Social Networking in China: A Closer Look

China is the world’s biggest country, in terms of population. However, we can’t expect the same for the world’s biggest social network here. No single social networking site stands out among the crowd of half billion Chinese internet users.  Facebook, even though successful (even considered the fourth largest “nation” in the planet, with over 800 million members) has a very small following in China, due to Internet restrictions and policies. There are only close to510,000 Facebook users in China, only about a thousand above Yemen 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: weibo.com/shdaily)

There are plenty of social networks in this market, but in this post, we will take the top three and take a look into their profile, market share and future prospects. Qzone successfully steals the younger demographic’s attention and that of rural users, actively promoting through QQ Messenger51.com has gained ground since day one at lower tier cities, while Sina Weibo accounted for the majority of microblog users, and is the most favored network, used by thousands of corporations and organizations in the country. Most Chinese are members of multiple networks. On average, each person is a member of 2.8 social networks, 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 and competitive, although a clear separation exists between the top three and “the rest” in terms of mass-market viability.

Every social network in China claims to be the largest, and it’s quite difficult to have trustworthy data. But, we can look into results of recent surveys from various sources as reference points for this article.

QZone

Gaining huge traffic from its sister app QQ Messenger, Qzone has logged more than 500 million users. Owned by Tencent, and being with a product family such as QQ Shoq, QQ Games, and QQ Pet, the service has easily booked millions of members with teens, rural folk, and casual users as their main targets. For those who haven’t heard about it, QZone allows us to write blogs, share pictures, and listen to music. It also lets users customize elements such as background and other apps and on-screen accessories based on their preferences. Most thee 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 one of the most active communities in the industry.

On the other hand, since many QZone start out with a proprietary messaging app, the service is experiencing a big problem of having a low retention rate. This is a trend in other networks too, although it might be difficult to observe where users use nicknames or aliases rather than real-life names.

The demographics are a bit different, too. Even as majority of users are teenagers and Chinese 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. Like Facebook, QZone has social games that run over the platform to increase user engagement and popularity. Unfortunately, QZone is still struggling to resolve instability and performance issues relating to the integration those games with the network.

Backed up by online giant Tencent, which reports billion dollar revenues annually, QZone should face no issue when it comes to financial matters in the long run. Tencent claims to understand 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: older students and white-collar workers.

51.com

51.com is apparently slowing in growth, and is now one of the lowest-traffic sites among Chinese social networks. Latest demographics indicate that urban and educated users have 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 and customizable skins. The good thing is the site has better games developed in-house, which is graetly helped by a recent US$ 15 million investment, so that the site can build its own gaming portal. As such, 51.com is no longer dependent on advertising and value-added services.

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.

The seven year old social network has announced a profit in 2009, with ad revenues of US$ 30 million. Since its launch, 51.com has been fully committed to provide stable services and useful facilities so that users can conveniently communicate with each other.

As China’s economic outlook shows positive figures, the number of the residents in lower tier cities is decreasing, with the population moving toward first tier areas. Note that RenRen’s approach is by starting with elite students at China’s top universities, and then spreading outward, which seems to have been far more successful. And, considering the crowded scene, they stand little chance in competing in top-tier cities.

Sina Weibo

Sina Weibo is owned and run by Sina under the umbrella of Sina Corp. During the NetImpact event in Jakarta, Sina Weibo’s partner fund Songbo Li said that the service has 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 Sina Weibo the fastest-rising star among social networks in China. Similar to Twitter, Sina Weibo uses a verification process for celebrities and organizations. Interestingly, the site has more than 60,000 verified accounts — a decent number that surprised even Sina — consisting of movie stars, singers, businessmen, sports stars, religious leaders, government officials and other public figures in particular. These are not only from the mainland, but from Hong KongTaiwan and Macau too.

Earlier last February, Bloomberg reported that the site — which literally means “Sina Microblog” — already has 300 million users. Launched after the Urumqi riots (Twitter and Twitter clone Fanfou were blocked afterward), it has grown both virally and through clever marketing. Most of the time, even other microblogging services are referred as “Weibo” due to the popularity of the brand.

Meanwhile, Foursquare look-alike Weilingdi and female-targeted Sina Lady Weibo are struggling to gain traction among existing Sina users, and likewise non Sina users. It will be exciting to watch the launch of the international Sina Weibo, which is aimed squarely against Twitter.

The Future Scene

The competition is certainly still widely open and the social media space still has plenty room to grow. Remember that the number of Internet users will still grow from its current level of about 700 million out of China’s 1.4 billion total population.

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 to be some monitoring done. All Internet companies in China have to obey rules and comply with authorities’ self-censorship regulations to stay in business. These are often affected by crackdown policies that change from time-to-time.

Quoting a previous post , such a “‘contamination’ from the internet might disrupt their social framework as the foundation of the tremendous economic growth the country has been experiencing for more than two decades.”

The growth of Renren users is one of the highest due to its management team and open application programming interface (API) policy. Formerly known as Xiaonei and tagged as a Facebook clone, the service started to target students since day one, and now their efforts in pushing toward younger students seems fairly successful.

Networks that are eyeing an international launch will have to compete with Silicon Valley made networks. These will have to go beyond translation. Localization doesn’t just mean translation. Brands will need to get a deeper understanding of the market, and deliver localized best user experiences. Another point to contend with is content blocking. We might 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 strategic partnership with Sina Weibo and runs its Chinese-language version after co-founder Kevin Systrom visited Beijing a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, the government treats foreign social-networking sites as a threat even though they have tied-up with local players in the nation.

As published in TechWireAsia: http://www.techwireasia.com/2971/social-networking-in-china-a-closer-look/

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