a blacklisted keyword, it would be restricted from successfully posting. Blacklisted keywords can often be dependent on news that is circulating which poses a threat. For example, words like “Egypt,” “Cairo” and “Jasmine” were blacklisted in the beginning of 2011 but would later be removed as a blacklisted term when tensions were lowered.

People in China demonstrating symbolic gesture of delivering flowers to Google China's "death"

Google China incident

Until March 2010, Google China had self-imposed censorship by agreeing to China’s Internet censorship policies. Any information perceived to be harmful to the reputation of the government or harmonization of the society would be filtered by Google.cn search results. Common results that would be blocked are Tiananmen Square protests incident, independence movements of Tibet and Taiwan, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Although results would be blocked, Google was the only major China-based search engine to explicitly inform the user when search results are blocked.

In January 2010, Google claimed their servers had been hacked and announced they would no longer censor information for Google China. Google attempted to negotiate new terms with the Chinese government. However, Chinese authorities did not compromise to providing an uncensored version of Google. On March 23, 2010, Google China was redirected to Google Hong Kong, the uncensored Google service outside of the jurisdiction of Chinese censorship laws. However, by re-directing the search engine, results would still be blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

Wenzhou train accident

On July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided in the city of Wenzhou. Weibo was able to play a major role in delivering information about the incident. People were live blogging by describing the condition and posting pictures and videos. In the following days, there had been a lot of criticism about the government, specifically the Railway Ministry. The train accident had been in the “Hot Topics” section afterwards every day. Ten days later, although the Railway Ministry was still the most mentioned topic hourly, it was removed from the “Hot Topics” section. Sina has the power to add or remove topics that is listed in “Hot Topics.” There are different ways of interpreting this. One way to see this is that Sina wanted something more refreshing for its users, instead of having the same topic all the time. It is likely that Sina had received government authority’s words to remove it from “Hot Topics” because of the high level of criticism. It could also be that Sina didn’t want to offend the government so they self-willingly removed it themselves.

Sora Aoi incident

On April 11, 2010, Sora Aoi, a famous Japanese pornographic actress, created a Twitter account about two weeks earlier and was discovered by Chinese Internet users. The news spread quickly amongst Chinese Internet users. The news caused thousands of Chinese citizens to “climb over the wall,” a phrased used to describe people bypassing the Great Firewall of China to access blocked sites. Her number of followers soared, reaching over tens of thousands in one day and kept rising for the next several days. The method of bypassing through the firewall kept spreading amongst people. Although the number of people bypassing is insignificant compared to the number of Internet users in China, this incident shows how fragile the firewall potentially could be when people truly desire unrestricted access to certain information.

Other issues

Buying followers: Followers can be bought in Weibo through e-commerce sites which can create an artificial image of credibility and popularity.

Inflated user base: Many fake accounts are created in the process of buying followers.he claimed user base may vary from actual number of users by a significant amount.

Paying for re-tweets: Celebrities or public figures can be paid to re-tweet content as an advertising strategy. Ethical issues may exist because public figures can be promoting a product in a genuine sense but was actually paid to do so.

Future of Weibo

The future of Weibo seems endless. According to DCCI (picture), a Beijing-based statistics company, the number of Weibo users (not just Weibo accounts) is predicted to hit 168 million by the end of 2012 and 253 million by the end of 2013. The number of Weibo accounts(not just Sina Weibo) is expected to increase from 65 million in 2010 to 460 million by the end of 2013. There are some reasons that might explain these increases. First of all, more people in China now have access to computers and the Internet. China’s Internet population was estimated to reach 469 million by the end of 2010, accounting 35 percent of China’s total population. This number is expected to hit 718 million by 2013, accounting 52.7 percent of the total population (Qiang Xiaoji, 2010). It is also assumed that there will be more new Weibo sites being created in the near future, leading to the increase of Weibo accounts, as the popularity of Weibo is still growing and many companies see potential business opportunities through this new marketing channel.

Red line = number of activated account (in hundred millions); Yellow line = number of Weibo users (in hundred millions)


English Version of Weibo

As foreign businesses see Weibo a good channel to enter the Chinese business market, some demand the sites to include English version. For example, Tencent, one of the Chinese Weibo, has already launched the site in English version. Sina Weibo, on the other hand, is planning to do so soon with the integration of two US-based companies, FlipBoard and Instagram. FlipBoard, an application that collects the content of social networks and other websites and presents them in magazine format, is currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Therefore, working with a local company like Sina Weibo will likely increase the chance of FlipBoard and Instagram entering the Chinese market.

Future problem

“Microblogs mean people dare speak out - and can speak out. Everything changes when people start to speak the truth. (Bristow, M., 2011)” The Chinese governments like to control the flow of information through traditional media outlets to shape what people think - just one of their tools to maintain power. As more and more people start to use Weibo and other virtual means to communicate in China, it would not be a surprise when the Chinese governments create more laws and regulations to censor the flow of information or the “truth”.

Additional information

Predictions

The constraints that China has on the Internet including social media may be hard to believe. However, with China’s unique culture, social media can still thrive in the future. Chinese are willing to embrace these new products and concepts being exposed to them. When they are forbidden access to those new products, they are able to produce localized versions for these products. Also, people producing those products would be willing to conform to the censorship regulations because of the massive market of China. China will continue to do business by meeting local demands instead of competing in an international level.

As for censoring information in the 21st century, that can still thrive at least in the near future. No one has the power to influence the government into giving up censoring content. Take Google as an example, it tried to challenge China into giving up censorship regulations. However, China has not reached the stage where they can give people entire access to all kinds of information and freedom. Social media would only be more heavily regulated in the future because of the potential social media has on spreading unwanted information. Unless the government desired political reforms themselves, otherwise there would be no changes in these principles until generations later.

In-depth video about Sina Weibo and China's social networking culture

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