Thinking about investing in Sina Weibo? Heed the warning of Renren

Sina Weibo

Sina Weibo, often heralded as China’s answer to Twitter, will soon IPO in the US. It’s a good chance for investors around the world to get a slice of the social network that’s the hive mind and collective voice of China’s web users. But it’s not as simple as that.

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If you look back to the spring of 2011, China’s biggest social media IPO to date gives us an omen of what could very well happen with Weibo. In May 2011, Renren — hailed as “China’s Facebook” — hit the New York Stock Exchange with shares that ended the first day’s trading valued at $16.80. But then reality hit.

By the end of its first year, Renren stock was below $4. And it never recovered. It’s now at US$3.30. There were ample warning signs — the horizon was filled with red flags. And all those flags were adorned with a Weibo logo.

Weibo was already whipping Renren

By the time Renren opened to investors, Sina Weibo had already surpassed Renren as China’s most talked about social network. Weibo had fewer registered users than Renren at the time (about 75 million registered to Weibo, versus 117 million signed up for Renren), but Weibo had a lot of traction back then. Renren’s core users, China’s young urbanites and emerging middle class, were moving from Renren to Sina Weibo for a lively mix of news and personal commentary.

Brands were shifting their ad money from Renren to Sina Weibo too. One month before Renren’s IPO, we wrote, “Sina Weibo appears to be the social media platform of choice for most brands to stage their engagement with consumers in China, whilst fewer brands have exploited the potential of Renren.”

These weren’t subtle and hard-to-detect signals that Renren was being overtaken – it was clear to everyone in China, and it should have been obvious to any overseas investor who was paying proper attention.

Now it’s 2014, and it’s time for Sina Weibo’s IPO. The trouble is that Weibo’s listing is surrounded by an even larger flock of red flags.

And now WeChat is already strangling Weibo

This time around, it’s even more obvious that a new challenger has emerged and is close to winning. Sina Weibo is being passed by WeChat, the messaging app made by Tencent (HKG:0700). While both apps can co-exist, that should tell potential Weibo investors a lot.

WeChat is a huge threat not just because of its numbers — 355 million active users versus 129 million active on Sina Weibo — but because it does much more than messaging. For many Chinese people, WeChat is now the preferred way to follow celebrities and brands, read and share news, and view Facebook-style updates and photo albums from friends. Tencent is also taking WeChat – again, initially just for its Chinese users, not those overseas — into new areas like mobile commerce and epayments, so that it can become even more ubiquitous as a sort of ewallet app.

That makes Weibo’s IPO an investment in a social site that’s past its peak.

But Weibo still has some bite

Weibo still has some bite as a social network – and a few other secret weapons at its disposal. Though WeChat is becoming the leading way to consume news and interact with people online on mobile in China, it still lacks a viral kick. That’s what Weibo has. By its nature a much more open and public social network, Sina Weibo is still the best place to go to try take something viral, or for people to get updates on something that’s spreading like wildfire.

That viral power was seen earlier this week when one Chinese actor was caught cheating on his wife and issued a public apology. The controversy largely played out on Weibo, and it culminated in Wen Zhang’s apology – posted to his Sina Weibo account as a photo of a written letter — being retweeted more than 1.2 million times, accruing nearly two million comments. That broke all records for a single post on Weibo – and it came fairly close to Ellen’s Oscar selfie that now has 3.4 million retweets and just over two million ‘favorites’.

Another weapon in Weibo’s arsenal is Alibaba. China’s ecommerce titan invested US$586-million in Weibo in April 2013 to take an 18% stake in the social network.

Nothing radical in the way of a social commerce mashup has yet emerged from the Weibo-Alibaba deal, but the partnership gives the potential for that to happen. Frankly, it might be the only way for Sina Weibo to fight back against WeChat, since Alibaba has hundreds of millions of users across its Tmall and Taobao sites, and those two estores are looking a lot more ubiquitous than Weibo right now.

While Weibo might prove to have rewards for investors in the upcoming IPO – in which it will raise up to $500 million – the warning signs are there in abundance, and they’re even clearer than those that popped up in the months before Renren’s public listing. Not all lessons from history have direct parallels, but this one looks spooky.

This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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