Some of the top examples of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in China are WeChat, Sina Weibo, Tencent/QQ-zone, Renren and Youku – but what does that really tell us? On a topical level, many people online may already be familiar with the names of these platforms, but scratch just a bit below the surface, and a very unique, sometimes complicated, and always compelling story comes to play – behind the fast rise of social networking in China.
The Current State
Most people may be surprised to know that China’s Internet population by 2014 has reached more than 500 million people, which equates to almost half of the entire population of China of over 1.3 billion people – and most of the latest growth adding to those astronomical numbers is coming from rural parts of China, and not top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. What’s astounding is that most of this has happened within the past five years, making the Internet the dominant source of information in China, whereas it took 20 years for the State of Social Media to grow and develop in the U.S. and most Western countries. Just how exactly did this happen – and what does it mean?
A Closer Look
Actually, one could take a closer look at modern China and very quickly understand why the Twitter-like micro-blogging site Sina Weibo (54 million daily active users) plays such a critical role in the daily communications and lives of a wide spectrum of Chinese. Considering the limitations of more traditional Chinese media like newspapers, websites, printed media, scholarly materials, radio and television, it is no wonder that an astounding number of Chinese people have turned to online platforms such as Weibo for a fast, relatively free flow of information and personal expression. But even more so, the WeChat (236 million monthly active users) phenomenon has become an even bigger hit with many Chinese – because it not only provides functionalities similar to WhatsApp, but it also has many additional features and even a more private social circle-networking function, which in essence acts as an invisible shield to unwanted outside factors, a challenge that Sina Weibo, as a more public platform often subject to censors, has yet to achieve. Moreover, WeChat has already caught the full attention of premium marketers – with this more private social networking function, companies can tailor their advertisements to the users’ interests and likes – and literally put the advertising option in the consumers’ hands with push notification functionality. According to a recent 2013 KPMG study on Chinese Internet users, more than 49% of respondents say that they are most annoyed by ads that are targeted towards them which have nothing to do with their interests – and this is no doubt one of the main driving forces behind the growth trend of WeChat over Sina Weibo.
The China Advantage
By the way, have you noticed the trend yet? Weibo = Twitter, WeChat = WhatsApp, Renren a Facebook equivalent, and Youku, which is China’s most popular video-sharing site, an ode to YouTube?
Not that these sites are completely alike – the Chinese have always further developed the basic platform concepts and tailor-made it to their unique tastes and advantages. This is the China advantage – where, in contrast, it took markets like the U.S. quite some time for the research, development, testing and refining of these technologies, the Internet age in China started at a time when many innovative SNS concepts had already come into existence, thereby allowing the development of Social Media in China to happen very quickly, and with such great success. Not to mention, that with the general political conditions and limitations on media in China, a “Chinese version” of the respective SNS platform would only make sense in this kind of market. What’s more, a market size of over 1.3 billion didn’t hurt either.
In fact, this trend is not only limited to SNS in China, but across a wide variety of digital platforms. Baidu is a great alternative example of the China advantage, which has grown in the past few years to become the largest online search engine in China – and made its co-founder and CEO, Robin Li, one of the richest businessmen in the country, and in the world. Baidu, often compared in terms of functionality and looks to the global search engine behemoth Google, was developed by Robin Li, who first pursued his graduate studies at the University of Buffalo, a State University of New York, in the U.S. Following his first extensive work experiences programming software and developing algorithms for various Internet companies in the U.S., he eventually returned to Beijing to fully develop Baidu into the company it has become today.
To the next 500 million: The Future of Social Media in China
To put it simply: Which factors will influence and inspire the next 500 million Chinese to get online? And very importantly, what can businesses do to fully leverage this wonderful opportunity in order to reach a massive and ever-sophisticated target demographic?
There are some key takeaways the world has learned from the first 500 million – the Chinese society as a whole puts more trust in sources of information like SNS, because it is a platform that emphasizes the free flow of information through word-of-mouth, known social circles, and identifiable influencers (such as key opinion leaders and celebrities). This is to be seen against the background of a general trend in China: the lack of trusted-sources consisting mostly of more traditional, institutional information outlets.
Chinese Internet users and SNS participants like innovative concepts tailored to their tastes and advantage – and they like to have the choices in their own hands and ready for themselves to decide – which is why the mobile SNS platforms are growing the fastest in China (WeChat vs. Weibo).
In other words, generally speaking, businesses should continue to innovate, always considering the Chinese tastes, wants and needs, and always tailor the experience in order to personalize the functionalities of social media technologies.
Is it really that easy to succeed in the unique State of Social Media in China? Probably not. But stay tuned – we will continue to take you on a detailed and informed journey through the vast, sometimes complicated, but always entertaining world of social media in China as part of an ongoing series of articles focused on this topic.