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China and the West: a Comparison of Social Media

Tencent: soon bigger than Facebook?

On the contrary to many assumptions, the prevention of access to certain Western sites has done little to harm the development of Chinese social media. Take just one example: it is now estimated that between Chinese media giant Tencent’s QQ(a primarily mobile-based instant messaging software) and its WeChat (QQ’s smartphone and tablet app equivalent) alone there are roughly 1.054 billion active users – that’s barely 70 million users short of Facebook’s entire international user base. When you compare the fact that WeChat has nearly trebled its active users (from 85 million to 236 million) from last year until now with the recent Facebook announcement that its annual active user increase has slowed to 18%, it is China that is increasingly dominating the social media landscape.

As the table below displays, China’s huge population combined with its nationals’ thirst for staying interactive means that its Tencent-dominated social media market can compete with any of Western giant; that includes current, emerging or even not even in existence user-generated websites. Couple this with the fact that in just four months, between May and September 2013, WeChat’s overseas users doubled to 100 million and we can see that China’s success is clearly not just confined to its domestic population.[1]

Chinese variety

Social media in the West, as you may be aware of, is largely dominated by Facebook and Twitter and this is a trend which is consolidating rather than regressing. Facebook, especially, set itself apart from its competitors through its gradual integration of external applications and by turning itself into an international advertising hub, thus expanding its audience beyond teenagers and students and into the world of business. Of course, its iconic ‘like’ button was always essential to its success too – to the extent that nowadays you can like almost anything on the net whether on or off Facebook. Twitter too also distinguished itself from the pack through its integration of social interaction with current affairs, largely through its omnipresent ‘hashtag’ (#) and its ‘trending’ feature. Both sites continue to attract users at a fast rate and their dominance in Western social media remains largely unthreatened.

In comparison, although Chinese social media is largely dominated by Tencent in terms of users, their grip is primarily held through mobile networking – there is plenty of variation in China when it comes to, at least initially, desktop-based social media platforms of the Facebook and Twitter mould. With sites such as Sino Weibo (effectively the Chinese spin on Twitter), RenRen (the Chinese Facebook, both in terms of functions as well as having nearly exactly the same visual features) and Douban (similar to MySpace and popular with niche communities) all boasting well over 100 million accounts, the social media make-up of China expands far beyond a single dominant monopoly or duopoly. Couple in the fact that Facebook and Twitter are not entirely obsolete in China due to the increasing accessibility of VPNs and there is notable variation.

Does this look alright: Renren, weibo etc.

Now let’s take a closer look to the interfaces and features of both western and Chinese social media platforms. A short blink at the pictures below is enough to notice the extremely alike looking interfaces of Facebook and Renren, both the web version and the mobile app.

Differences must therefore be sought in the focus and performance of both companies. It’s not just that Facebook is profitable and Renren is not. As mobile usage grows for both companies (mobile is accounting for two-thirds of Renren’s connections these days), Facebook hasn’t had a problem monetizing the platform on the smaller devices. Renren has struggled, and instead of traditional brand advertising, the Chinese speedster is turning to gaming and social e-commerce to cash in on the mobility trend. The end result is pretty shocking. Brand advertising revenue, something that’s up sharply at Facebook, actually declined 17% at Renren over the past year.[2]Renren’s growth has come through online games and its daily deals site Nuomi. In fact, online advertising now accounts for just 21% of the revenue at Renren, and it grew at a surprisingly weak 5% clip during the first quarter of 2013. It’s an entirely different scene at Facebook, where online advertising now accounts for 88% of the business

Weibo is the Chinese counterpart of Twitter. The name Weibo literally means “microblog” in Chinese. Despite the fact that multiple microblog platforms exist in the Chinese market, people normally refer “Sina Microblog” when they use the term “Weibo.” As the most popular microblog site in China, Sina Weibo is used by over 30% of internet users in China

Although Weibo and Twitter have different interfaces to begin with, but their usability features are very similar. Both sites’ success can be largely attributed to their superb initial strategy to attract celebrities on board to use the site as a publicity tool. Nowadays, even many foreign celebrities including politicians, athletes, and artists have ventured into the Weibo platform and successfully used it to interact with their Chinese fans and increase their publicity. Just like people on Twitter, Weibo users go on the platform to enjoy the daily dose of insightful opinions from celebrities and mundane updates from family and friends. However, the most popular content to be shared on Weibo is actually not celebrities’ updates about their broken marriages and latest diets. Instead, it’s the jokes, funny images, and words of wisdom that people deem the most worthwhile to repost.

In addition, Weibo is frequently used as a news portal whereas Twitter not so much since people would prefer going to actual news sites to obtain information. The reason behind the trend of Chinese users opting for Weibo instead of news sites is that Weibo offers an array of political and social news unavailable on regular news sites and even less likely on state owned news channels. Political scandals such as the Bo Xi Lai trial were discussed vehemently via Weibo, bringing forward comments regarding Chinese politicians, the Chinese political statement and the society status quo in China. Nowadays, the censorship is actually gradually growing as committees are being set up to monitor topics discussed on Weibo. In addition, Weibo allows its users to post with a 140 Chinese characters limit, which can convey significantly more information than Twitter’s 140 alphabet-character limit and is long enough for most brief news updates.

LinkedIn- Western media successful in China

LinkedIn, with a worldwide audience of over 200 million, has a huge amount of users in Asia. However, in China there are only around 3 million registered users, which is a limited number, compared to other social networks. The reason might be that LinkedIn still doesn’t have a Chinese language version, which limits the access to only the English-speaking people.Some people wonder why LinkedIn, in opposite other western founded social platforms, is still accessible in China. Mainly we can distinguish two reasons for this. Firstly, China realizes that in order to connect with the rest of the world, especially for businesses, it needs access to a platform where both western and Chinese business people participate and LinkedIn has proven to be very valuable for this purpose. Secondly, the availability only in English makes it a perfect tool for companies to find bilingual talents. Some people are afraid a further expansion of LinkedIn in China would attract the attention of the government and possibly lead to self-censorship or, like Facebook and Twitter, being blocked. Other people don’t have this fear, since the platform offers China enough to keep it from getting blocked.

Opportunities for western companies

China’s wide variety of social networks, the booming e-commerce market and the fact that an increasing number of Chinese platforms are becoming more open to integrating with the West offers huge opportunities for western App and web developers: Mobile game developers interested in expanding to China should consider integrating Sina and Tencent Weibo into their titles, while Web games will do better on QQ’s QZone. In addition, social media in China has proven to be an excellent tool to reach the growing consumer market. Any companies entering the Chinese market or expanding in China need to understand how they can take advantage of these great tools of social media platform to further localize their marketing campaign and maximize the potential of Chinese market to the greatest.

In next week’s blog post, we will provide our readers with more practical advice on how companies should use Chinese social media for their marketing campaign.


Vivian Li

PR Manager

Tel: +86 010 8390 7451

Mobile: +86 13041030670