Understanding social media in China

In addition to having the world’s biggest Internet user base—513 million people, more than double the 245 million users in the United States —China also has the world’s most active environment for social media. More than 300 million people use it, from blogs to social-networking sites to microblogs and other online communities. That’s roughly equivalent to the combined population of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In addition, China’s online users spend more than 40 percent of their time online on social media, a figure that continues to rise rapidly.

This appetite for all things social has spawned a dizzying array of companies, many with tools more advanced than those in the West: for example, Chinese users were able to embed multimedia content in social media more than 18 months before Twitter users could do so in the United States. Social media began in China in 1994 with online forums and communities and migrated to instant messaging in 1999. User review sites such as Dianping emerged around 2003. Blogging took off in 2004, followed a year later by social-networking sites with chatting capabilities such as Renren. Sina Weibo launched in 2009, offering microblogging with multimedia. Location-based player Jiepang appeared in 2010, offering services similar to foursquare’s.

China’s social-media users not only are more active than those of any other country but also, in more than 80 percent of all cases, have multiple social-media accounts, primarily with local players (compared with just 39 percent in Japan). The use of mobile technologies to access social media is also increasingly popular in China: there were more than 100 million mobile social users in 2010, a number that is forecast to grow by about 30 percent annually.

The competition for consumers is fierce in China’s social-media space. Many companies regularly employ “artificial writers” to seed positive content about themselves online and attack competitors with negative news they hope will go viral. In several instances, negative publicity about companies—such as allegations of product contamination—has prompted waves of microblog posts from competitors and disguised users. Businesses trying to manage social-media crises should carefully identify the source of negative posts and base countermeasures on whether they came from competitors or real consumers. Companies must also factor in the impact of artificial writers when mining for social-media consumer insights and comparing the performance of their brands against that of competitors. Otherwise, they risk drawing the wrong conclusions about consumer behavior and brand preferences.

China’s social-media sector is very fragmented and local. Each social-media and e-commerce platform has at least two major local players: in microblogging (or weibo), for example, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo; in social networking, a number of companies, including Renren and Kaixin001. These players have different strengths, areas of focus, and, often, geographic priorities. For marketers, this fragmentation increases the complexity of the social-media landscape in China and requires significant resources and expertise, including a network of partners to help guide the way. Competition is evolving quickly—marketers looking for partners should closely monitor development of the sector’s platforms and players.

Our top 4 social media networks in China:


As a messaging platform similar to Skype, QQ offers comprehensive Web communication functions such as text messaging, video chat, voice chat, online, and features that allows users to send files on and offline. At June 2014, QQ’s monthly active users (MAU) hit 829 users.

First released in China in 1999 by Tencent, QQ is the granddaddy of Chinese social media and has since expanded to include services such as social games, music, shopping, and microblogging. In April, the service recorded 200 million simultaneous online users. As it is an older platform, QQ has had to offer additional features in order to stay relevant – and it did so with its instant messaging app Mobile QQ. After joining the mobile payment space with QQ Wallet, which was launched in July this year, newly integrated lifestyle services include shopping, restaurant deals, and even health monitoring. Despite its reach and new features, QQ is rarely used for marketing, as its users are predominantly young students in rural areas who don’t have a lot of spending power. 


Lucky for marketers, Tencent has other social networks up its sleeve such as Qzone – a social networking website launched in 2005 that offers similar services to QQ such as blogging, photo sending, music, and videos. Tencent 2014 first-quarter figures put Qzone monthly active users at 644 million. Although Qzone is primarily a blogging platform, it also has similarities to Facebook, as brands can promote their products via fan pages. For example, according to the Nanjing Marketing Group, Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi sold its Redmi device on Qzone in March of this year and scooped up 15.18 million pre-orders in just one week. 


Rounding out the Tencent social media trifecta is WeChat. With its seemingly endless suite of features including voice and group chat, video call, walkie-talkie, and people nearby, WeChat is a formidable force in the Chinese social networking space. Compared to its messaging rival WhatsApp, WeChat has been far more focused in monetizing its platform within the social and mobile spheres with its in-app e-commerce and services. Besides gifting friends and family a red pocket during Chinese New Year, WeChat users can upgrade while gaming, buy shoes, and even book a taxi.

Besides outreaching to users in-group, chats of up to 500 people, brands can also use WeChat to advertise in a number of ways. Brands can set up a WeChat service account, which allows them to engage with customers by sending targeted material and use affiliate sales channel Weidian to analyze their users’ shopping habits and preferences. Businesses can also place QR codes in high-trafficked places for users to follow their brand, use the location-based service function to target offers, and ads to nearby users, and use the “throw a bottle” feature to raise awareness about charities or discounts. 


For the month of September, Sina Weibo boasted 167 million monthly active users. And despite competition from newer player WeChat, financial results released in November, show Weibo’s third-quarter revenues grew 58 percent year-over-year to $84.1 million. Weibo has an active presence in the Mainland market – especially among the younger demographic. Weibo’s sway has a lot to do with its influential user accounts such as business tycoons, Asian celebrities, and media figures. It initially launched as “Sina Weibo,” but shed the “Sina” prefix back in March.

Despite it being called China’s “Twitter clone,” Weibo is a far friendlier platform for marketers, as brands can promote their events and online stores through video, live broadcast, and celebrity interviews. Coach is one of Weibo’s top brands as it focuses on interacting with followers and running mini-campaigns. For example, their 2013 “New York Style” campaign featured five Chinese fashion bloggers in a video, then had fans voting on their favorite street styles for a chance to win Coach merchandise. With more than 640,000 followers and 3,200 posts, Coach was named “Most Digitally Competent American Fashion Brand in China” in 2013 by the Digital IQ Index.