02 May A Map of the Chinese Social Media & Internet Ecosystem
To many, the Chinese Internet stands like an enormous jar of candy on the highest shelf of a pantry, full of promise but impossible to reach, with the stubby, metaphorical arms of a child.
With 668 million monthly active users and only about 50% penetration, China’s Internet is booming. However, the development of China’s digital ecosystem validates Darwin’s studies in the Galapagos. Just as the canaries and tortoises on different Galapagoan Island developed distinct characteristics in their isolation, so has China’s Internet evolved into a one-of-a-kind creature. The isolated Chinese social media community has not only created networks that mimic those in the West but has also grown unique platforms, functions, and user habits.
The BAT Trio
Firstly, in order to understand the Chinese social media and Internet landscape, let’s get to know its key players. Imagine trying to understand the English-speaking Internet without knowing about Google or Facebook. If you weren’t familiar with those giant companies, you wouldn’t really get what’s going on in the digital world.
China’s digital world is ruled by three giants: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Analysts predict that these three companies will spend more than $80 billion on mergers and acquisitions in 2016. This BAT trio is buying up the Internet, and not just in China. Tencent owns League of Legends developer Riot and Baidu led Uber’s 2015 $1.2 Billion (yes, with a B!) China funding round.
Baidu is best described as China’s Google. They run the most popular search engine, a maps service, forums & a top-5 app store. We’ll dive into some of Baidu’s most popular offerings below.
It used to be said that Alibaba was China’s Amazon (or EBay, depending on the service). These days, it sometimes seems more like Amazon is America’s Alibaba. Alibaba’s 2014 U.S. IPO was the largest in history.
Alibaba also singlehandedly created the world’s largest online shopping holiday: Single’s Day. Last November 11, Alibaba sold $14.3 billion worth of goods , compared to about $3 billion generated by the United States’ Cyber Monday in 2015.
Counterfeit goods are readily available on Alibaba’s Tmall & Taobao, so most Western companies avoid a territory already covered by someone selling their product for a quarter of the price. However, more fearless celebrities, like Taylor Swift, have tackled Alibaba directly. The pop star opened stores with official Taylor Swift merchandise on Tmall & competitor site JD.
Imagine if Zynga and Facebook had merged in 2010. If they did, that company would’ve had almost as much power as Tencent- China’s social and gaming juggernaut. Tencent’s best-known product is WeChat but it is also a top game publisher and owner of many of China’s favorite digital platforms.
A quick note- recently, China’s Internet giants have been referred to as “BATX”, to include Xiaomi. Since Xiaomi’s business is mostly hardware and mobile OS software, we are not including the company in this overview of Chinese social media & Internet companies. But, if we did, Xiaomi would certainly be compared to Apple.
The Top Chinese Social Media Networks
On average, Chinese consumers spend 1 hour and 43 minutes daily on social media. And with almost every non-Chinese social network blocked in China, they are using a completely different set of sites. Chinese consumers don’t really see Western content, unless direct efforts to reach them through local channels are made.
LinkedIn is essentially the only Western social network with significant Chinese user base. How does LinkedIn make it past the Great Firewall? The company has made many compromises with Chinese social media and Internet censors.
WeChat rules Chinese Internet & social media consumption. We just featured WeChat in a blog post, so we won’t go into detail here. Recent financial reports put monthly active users at more than 700 million.
A recent feature, WeChatPay has become wildly popular, with more than $46 million made in bank transfer fees. Although this is dwarfed by WeChat’s gaming and ad revenues, peer to peer payments made in WeChat are heating up.
Weibo is China’s Twitter-like microblogging network. With more than 100 million DAUs, Weibo is an incredibly effective channel for celebrities and brands. Western celebrities such as Dwayne Wade and Adam Lambert have built official Weibo presences and gathered impressive followings. What makes Weibo different from Twitter? It recently scrapped the character limit and users can pay to have their posts featured at the top of the followers’ timelines.
Tencent- owned QQ is sort of like Yahoo. It was once China’s most popular social network but now is mostly used as an email client and as a universal log-in for other Tencent networks (like WeChat). That’s how QQ is still China’s second most popular social network.
RenRen is China’s closest equivalent to Facebook. The Chinese social network uses real names and is targeted towards young people. However, RenRen has lost its popularity, as the app is too closely targeted at college students and users have flocked to WeChat. This failure shows how unique Chinese social media habits are- they don’t even need a Facebook equivalent!
A homegrown social network, Douban, is a great place to see what is popular in China. It’s where people share what they are reading, watching, and listening to and an excellent glimpse into the culture of young, wealthier Chinese consumers.
Baidu: Baike, Zhidao, and Tieba
After search, three of Baidu’s most popular side offerings are Baike, Zhidao, and Tieba. Baike is similar to Wikipedia, with encyclopedia-like entries on topics. Zhidao is a Q&A platform.
China’s most popular forum is Baidu’s Tieba, a fan-generated network that covers topics like celebrities, movies, games and books. Tieba has more than 1 billion registered users. You can see the Tieba page for our game Tap Titans here.
Zhihu is a Quora-inspired Q&A site. It’s unique in that it offers a discovery feed (like every app/social network in China) and can be read by logged-out users. Obviously, due to censorship fears, Zhihu is far less political than its English counterpart. Interestingly, Quora has yet to be blocked in China. This probably is just because Quora has never caused any problems in China, as it doesn’t provide Chinese content and doesn’t have many Chinese users.
In October 2015, two rivaling group deals, reviews, and reservations sites merged into a speculated $15 billion company. Meituan was pretty similar to Groupon, whereas Dianping had a stronger focus on reviews, while still offering deals. Local restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues can encourage visits by working with these sites.
All of the Chinese social media and digital platforms above provide opportunities for brands to expand their reach. Social networks and Baidu services provide an excellent place to introduce a brand to Chinese consumers. Depending on the product, platforms such as Alibaba, Meituan-Dianping, or a Chinese App Store are the perfect places to monetize off your Chinese brand presence.
Obviously, these social networks aren’t all the ways to spread a brand in China. Our next post will look at China’s unique video and audio platforms. Check back here next week!
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