When one talks about the Chinese internet landscape, it’s hard not to think Weibo. In the past couple years, Sina Weibo became the biggest internet phenomenon in China. Weibo came originally as a Twitter clone launched in August 2009. But today it has grown to more than 200 million registered users. And just recently, Weibo split from Sina’s domain to enhance its own brand with the brand new weibo.com. Weibo has the biggest micro-blogging market share in China with approximately 56% over numerous other services such as Tencent, Baidu, 163, etc.
Not JUST a Twitter Clone
First, Weibo is NOT just a Twitter clone. Following the Chinese internet moto: “Copy first, innovate later”, Weibo in essence is a combination of Twitter and Facebook status updates. For example, in earlier versions of Twitter: users cannot upload pictures, nor can they comment on others tweets. When Weibo created that feature, it differentiated itself in that it changes the core focus of the service into creating a community instead of merely information broadcast (Retweets).
Feature-wise, Weibo have also developed numerous features that are in direction competition of the other Chinese internet giants. For example, Weibo’s desktop client integrates microblog updates along with an IM. Weibo Jobs allows employers to post jobs and get a social view of their applicants. Weibo vDisk is a cloud storage service that allows people to upload files and share them with friends. Weibo Music allows users to stream music directly on the site as well as connecting fans with the artist directly. These new services are great additions to increase Weibo’s user base, BUT doesn’t pose a significant threat to other internet giants because of late market entry and different target customer segmentation.
Biz Model Under Development
Despite Weibo’s popularity, its business model is still largely in development. Currently the only concrete form of revenue comes from banner advertising on both web and mobile platforms. But even then, the banners are few and cannot be compared in any way to Sina portal. However, Sina CEO Wang Zhidong disclosed some developing business models for Weibo at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in May 2011: 1. Following Google’s steps, Sina may add insta-search abilities to Weibo and implement an Ad-words like service. 2. Adding on the vDisk functionality, Weibo may also develop a marketplace for paid digital content. 3. An eCommerce platform that follow a Taobao like service that allows brands to market and sell their products directly on Weibo.
Unbiased Info Channel
Weibo have permeated deep within Chinese society, it became the biggest channel of unbiased and minimal government controlled source of information. One joke on Chinese internet states: “If you turn on the TV, China is a harmonious place! But if you turn on the computer, China is on the brink of revolution.” This joke is undoubtedly “retweeted” thousands of times on Sina Weibo. While the government DOES have control over what’s being said on Weibo, but they tend to overlook events where public opinion becomes overtly negative.
This was the case during the Wenzhou bullet train crashes. After the accident, none of the big print media reported the event. However it had a specialized page on Sina Weibo, granted it was mainly used to help families find their loved ones. BUT many dissenting voices sprung up on Weibo, with people expressing their outrage on how the aftermath was handled.
Video clips of arrogant railway bureau spokesperson Wang Yongping were spread all over Weibo. One of his statements has even become a viral message used all over the Chinese internet: “It doesn’t matter if YOU believe, but I sure as hell do!” The spokesperson’s condescending attitude as well as the government response caused great anger with the masses. Selected messages were indeed deleted, and even the famous actor Ge You’s Weibo account was deleted after he voiced his outrage. Even CCTV had negative commentary following the events, but the clips were deleted repeatedly on Weibo.
Reflection of Society
Weibo is merely a reflection of what’s going on in contemporary Chinese society. One of the biggest problems in China is corruption, and the huge gap between the powerful/rich and ordinary citizens. With Weibo’s emergence, it makes lots of injustices public and puts the powerful on the spot. For example, one of the biggest Weibo events this year involves the son of a famous PLA singer.
Li Tianyi is the 15 year old son of the famous PLA singer Li Shuangjiang. Li Jr. and a friend were illegally operating a government licensed vehicle when they hit another car. But instead of apologizing he brutally beat up the couple in the other vehicle, and yells to the bystanders: “Who dares to call the police!” When the event happened, the public surrounded Li Jr. and instantly the news was spread all over Weibo. People were once again outraged at how “2nd generation rich” can go above the law. Normally events like this would be quickly silenced, and nothing would happen to Li Jr. But Weibo changed all that by creating such a big publicity in short amount of time. As a result, Li Jr. father Li Shuangjiang publicly visited the victim couple and make an apology as well as a settlement.
Weibo’s impact on Chinese society has definitely been remarkable, and government is undoubtedly looking for ways to manage this new form of media. Weibo already has a “Report” button for people to report unlawful content to authorities, and the government regularly uses censors to delete information. Recently there have been talks of implementing a real name verification system for Weibo. Currently, Weibo already have a verification system in place for celebrities and VIP’s. But making it mandatory for all users have gotten some mixed reactions from the public. Some support it as it’ll make the information on Weibo more trustworthy, while others oppose it saying that Weibo will just be a tool on a massive scale for the government to gauge public opinion, as well as crackdown of “unharmonious” content.
Weibo also became an important PR communication channel for marketers, brand PR, and even some government agencies. For example, numerous Weibo marketing companies have emerged to deal with the growing market demand. For example, Weichuanbo is a crowdsourcing platform that allows marketers to post their ads, and pays people to retweet and comment on the ad. Numerous local and state police departments have also opened up a Weibo so people can send real-time pictures of crime. Brands like Starbucks, Adidas, and China Mobile all have a dedicated team that regularly write creative/funny/educational tweets in order to connect with consumers. One of the funniest yet effective PR stunts this year was done by Durex on September 19th, 2011, which was also the World Contraception Day. On this day, a Weibo user wrote an emotional blurb on “love in the morning”, but the Durex Weibo copied this content without crediting the original user. When the user confronted Durex on Weibo, Durex offered an apology, a settlement of 100 boxes of condoms, as well as an additional 100 boxes of condoms for other Weibo users.
This article was written for ValueCap Research