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Social media in China: The same, but different

Much has been written of late about the Chinese government’s efforts to control and censor the internet. The government’s censorship of websites is an important issue, but it is not the top priority of the country’s 420-million internet users (netizens). Their top priority? Connecting with other Chinese online.

The internet has opened access to information for ordinary Chinese citizens in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Coming from a world where information was pre-filtered by editors at state-run media, China’s internet is freewheeling by comparison.

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Quick Glance
Chinese internet users are actively engaging in social media—especially home-grown social media platforms.

Domestic social media platforms differ in various ways from Western platforms.

Companies should learn how Chinese consumers use social media and take advantage of the platforms to conduct consumer research, launch products, manage public relations crises, and more.

Rather than eliminate social media, restrictions on foreign websites and social media have resulted in a flourishing home-grown, state-approved ecosystem in which Chinese-owned properties thrive. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked in China, but their Chinese equivalents are expanding.

By some measures, usage of Chinese social media is some of the most intense in the world. A Boston Consulting Group study found that Chinese internet users are online for an average of 2.7 hours per day, considerably more than other developing countries and more on par with usage patterns in Japan and the United States (see Understand and Tap Into China’s Digital Generations).

Numerous factors help drive Chinese, more than other populations, to engage in social media. These include rural-to-urban migration that has separated families, the loneliness of the one-child generation, and a distrust of information from government-controlled media.

A 2008 MTV Music Matters survey found that young people across Asia have made a similar number of friends online and offline. Only in China, however, did young people actually have more friends online than offline. This points to a convergence of the offline and online worlds, where it is less important to distinguish between what happens online from the “real world.” In China, more than in many countries, social media has become deeply integrated into people’s lives.

Chinese netizens actively engage in discussions that could directly affect companies. A recent study by OgilvyOne in China found that 55 percent of China’s netizens had initiated or participated in online discussions about companies. Understanding social media is no longer a luxury for companies operating in China—it is an imperative. Formerly, a lack of engagement with netizens could be considered a lost opportunity. Now, the penetration and impact of social media is such that failing to understand what consumers are saying about a company online has become a business risk.

Comparing social media platforms
To explain the development of social media in Asia, Ogilvy’s 360 Digital Influence team has developed a series of social media “bulls-eyes” that place international platforms on the outside ring and their local equivalents on an inner ring.

With China, as with other countries, this bulls-eye system has strengths and weaknesses. For example, the bulls-eye shows that the equivalent of Twitter in China is Sina Weibo, and the two equivalents of YouTube are Tudou and Youku.

This comparison is helpful, but it can also be misleading. China’s social media platforms and online behaviors vary in important ways from those that may be considered their international equivalents. This variation is not all due to censorship. In China, as elsewhere in Asia, local variations of internet usage are driven by language, culture, levels of economic development, and the underlying digital ecosystem.

Digital ecosystems—the platforms around which populations focus online communications—can vary wildly between countries and within a single country. Substantial differences can exist even in countries at similar levels of economic development. Even without government blocks, internet users in Japan and South Korea, for example, flock to domestically developed social media platforms such as GREE and Cyworld, respectively, rather than internationally known sites.

YouTube vs. Youku and Tudou
Different social media usage patterns tell a great deal about the internet and the country involved. For example, Chinese netizens use online video platforms quite differently from how Americans use YouTube. Rather than short videos of cute animals or silly domestic mishaps that may be popular among YouTube watchers, Youku and Tudou are filled with longer form content, up to 70 percent of which is professionally produced. Users in China spend up to an hour per day on the sites, compared with less than 15 minutes spent by Americans on YouTube.

In the way they present programs, the Chinese sites seem more like online television stations or a replacement for digital video recorders. Though individuals in China produce and post videos, a large portion of online video content is longer-format professional videos. Much of this content consists of foreign programs pirated, subtitled, and uploaded hours after broadcast in the United States. An odd consequence is that the stars of programs such as Prison Break have a huge fan base in China, despite the series never having been broadcast on Chinese television.

In addition to the pirated programs, demand for original content on Youku and Tudou has resulted in a boom of companies that focus purely on online video. In some ways, the sites resemble a variation on US-based television service Hulu more than YouTube.

The television-like feel of Youku and Tudou reflects the usage pattern of young Chinese. University students in China often express skepticism when told that their country has one of the highest levels of social media engagement in the world, because they expect that the United States would rank first.

In my favorite demonstration, I ask students in a classroom to raise their hands if they have watched China Central Television (CCTV) in the last week. Generally, no one raises their hand. When I ask who has watched a video on Youku or Tudou in the last 24 hours, every hand in the room goes up, accompanied by amused laughter.

This switchover to social media does more than demonstrate the popularity of new media—it affects the whole advertising industry. In China’s case, certain demographics can no longer be reached effectively via traditional media channels. As the anecdote above shows, a well-crafted television advertisement on CCTV could miss university students entirely.

Twitter vs. Sina Weibo
Some differences between Chinese and foreign social media are rooted in culture and language. At first glance, Sina Weibo is a latecomer to the microblog phenomenon. But launched in 2009, just about three years after Twitter, Sina Weibo is by far the most popular microblogging platform in China. (The PRC government has blocked Twitter, though a small number of Chinese and resident expatriates hack their way around the blockage.)

Similar to Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to post 140-character messages, and users can follow friends and find interesting comments posted by others. Small but important differences in the platform have made some say it is a Twitter clone, but better. For example, unlike Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to post videos and photos, comment on other people’s updates, and easily add comments when re-posting a friend’s message.

Though mobile phones are used to send less than 20 percent of Twitter updates in the United States, nearly half of Sina Weibo’s updates are sent via mobile phone. This phenomenon points to the growth of China’s mobile internet, one of the biggest trends in China and Asia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Chinese and foreign social media, however, is the length of communications expressed via microblogs in Chinese versus English. One measure is to look at what Dell Inc., a company skilled at social media, can communicate on microblogs in Chinese compared to English. Twitter holds messages to 140 characters, which is quite short in English, especially if users want to include a URL. Dell often uses its Twitter feed, @delloutlet, to promote special offers, such as this posting: “Today’s Deal: Get FREE Eco-Lite Sleeve with the purchase of any Dell Outlet Insprion Mini 10 or 10v Netbook!” This message came in at 136 characters, almost the maximum length.

Since each character in Chinese is a word, @delldirect, Dell’s Chinese-language feed, can write much more using the Chinese-language Zuosa microblogging platform. As translated by Ogilvy’s Beijing team, a similar message reads:

“Dell’s National Day Sale runs from Sept. 11 to Oct. 8. To celebrate the 60th anniversary with the motherland, Dell Home Computers is offering 6 cool gifts and deals on 10 computer models. These exciting offers will run non-stop for 4 weeks. Also, get a free upgrade to color casing and a 512MB independent graphics card, as well as other service upgrades. All offers are on a first-come, first-served basis. What are you waiting for? Act now!”

Even with a message this length—114 characters in Chinese—there is still enough space to put in a webpage link. In other words, 114 characters in Chinese translates into 434 characters in English, well beyond the text limit of a “tweet” in English. This language efficiency turns microblogging in China into a more blog-like platform.

Like Facebook, but different
Throughout much of the West, particularly the United States, Facebook holds sway as the default social network, gathering all demographics. The same does not hold true in China, where a handful of social networks attract segmented audiences, ranging from upmarket urban youth to university students and migrant workers.

Douban — a more specialized social networking site, attracts art students and those passionate about books, cinema, culture, and music. Users connect according to their interests and often hold offline activities, such as trips to local art exhibitions.

Kaixin001 — a platform designed for a more mature audience of young professionals, has a membership that is heavily dominated by white collar workers in Beijing; Guangzhou, Guangdong; Shanghai; and second-tier cities. Users do not upload personal content but rather share information they find elsewhere, often relating to health, relationships, and professional advancement.

QZone, the first and largest social networking site in China, attracts youth from teens through age 25, often from second- and third-tier cities. A sizable portion of migrant workers, many of whom share personal diaries in a blog-like format, use QZone.

RenRen, the platform in China most similar to Facebook, attracts university students who use the platform to connect and interact with classmates. The site is organized around users’ school and graduation class. Many users upload videos and photos of their activities.

Bulletin board systems
Beyond these sites that have more modern internet functionality, some original forms of social media still flourish in China. Bulletin board systems (BBS), which were a primal form of the early internet, allow people to post basic messages online (see the CBR, January-February 2009, Blogs, Bulletin Boards, and Business).

In contrast to many countries, a wide range of BBS still flourish in China today, with users relying on them for critical consumer comments about products and services from clothes and cosmetics to restaurants and cars. Postings are anonymous, which encourages users to give unvarnished views. Writing under pseudonyms, many users that frequently post on BBS build reputations and sizable followings. Anonymity does, of course, also open the system to abuse by competitors writing negative comments.

The internet as social media
A broader impact of China’s deep involvement in social media is that some netizens only experience the internet through social media platforms. This is partly because of the large population of new netizens coming online at any given time. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, China had 420 million netizens by the first half of 2010, up 36 million internet users over year-end 2009. When new users join the internet, a friend will often introduce them to one particularly relevant service, such as how to communicate with friends for free via Sina Weibo or buy goods via China’s e-Bay equivalent—Taobao (, so that service becomes their concept of the internet. These examples show how many Chinese netizens would not distinguish between social media and the internet itself. To them, the internet is social media and vice versa.

Case studies in China’s social media
For companies operating in China, the rise of social media opens opportunities to engage with consumers and, at times, avert serious problems. By ignoring social media, companies may not see a consumer-led crisis coming.

Companies can use social media in China to conduct consumer research, shift brand preference, launch products, and manage crises. Even monitoring online conversations can yield striking results. For example, while conducting daily online monitoring for a client, Ogilvy found a brewing consumer protest over the client’s shop in Guangzhou.

Early in the week, a disgruntled customer had posted complaints about customer service and announced his intention to visit the store that coming Saturday to express his dissatisfaction. Other netizens said they would join, exchanged mobile phone numbers, and discussed where to meet. By Wednesday, a group of 30 disgruntled customers had plans to meet at the store on Saturday. Because the original complainer had posted full details of his experience, the company was able to contact the customer and rectify the situation. In response, the customer announced online that he would cancel his visit to the shop. He was impressed with the direct outreach and the fact that the company listened.

An example involving a nationwide consumer recall shows how companies should use social media and speak the language of consumers. In this case, consumers had different concerns from what the company expressed in public statements about its recall. The company also posted general information about the recall, but consumers online wanted more detailed and practical information.

By actively listening to consumers on BBS and other social media sites during the recall, the company adjusted its online messaging to answer consumer questions. As the recall went into full swing, the number of people visiting recall-related forums remained high, but fewer people left comments or asked questions because their questions were being answered sufficiently.

Oddly ignored
As China’s population moves online, consumer behavior shifts. Oddly, many companies have failed to acknowledge the shifts in their marketing strategies. Social media has grown to become the shared commons where Chinese consumers offer opinions, ask for advice, and discuss brands.

Ignoring the internet could be considered a lost opportunity in the past, but in China today, ignoring social media is a business risk.

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