With more than 300 million dedicated users across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Sina Weibo is China’s heavyweight answer to Twitter. Since the microblog burst onto the Chinese internet scene in 2009, shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Sina’s rise has been fierce and dramatic. Today more than one quarter of the country’s people rely on it for their daily social networking fix and to access up-to-the-minute news and gossip that even the censors can’t keep up with.
One year after Sina’s introduction, its primary competitor Tencent launched its own version of Weibo. Now the two media giants’ total number of registered Weibo accounts easily outnumbers the current population of the US. While China’s highly publicized censorship practices certainly play a role in driving Chinese netizens into the arms of Weibo platforms, their popularity is also rooted in Chinese people’s microblogging habits. Weibo made its debut at just the right moment in time, offering interactive features and such a fun and easy user experience that it even won over Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan where Twitter is not banned or censored.
Weibo’s success story began at the turn of the Millennium when Chinese celebrity bloggers such as Han Han and Xu Jinglei began to openly share their provocative and progressive views online. Chinese netizens took notice and the floodgates opened as people flocked to join the social movement, intrigued by their newfound ability to post and share their comments in such a public forum. While their comments took various forms – some became the initiators, creating original content while others preferred to comment on others’ posts. Soon each post generated up to tens of thousands of unique views per day – certainly an intoxicating number for any microblogger. As a result, content from grassroots netizens now far outweighs that produced by traditional online portals and publishers.
Today the top 10 trending celebrities on Weibo have a combined audience base of more than 200 million followers. These social stars – who are disproportionately from Hong Kong and Taiwan – generate huge amounts of buzz by sharing daily updates and stories that give fans glimpses into their private celebrity lives.
The Chinese are renowned for developing customized – and often improved – versions of existing innovations. Case in point – the first version of Weibo already contained user-friendly photo and video-sharing functions long before Twitter launched similar functions. Weibo later integrated private messaging and instant messaging functions a la Facebook. Now with Weibo, users have a one-stop shop where they can post, comment, update and chat to their heart’s content – from visiting just one site.
As Weibo’s functions continue to expand, Sina has started to push through more of its content via Weibo so that it can eventually evolve into a portal. Sina Weibo currently hosts categories dedicated entirely to fashion, travel, films, comics and the Olympics, just to name a few.
Chinese consumers’ rapidly shifting media consumption habits have cemented social media’s mainstream status. Users are blurring the lines of how they relate to friends versus brands online, which has created powerful new opportunities for brands to build unique and close relationships with their audiences. Social media is no longer an experiment, but occupies a key role in marketing plans that target mainstream and niche consumers alike. In a win-win situation for both businesses and Weibo, many brands have already upgraded their Weibo accounts to the corporate version which hosts branded content and is moving in the direction of e-commerce. On these platforms, netizens can interact freely with their favorite brands and socialize with like-minded brand worshippers. The development of e-commerce on Weibo presents tremendous opportunities for targeted promotions, product launches and group buys.
Information overload caused by the more than 100 million Weibo tweets that are generated per day may cause users to lose interest in reading and writing more than 140 characters. So brands will need to think of fresh ways to stand out from the crowd in order to to stay on top of their Weibo game.
To sum it all up, Twitter just got a Weibo Smackdown… in China at least.
This article was published in Admap, September 2012 ©Warc.