Social media in China: an introduction

In recent years, the world has witnessed the emergence of China as an economic driving force. At the same time, the emergence of social media has dramatically changed the way people use the Internet worldwide. How about social media in China? Do Chinese people use social media as much as anywhere else in the world? Since Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and many other services are banned in China, what are their local counterparts? This article provides a snapshot of the current social media landscape in China.

Since it has been made available to the Chinese population, the Internet is not only used as an information tool but also as a powerful communication tool allowing netizens to easily interact between each other. Nowadays, although the Internet penetration rate in China was only 28.7% at the end of 2009 (source: China Internet Network Information Center), this percentage represents around 384 million Internet users, 90% of them benefiting from broadband access and 30% accessing the web from their mobile devices.

Taking a closer look at the most visited websites in China (via the Google Adplanner 1000 most-visited sites on the web list), we notice that web portals like Sina, Sohu or QQ rank among the favourite sites. Dominating the local Internet market, Chinese portals offer a wide array of social media services, from forums, instant messaging, blogging, photo and video sharing, to free email addresses and comprehensive social networks.

BBS – Forums

One of the most popular forms of social media in China, BBS (Bulletin Board System, or online forums) is also the oldest as it was launched in 1994. We can find it either integrated within classic websites or portals (Comsenz being the biggest China BBS software provider), or on dedicated websites such as Tianya. Differing from classic social networks where browsing content often requires logging in, BBS is a popular destination for Internet users to browse free content, and to engage in conversations anonymously. Used by 30% and more of Chinese Internet users every day, BBS can be considered as the living heart of social media in China offering great snapshot of the vox populi, despite frequent abusive use of it.

Blogging

Another popular form of social media used in China is blogging. From a Western perspective it may be interesting to learn that Chinese people do like sharing their ideas and feelings online. Thanks to local web portals offering easy-to-use blogging features, at the end of 2009, an impressive 57.7% of Internet users had a blog or micro blog and two thirds of them have updated it at least once in the last 6 months. Increasingly used by companies, celebrities or organizations, blogging will also benefit from the functions of micro blogging such as instant messaging or mobile phone texting. For traditional and micro blogging services, Sina controls most of the market (featuring many celebrities and high profiles) hosting both the most important blogging service in China through its dedicated portal and the most important local Twitter competitor, Weibo.

Instant Messaging

As a strong online habit of Chinese Internet users and accepted in many local companies for employees, instant messaging (IM) is also one of the first widely used social media services in China. In fact, 52% of China’s Internet users go online to use instant messaging. Microsoft is the most successful provider, as 93% of Chinese people using IM services have a Windows Live Messenger (MSN) account. The Chinese counterpart to MSN is powered by Shenzhen-based company Tencent and named QQ (a name derived from the main competitor at the time – ICQ). Launched early in 1999, the company went public in 2004 and serves (figures vary according to different sources) around 80% of those who use IM in China.

More importantly, QQ defined and is still defining a whole part of China’s Internet culture, inspiring a new form of language quickly adopted by younger generations. Internationally, Tencent launched QQ versions in different languages like English, French and Japanese.  Except in South Africa where the service met a brief local success in the mid 2000’s, QQ is mainly used outside the country by Chinese expatriates, students or members of Chinese communities to communicate with their friends and relatives back home.

SNS – Social Networks System

With an estimated 124 million users at the end of 2009 (source: China Internet Watch), Social Networks System is playing an increasingly important role in social media in China. Although most users choose a social network according to the number of their known friends, colleagues or classmates, the main purpose for joining such networks is entertainment. Among the top social networking sites, Tencent (QQ) Qzone ranks first, with 388 million registered users. Formerly known as Xiaonei, Renren defines itself as the largest online community website among universities and copying the Facebook model (opening from students to all) now counts an estimated 120 million members. Focusing on young professionals, Kaixin001 has seen a rapid growth thanks its popular gaming platform and now claims around 75 million users. And among the many other networks existing on the Chinese market, Wealink is an interesting LinkedIn counterpart, becoming popular among white collar individuals.

Video

Watching videos is one of the favorite activities of Chinese Internet users. 90% of them admit actively watching videos online and 58% having already uploaded content (source: Universal McCann wave4). User-generated content accounts for 30% of videos posted on these websites. The recent ban of YouTube (March 2009) did not have much impact as local websites like Tudou, Youku or Ku6 already have strong audiences. Moreover, these websites are teaming up to develop common technology standards. Some of them have been granted the broadcasting rights for the FIFA 2010 World Cup, and they are now considered as fully integrated TV networks. In the near future, video will certainly play a more important part in social media strategies in China as it is easily embeddable within social networks and benefits from an attentive and avid audience.

Conclusion

Whilst this article provides a brief introduction to social media channels in China, there are some specific online platforms in China that would deserve further study including online gaming, wiki (such as Hudong, as Wikipedia is blocked in China), search marketing (Baidu benefiting from Google’s withdrawal), rating websites ( such as Dianping), photo sharing, and online music.

Understanding the unique way in which the Internet and social media are used in cultures and nations around the world is key to effective healthcare engagement. Creation Healthcare’s international team of consultants, located across the globe and supported through offices in Tokyo and London, allows us to partner with healthcare companies and organisations that want to develop global and regional strategies based on local insights.

Xavier Brochart

Until recently, Xavier Brochart was a member of Creation Healthcare's consultant team based in Paris, France. He specialises in digital marketing for the healthcare industry and in community management. Holding a double bachelor degree from the Reims Management School (France) and the University of International Business and Economics of Beijing (China), Xavier studied and worked for 6 years in China. Fluent in mandarin Chinese, he worked for various companies in insurance brokerage and medical equipment industries. Throughout his years in China, he gained an extensive knowledge of the local business practices and discovered the wonders of the Chinese Internet. Now back in France since 2008, Xavier holds a masters degree in healthcare marketing and communications from the Institut Leonard de Vinci of Paris, and prior to establishing himself as a consultant, he worked at sanofi-aventis in the global digital strategy team.