Why Chinese Aren’t Holding Their Breath for Facebook or Twitter

The newest thing in Chinese social media is probably the declining relevance of newness. Chinese social media sites have matured fast and the major players are already well established. There are several of them, reaching slightly different demographics – students, young professionals, ‘cultured youth’ – including:

Compared to these sites, Sina Weibo, China’s leading micro blogging platform, is relatively young. It launched in August 2009, a full ten years after QQ, but it already has 50 million users.

Altogether, there are 420 million internet users in China, and those who use social media sites subscribe to 2.78 of them on average. In the vast majority of cases Twitter and Facebook, with a paltry 40,000 and 400,000 users here respectively, aren’t among them.

Both sites are blocked in China, meaning you need a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) to access them, and most Chinese aren’t bothering. Unless they want to reach out to foreign friends, they’ve got their own sites to visit.

Caption: A graphic representation of Facebook connections as of December, 2010. Note the darkness over the world’s most populous country.

The best social media sites are the ones that your friends use. Even if Twitter and Facebook were unblocked tomorrow, they’re now so far behind in user numbers that they’d struggle to catch up.

Despite recent rumours that Mark Zuckerberg nevertheless wants to give China a crack, it would probably be ill-advised. Operating a site here still means being willing to scrub your content of sensitive material – just last week Sina Weibo stopped people from searching for “Egypt” – and Twitter and Facebook probably can’t weather the global PR shit storm that would arise from doing so.

The Chinese social media landscape is highly evolved and largely discrete from the international social media landscape. It’s a cultural microclimate, the internet equivalent of remote parts of Papua New Guinea. Only it’s Papua New Guinea with hundreds of millions of users with rapidly rising incomes and a fascinating and increasingly influential culture.

The fact that Chinese social media sites are almost entirely intranational doesn’t mean people overseas can’t use them to engage with Chinese people or market to them online. I recently interviewed Jens Thraenhart, co-founder of the digital travel marketing company Dragon Trail, and he singled out Tourism New Zealand as an organisation that’s especially savvy in its use of Chinese social media.

“New Zealand did an influential marketing campaign where they paid Chinese celebrities to come to New Zealand, write about it and make little webisodes,” Thraenhart said. “They also set up profiles on social media sites, video sites Youku and Tudou, Sina Weibo and so on. It was a very smart and well executed campaign to leverage influencers and celebrities and use the social media space to get the word out and drive engagement and buzz.”

Mark Frood, Tourism New Zealand’s General Manager in charge of Eastern markets, told me that the Effie award winning campaign was about getting Chinese to experience New Zealand and communicate its merits as they saw them and in their words. It also meant disseminating their experiences on their social media, not Facebook or Twitter.

Caption: As this graphic by Ogilvy’s 360 Digital Influence team shows, Chinese websites have the major social media bases covered.

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...

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