Chinese Social Networking is Dominated by Local Players
Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) have long played the dominating role in Chinese Internet life and still continue to be one of the most popular online platforms for social interaction. Registered user accounts, which are mostly anonymous, surpass 3 billion (users have multiple accounts) and 80% of Chinese sites run their own BBS. However in the last year social networking services, most of which require real name registrations, have shown explosive growth in China with 19.3% of netizens using them regularly.
Despite the popularity of social networking in China, the social networking market is dominated by local Chinese players, and Western networks have trouble adapting to Chinese culture and user expectations. Facebook does not rank among the top 15 asocial networks in China while MySpace has only 6 million users (vs. the goal of 50 million users after 2 years initially proclaimed by Rupert Murdoch).
Meanwhile, China’s leading social network Qzone, which is targeted at teenagers, may even be the largest in the world. Tencent, Inc., the company that runs Qzone, recently announced group revenues of over $1 billion in 2008.
As ad sales slump in the recession, only approximately 12% of Qzone’s revenue stems from online advertising with the rest coming from virtual item sales such as applications and avatars. Internet ad spending in China is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2009, which is about 4% of total ad spend. In comparison, the US is estimated to spend $25.7 billion reaching consumers online through advertising. These comparably low online budgets in China are largely spent at four large news portals, which earn the majority of online ad revenue. This forces most “smaller” portals to find more innovative ways to monetize their traffic.
51.com, which targets working class adults from rural parts of China, is the second most popular social network in China with 130 million registered users. Concurrently, Chinese students flock to Xiaonei with approx. 40 million users. It is backed up with $430 million in funding from its parent company Oak Pacific Interactive and investors like Softbank. Kaixin001, which skyrocketed out of nowhere to 30 million registered users from the middle of last year, targets white collar workers in China’s largest cities by employing controversial invitation techniques and copying apps directly from Facebook.
Yet the astronomical growth of China’s social networks can be attributed as much to its massive market size as to its cultural norms and values. Social networking apps can hit hyper-viral levels in China due to a higher tolerance of intrusive app invitations. It is not uncommon for apps to essentially force new users to invite people and perform tasks before being able to join their friends online. Once friends have joined they are required to interact much more with the apps and advertisements than on Western applications. While this model is not replicable for the US market, certain aspects of this strategy/cultural mindset are necessary if companies like Facebook or Myspace want to compete in China.