By Chris Lee
China’s staggering economic growth has coincided with the rise of social media, so it may come as no surprise that the statistics for Chinese social media usage are truly mind-blowing. The country boasts more than a billion mobile phone owners, of which 400 million are mobile Web surfers.
Most social media activity – like most online search – occurs via mobile device and Western networks such as Facebook and Twitter are famously forbidden, with very similar-looking local social networks appearing in their stead.
For example, Facebook-style social network QQ/QZone claims more than 700 million monthly users – or half the entire population of China – with the Twitter-like Sina Weibo operating 400 million accounts.
The culture of the Chinese Internet
Tim Hoang, social media planning lead at digital agency Razorfish, believes that for many Chinese social media is the Internet. Hoang says there are two main socio-economic factors alongside rapid technological advancement that have helped shape China’s Internet culture.
“Firstly, China’s one child policy means that without siblings to play with social media is a means to make new friends,” Hoang told NMK. “Factored into this is China’s strict focus on education at a very early age. While people are far from friendless, the efficiencies of communicating online make it an ideal channel to make and maintain new friendships. In fact, a study by MTV showed that China’s citizens have more online friends than offline friends.”
A second factor for Hoang has been the mass migration of many of the population from rural to urban – or simply from one city to another – which means that social media not only helps make the initial connections but it also helps people keep in touch with friends, both old and new.
“Go to many offices in a city like Shanghai and you will see workers often staying at work late just to socialise with colleagues. Eating together regularly after work can be attributed to the relatively cheap food and small living spaces in areas like Shanghai. Away from the office, social media allows them to keep in touch with colleagues away from the office and also to portray themselves in a light other than work,” Hoang added.
Mobile key to social media
As with many fast-growing developing countries like India and Brazil, most citizens in China access the Web from their mobile devices. Mobile penetration is now well over 70 per cent with the billion subscriber milestone passed in 2012. However, according to Hong Kong-based technology journalist Phil Muncaster, although smartphone shipments passed feature phone shipments earlier this summer the vast majority of installed users still only have very limited Internet access via 2G feature phones.
“This is changing rapidly, but as yet the market is still at a very nascent stage so the opportunity for m-commerce and mobile or social start-ups remains untapped,” he told NMK.
However, Muncaster warns firms entering the mobile space in China that the same rigorous rules on censorship apply as with the fixed web.
“If UGC [user generated content] is a large part of your proposition you may find the extra costs of self-censorship (the model favoured by government) are punitive,” he explained. “The government is also about to introduce strict new regulations governing mobile apps which will likely set out standards on content and require developers and platform operators to apply for a license.”
The rise and rise of WeChat
According to Ged Carroll, digital lead for PR agency Burson-Marsteller in Hong Kong, one of the most exciting developments in China’s social media scene just now is the emergence of cross-platform network WeChat.
“Probably the most interesting thing happening in China at the moment is Tencent’s WeChat which has become an international social media and messaging platform,” Carroll said. “Whilst it started off as a Chinese and associated diaspora product the mobile application seems to have ‘jumped’ into the international community. A combination of good innovative app design and some interesting features gave Tencent a well-deserved hit. The challenge for them now would be to monetise this international audience.”
So what do brands looking to break into China’s 1.4 billion-strong marketplace need to know when it comes to social media?
Razorfish’s Hoang concluded: “Brands looking to make an impact in China need to understand both the technology and the people that use it and how they use it. A one size fits all approach may not be sufficient to really resonate with Chinese audiences.”