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Social media and China: What you need to know

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Social Media

As the showdown between Google and the Chinese government plays out, it’s key to understand what’s at stake: a vibrant online market and a deeply entrenched social media culture on a scale that can be hard to imagine.

Yes, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked, but that doesn’t mean that social networking is not happening in China.  At a recent South by Southwest panel, entitled “Social Media and China: Different than You Think,” three experts — Jacqui Zhou, Dell’s Social Media Globalization Manager; Benjamin Joffe, CEO of Bejing-based social media research agency Plus Eight Star; and Sam Flemming of See i See, the first Chinese social media blog — revealed that quite the opposite is true and gave us a sense for the magnitude.

“Everything that happens in the West is happening on steroids in China,” Flemming declared.

Chinese social networking habits:

  • 384 million Internet users in China, 75% of whom are under 34.
  • 221 million bloggers.
  • 222 million creators of online video.
  • 272 million instant messaging users.
  • 108 million online shoppers.
  • 265 million online gamers.
  • 321 million users who download music.
  • 40% of Chinese Web users are creators, compared with 21% of Americans.
  • China’s virtual goods were a $5 billion market last year, five times the U.S. Virtual currency is so ubiquitous that it’s actually taxed in China.

The major players:

  • The largest Internet service portal is Tencent, with 1 billion accounts (485 million active users). In 2009, its revenues surpassed $1.5 billion, 90% of which came from digital goods and games and 10% from ads. Tencent is the most important Internet company in China and the third largest in world, after Google and Microsoft.
  • Tencent’s social network Qzone has 310 million users.  Their IM service, QQ, has 50 million concurrent users.
  • China’s answer to Facebook, Renren has 200 million users, 55 million of whom are mobile.
  • Another popular social network, Kaixin001 has 75 million users
  • has 160 million users
  • Zhenai, the largest online dating site in the world, has 22 million accounts. Matches are made via 350 dating counselors who get direct feedback that improves users’ dating and success rates. At $450-600/month, the service is considered very valuable.

How social networking happens in China

  • 221 million people have blogs, largely in a diary-style.
  • 176 million Chinese connect via  social networking system (SNS) with their “real” friends and online networks.
  • 117 million connect anonymously via bulletin board system (BBS). These interactive online message boards are the heart of social media in China. They’re where people go to find topic-based communities and where consumers talk about products and services.

According to Flemming, there’s a stark contrast in how the Chinese act in person, versus how they act online via anonymous BBS systems.  Word of mouth is especially influential, since the media is not open. For example, it’s common for users to group-up via BBS to purchase a car at the same time and get a discount. In the same vein, products are often defined by how  people talk about them online; Net-slang finds its way into product design and branding.  Novels in China are often published online first and then in print depending on popularity.

Clearly, free markets have made advances in China, which makes it hard to remember that the emergence of this behavior has not made the government more democratic.

What products are people talking about?

  • Autos.
  • Mobile phones.
  • Sports.
  • Computers.
  • Babies.
  • Cosmetics.
  • Health care.

The takeaway? The Chinese market is absolutely something smart markers need to track and figure out how they can be a part of.  I commend this fantastic panel for jam-packing all this info into one highly enlightening session.