By Zhang Jing, Yang Yang and Meng Jing (China Daily European Weekly)
Weibo may reshape Internet behavior in China over next few years
It is the new kid on the block and growing leaps and bounds. Soon it may tower like a goliath over other better known peers in the Web world as suitors from the government, public and corporate sector jostle for attention on its platform.
Weibo, or micro blog, the sending of brief text, audio or video to select groups, is making rapid strides in China and reshaping the way information flows with their multiple sources and diversified, authentic content. It is also becoming an attractive platform for companies to showcase their products and reach out to more consumers.
Unlike Twitter, micro blog is relatively new to China and just two years old. Despite being a late entrant, the weibo has already started to reshape people’s lives in China, thereby indicating its growing prowess.
A typical weibo starts with an “@” before the user’s nickname, and like Twitter, has a word limit of 140 words. There is, however, one exception. Internet company Tom.com has set the weibo limit at 163 words to match with its parent company name 163.com. Unlike Twitter, a weibo can also be a picture, a voice message, a song and a video.
In February this year, Beijing rock singer He Yong posted a short message on his micro blog styled, “Weibo the Almighty, please save my child!” It was a request for help to cure his 30-month-old daughter as she refused to take any food or water for five days in a row. In the same month, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saved over 900 stranded Chinese workers in Libya as they were able to locate them through their weibo messages for help.
The weibo power came to the fore in March, when irate netizens in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, led a campaign to stop the felling of the city’s famed parasol trees for a subway construction. Netizens urged micro blog followers to hold protest meetings in front of a local library until the authorities agreed to their demands.
Nothing personifies the growing popularity of weibos than the example of a 12-year old boy in remote Fujian province who has a weibo account with all the four major providers – Sina, Tom, Tencent and Sohu.
Tencent, the world’s third-largest Internet company by market capitalization, said in February this year that its number of registered weibo users has risen to nearly 100 million. Sina also claims that its numbers have swelled considerably and it has started making profits from the weibo services. That is indeed impressive, considering that the feat was achieved in less than two years, whereas it took Twitter nearly four years to build a network of 195 million users since inception in 2006.
Though Tencent and Sina are the biggest players among Chinese weibos, there is also a sea change when it comes to the customer profile on the two platforms. Tencent Weibo users are mostly teenagers who use the company’s instant messaging service QQ, which has nearly 630 million active accounts. Users of the Sina services are in contrast aged between 30 and 40 and better educated.
With a big surge in user numbers expected by the end of this year, both the companies are leaving no stone unturned to boost market share. The Data Center of China Internet (DCCI) says that by the end of 2011, independent weibo users will reach 100 million and grow to 253 million by 2013. The weibo market is expected to take off from 2013, it says.
“Though the data differs from company to company, there is no doubt that micro blog is poised for explosive growth,” says Liu Yan, director of Digital Influence with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.
“Micro-blogging has a real-time news function,” says Yang Guobin, author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online and associate professor at the Barnard College of Columbia University in the United States.
“Its basic follower function gives a clearer structure to the increasing expansive and formless flow of information in cyberspace.
“By following another weibo user, I automatically receive his or her messages. Popular weibos can have large following. A person with a large following has enormous broadcasting power,” says Yang.
By Jan 12 this year, the number of Tencent followers on Liu Xiang, China’s 2004 Olympic 110-meter hurdle champion, crossed 10 million, well surpassing that of Lady Gaga on Twitter. Since then, Liu has become the most popular micro-blogger in the world.
Entrepreneur Lee Kai-fu, the former China head of Google, is another leading light in the weibo world and has more than 3 million followers. Lee admits that his entry into the weibo world was by chance. In June 2009, his friends told him that someone with the name of @kaifulee had been publishing news concerning Google and responding to fans’ comments on Twitter. This made Lee aware of the power of Twitter.
Lee Kai-fu at the release of his book Weibo Changes Everything in Beijing in February. Gao Zhixing / For China Daily
“If a fake Kaifulee could enjoy such popularity, I thought that I should micro blog myself for more influence,” says Lee, who later verified his account and posted a message saying “Dear impostor Kaifulee, you pretended to be me for three months. You’ve been reasonable, but with the Reuters’ coverage, I had to get my name back.”
An experienced micro-blogger now, Lee was invited to give a speech at the first China Weibo Developer Conference 2010. Lee named his latest book, Weibo Changes Everything, in which he has predicted the end of WAP era, and the coming of the new age of Mobile Internet, embodied by weibo.
“Weibo’s social networking function is further enhanced by external applications, like those found on compatible mobile phones that can read, receive and send micro blogs,” says Yang Guobin.
A recent report by Sina shows that nearly 36.6 percent of their weibo users log onto the service with their mobile phones. Over 43 percent of such users are women and they account for nearly 65 percent of the active weibo accounts.
Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic 110-meter hurdle champion, meets with his followers at Tencent Weibo on Jan 22 in Shanghai. Guan Kaiji / For China Daily
“The level of stickiness and salience on the micro blog sphere is beyond any other forms of media,” says Liu from Ogilvy.
“With the advent of weibo, one can immediately feel that social network sites like Kaixin001.com are losing their sheen. I used to visit Kaixin every day, but now I visit the site only once or twice a week. But for weibo, it’s a different story. I can publish a microblog in a restaurant, at bedside, on the subway… It can be anywhere, any time. It is said some real fans would publish a micro blog even when they go to the toilet.”
“They (weibo) can help us find those with similar interests instantly and build a network through information sharing,” says Elli Li, a business development representative with Bianfeng.com, a leading online gaming company in China.
“In the social network system (SNS) of weibo, the clearer one is about what his or her interests are, the more effective the process of information gathering will be. For example, once I wanted to buy certain cosmetics products online and my followers immediately told me to go to a global purchasing website. That helped me save nearly $80 (56 euros).
“Nowadays, I don’t read newspapers nor do I watch TV. Most of my
information feed is from weibo. The speed of weibo SNS information sharing and the vastness of its spread are also beyond reach for blogs or forums, which, in a way, has brought about the decline of the latter. MSN blogs closed on March 17 after a five-year existence,” says Li.
According to the Internet Real-time Public Opinion Index Annual Report 2010 released by the Communication University of China in Beijing, weibo has become the third-favorite online source of information for public opinion, after news portals and online forums.
“At the moment, weibo serves more as a content provider and disseminator than a social networking platform,” says Zheng Yingqin, a PhD from Cambridge University and a senior lecturer with the De Montfort University in UK, who specializes in information & communication technology (ICT) and social development.
“According to research, the main content providers on Twitter largely fall into four categories – celebrities, media, individual bloggers and enterprises/organizations. The first two are mostly interested in their own networks, i.e. they follow weibo accounts in the same category, while the other two have broader interests and may pay more attention to other groups. It is likely that the same applies to weibo,” says Zheng.
“People log onto weibo for a variety of reasons, and social networking is only one of them. Weibo differs from existing social networking services such as QQ or Facebook in that its connections can be unidirectional. One can follow other people without their permission or reciprocal attention and nor does one necessarily need any fans (followers) to enjoy a fulfilling weibo experience. It also provides minimal tools to support one to one interactions, unlike QQ or Facebook.”
“Weibo may evolve to incorporate stronger social networking functions in the future, as there seems to be such a demand from some users. More importantly, it is changing the way we perceive the world and the way we connect to each other. Potential opportunities of open innovations, for example, user-led product development and network-based business models, are yet to be explored,” says Zheng.
The huge population base of weibo has greatly enhanced its potential in social commerce and influence. By the end of August 2010, a total of 466 major media companies, including TV, radio, print and magazines, have registered with Sina Weibo. The latter has also verified some 2,500 companies as its weibo users, covering over 30 industries such as automobiles, food, film and entertainment.
Sina chief executive Cao Guowei says that his company’s advertising revenue grew 28 percent in 2010 thanks to the weibo platform. “There is still enough room for Sina Weibo’s growth,” says Cao.
Other companies are also taking advantage of weibo, but in more creative ways. Sohu is providing weibo dating services, while several companies are using it for recruitment by asking potential employees or interns to describe themselves on weibo in whatever way they like. Prominent include French advertising company Publicis Groupe, Taobao.com, and Hangzhou City Express, a local newspaper in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, that attracted some 500 million yuan (53.7 million euros) advertising revenue in 2010.
Many European companies and organizations in China have also followed the trend of creating weibo accounts in China. These include the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions and the British Tourist Authority. The Delegation of the European Union to China officially launched its “EU in China” blog and micro blog service in Beijing on March 28.
“Blog and micro blog are a promising way to reach out to different types of people whom we don’t meet in our daily work,” says Markus Ederer, ambassador of the EU Delegation to China.
The EU Delegation blogs on four major Chinese portals – Sina, Tencent, Tom and Sohu. Most topics are on European lifestyle and pertain to films and travel. “Hopefully the interactiveness of blogging will help Chinese understand why we are the way we are,” says Ederer.
William Fingleton, press officer with the EU Delegation, says blogging the EU in China “is perhaps the best way to reach out to young people who spend a lot of time indoors and in front of their computers.”
The EU delegation has chosen food as its first blogging theme, to coincide with the recent visit of the EU Agricultural Commission and the introduction of its geographic identification system in China. Special guests to the ceremony included Chinese food bloggers like Great Chef Bai Du and Transparent Purple, who showcased their self-made favorite European dishes to the audience.
“Weibo has made understanding our customers easier, and them us,” says Ogilvy’s Liu. She says her team addresses questions to followers of their clients, sometimes trivial questions like the duration of time taken to apply cosmetics. Feedback from the followers also helps us understand their interests and also whether they are more interested in brand history and culture, or whether they are more interested in sales and discounts.
“Weibo is an integral platform for companies to communicate with their customers or potential clients. What you get is first-hand material. It is fast and effective and without the participation of any third parties. Previously, we may have to physically go to 10 cities to collect samples, which are time consuming, and the samples are limited. But within two days, an online survey on weibo may get more than 100 feedbacks from across the county,” she says.
Each company approaches micro blogs differently and their styles vary. Dell China has set up several micro blogs, intended for differentiated customers, like one for medium- and small-sized companies, and one for after-sales. L’Oreal decides on the next city for its road show by fans’ votes on its micro blog.
“When the fans’ wishes are answered, they feel they are respected,” says Liu. “And once an emotional bond is connected, it will last for a long time. Eventually it may lead to sales.”
“But everything is still in the early stages of trial and error. A business model with weibo is yet to be set up,” says Liu.