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Social Networking In China: A Closer Look


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No single social networking site stands out among the crowd of half billion Chinese internet users. Here’s a closer look at the social media situation focusing on the top three networks (QZone, and Sina Weibo).

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Social Networking In China: A Closer Look

  1. 1. Social Networking in China: A Closer LookPosted by Goutama Bachtiar on May 9, 2012 in FeaturesChina is the world‟s biggest country, in terms of population. However, we can‟t expect thesame for the world‟s biggest social network here. No single social networking site standsout among the crowd of half billion Chinese internet users. Facebook, even thoughsuccessful (even considered the fourth largest “nation” in the planet, with over 800 millionmembers) has a very small following in China, due to Internet restrictions and policies.There are only close to 510,000 Facebook users in China, only about a thousand aboveYemen and a thousand less than Ethiopia. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was spotted in Shanghai this March, leading to speculation that the social network might be expanding here. (Photo Credit: are plenty of social networks in this market, but in this post, we will take the top threeand take a look into their profile, market share and future prospects. Qzone successfullysteals the younger demographics‟ attention and that of rural users, actively promotingthrough QQ Messenger. has gained ground since day one at lower tier cities,while Sina Weibo accounted for the majority of micro blog users, and is the most favorednetwork, used by thousands of corporations and organizations in the country. Most Chineseare members of multiple networks. On average, each person is a member of 2.8 socialnetworks, according to the Chinese Internet Network Information Center.Actually there are plenty of smaller networks targeting niche demographics: elite, females,techies, and so on and so forth. The social networking scene is moderately crowded andcompetitive, although a clear separation exists between the top three and “the rest” in termsof mass-market viability.As in Page 1
  2. 2. Every social network in China claims to be the largest, and it‟s quite difficult to havetrustworthy data. But, we can look into results of recent surveys from various sources asreference points for this article.QZoneGaining huge traffic from its sister app QQ Messenger, Qzone has logged more than 500million users. Owned by Tencent, and being with a product family such as QQ Shoq, QQGames, and QQ Pet, the service has easily booked millions of members with teens, ruralfolks, and casual users as their main targets. For those who haven‟t heard about it, QZoneallows us to write blogs, share pictures, and listen to music. It also lets users customizeelements such as background and other apps and on-screen accessories based on theirpreferences. Most the services are not free and it applies to their mobile version as well.Around 150 million users update their accounts at least once a month, making QZone oneof the most active communities in the industry.On the other hand, since many QZone start out with a proprietary messaging app, theservice is experiencing a big problem of having a low retention rate. This is a trend in othernetworks too, although it might be difficult to observe where users use nicknames or aliasesrather than real-life names.The demographics are a bit different, too. Even as majority of users are teenagers andChinese living in rural areas, older users have been contributing to the growth of Xiaoyou(classmates). The service is not helped by the unintuitive nature of the website. LikeFacebook, QZone has social games that run over the platform to increase userengagement and popularity. Unfortunately, QZone is still struggling to resolve instability andperformance issues relating to the integration those games with the network.Backed up by online giant Tencent, which reports billion dollar revenues annually, QZoneshould face no issue when it comes to financial matters in the long run. Tencent claims tounderstand the social networking scene and the ecosystem in which its user thrive.However, they have left out a big and important demographic in their potential market: olderstudents and white-collar is apparently slowing in growth, and is now one of the lowest-traffic sites amongChinese social networks. Latest demographics indicate that urban and educated usershave mostly turned to competitors. What they are doing now is trying to keep their core userbase, mostly in lower tier cities.The simple social network with rich functionality has plenty of pre-installed apps andcustomizable skins. The good thing is the site has better games developed in-house, whichis greatly helped by a recent US$ 15 million investment, so that the site can build its owngaming portal. As such, is no longer dependent on advertising and value-addedservices.Giant Interactive Group is the major stakeholder with a US$ 51 million investment,accounting for a 25% stake. Others are Sequoia Capital, SIG, Redpoint Ventures,Susquehanna International, and Intel Capital.As in Page 2
  3. 3. The seven year old social network has announced a profit in 2009, with ad revenues of US$30 million. Since its launch, has been fully committed to provide stable services anduseful facilities so that users can conveniently communicate with each other.As China‟s economic outlook shows positive figures, the number of the residents in lowertier cities is decreasing, with the population moving toward first tier areas. Note thatRenRen‟s approach is by starting with elite students at China‟s top universities, and thenspreading outward, which seems to have been far more successful. And, considering thecrowded scene, they stand little chance in competing in top-tier cities.Sina WeiboSina Weibo is owned and run by Sina under the umbrella of Sina Corp. Duringthe NetImpact event in Jakarta, Sina Weibo‟s partner fund Songbo Li said that the servicehas hit more than 200 million users in less than three years.It serves millions posts per day, and signs up 20 million new users per month, making SinaWeibo the fastest-rising star among social networks in China. Similar to Twitter, Sina Weibouses a verification process for celebrities and organizations. Interestingly, the site has morethan 60,000 verified accounts — a decent number that surprised even Sina — consisting ofmovie stars, singers, businessmen, sports stars, religious leaders, government officials andother public figures in particular. These are not only from the mainland, but from HongKong, Taiwan and Macau too.Earlier last February, Bloomberg reported that the site — which literally means “SinaMicroblog” — already has 300 million users. Launched after the Urumqi riots (Twitter andTwitter clone Fanfou were blocked afterward), it has grown both virally and through clevermarketing. Most of the time, even other microblogging services are referred as “Weibo” dueto the popularity of the brand.Meanwhile, Foursquare look-alike Weilingdi and female-targeted Sina Lady Weibo arestruggling to gain traction among existing Sina users, and likewise non Sina users. It will beexciting to watch the launch of the international Sina Weibo, which is aimed squarelyagainst Twitter.The Future SceneThe competition is certainly still widely open and the social media space still has plentyroom to grow. Remember that the number of Internet users will still grow from its currentlevel of about 700 million out of China‟s 1.4 billion total populations.Of course, the government will want to be involved, especially with the top three networks.These social networking services are probably too big to shut down, and so there needs tobe some monitoring done. All Internet companies in China have to obey rules and complywith authorities‟ self-censorship regulations to stay in business. These are often affected bycrackdown policies that change from time-to-time.Quoting a previous post , such a “„contamination‟ from the internet might disrupt their socialframework as the foundation of the tremendous economic growth the country has beenexperiencing for more than two decades.”As in Page 3
  4. 4. The growth of Renren users is one of the highest due to its management team and openapplication programming interface (API) policy. Formerly known as Xiaonei and tagged as aFacebook clone, the service started to target students since day one, and now their effortsin pushing toward younger students seems fairly successful.Networks that are eyeing an international launch will have to compete with Silicon Valleymade networks. These will have to go beyond translation. Localization doesn‟t just meantranslation. Brands will need to get a deeper understanding of the market, and deliverlocalized best user experiences. Another point to contend with is content blocking. Wemight recall a case where Baidu was sued for blocking off search results in the U.S.Another exciting trend to watch is Instagram, which has already established a strategicpartnership with Sina Weibo and runs its Chinese-language version after co-founder KevinSystrom visited Beijing a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, the government treats foreignsocial-networking sites as a threat even though they have tied-up with local players in thenation.As in Page 4