Apr 18 2011

Behind China’s Great Firewall – A Social Media Platform Primer

FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube are the most recognized social media tools used in the world today.  These tools have been embraced by businesses, associations, sports organizations, foundations and even the Vatican jumped on board last fall using FaceBook to promote Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to the United Kingdom.

In China, things are a little different.  Most of these tools are not permitted into China due to the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall.”  Associations planning to use  social media tools to expand their footprint into this region will definitely need to know how to play in the Chinese social media game.  You will need to know platforms with names like Renren, Sina, and Baidu among others while understanding how Chinese user needs vary to make sure your messages are reaching the intended audience.

To help associations with their social media campaigns in China, MCI’s teams in Beijing and Shanghai worked together to outline a primer on the world of Chinese social media and the Chinese user market.

Please note the author of this article Ms. Florence Chua, Director Association Management and Consulting, MCI China will present a session on this topic at the ASAE Annual Convention in St. Louis in August.

Social Media in China – an opportunity for associations

By Florence Chua, MCI China


As we all know, Social Media has modernized the business community and democratized information and knowledge.  Over 2 billion people are connected to the online world and interact daily on Social Media platforms.  Currently two thirds of the global Internet population visits social networks and it is the 4th most popular online activity, according to Social Media Statistics 2010, behind search, general interest portals, and email.

Social Media is found in very different forms, it can be a blog or micro blog, a video sharing website, or a social networking site (SNS).  In the West, Social Media tools provide an excellent platform for association communities to share ideas and comments and are helping organizations to increase their brand awareness, listen to customers and benefit from the power of viral marketing.  Word of mouth and peer referral have become fundamental to helping an association’s growth.

In Asia, when using Social Media in a communication portfolio, it is important to understand local differences between Social Media perception and channels. Especially China is an interesting market to explore.  China restricts access to western Social Media sites and favors its own local sites which have grown rapidly and are adapted by the online community.  Therefore, if you want to build a strong following in China you will need to use Social Media the Chinese way.

Looking at the Chinese market, studies estimate that 92 % of Chinese internet users are likely to use Social Media, according to Netpop Research.  Chinese internet users are twice as likely to use chat and three times more likely to micro-blog than American users.  See above chart.

The World Bank estimates that only 22.5 % of the Chinese population has access to the internet compared to 67.6 % in Europe and 75.85% in the United States.  And yet, forecasts predict that China and other large emerging market economies will become the source of the most dynamic growth in digital consumption in the future.  Already more than 610 million residents in China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are regular Internet users and this is expected to grow to 1.2 billion by 2015.  And over 60% of these users are under the age of 35 years old.  In China alone, penetration rates will grow to nearly 50% of the total population by 2015 – that’s more online users than the total population of the United States.

Today,Chinese internet users are online an average of 2.7 hours each day more than any other emerging market country and this will grow to 3.1 by 2015.  To give you a comparison, US internet users are online for 2.3 hours daily. That’s 1 billion hours a day as a total populations or twice as much as in the USA.

The China Social Network Report says 54% of of China internet users today own or visit blogs, and 47% have a page on one or more social networking sites (SNS). More than 25% write 10 or more posts on forums, blogs or SNS every day, 92% visit social media pages at least three times a week, while 27% have pages on five or more social networks.

Social media is progressively becoming a crucial element in the lives of Chinese people that would not be otherwise accessible because of distance, governmental control or other constrictions.

Part of this is due to the fact that China has invested more in broadband access ubiquity than in the United States.  Basically, it’s easier to get online from most anywhere.  And since only 20% of Chinese own a PC, the channels of choice are smartphones and internet cafes.

It is important to keep in mind that the actual influence of Social Media in China should reflect the penetration in your own profession or industry sector in China, but Social Media is still highly relevant among internet users in China and it is definitely a growing channel.

Social Media Channels in China – a spectrum of unfamiliar names

According to last year’s TNS Digital Life Report, China’s internet users rank #1 in the world for the number of people who join social networks to find information about brands.  The Internet is a trusted source, as 2010 Global Web Index indicates that Chinese trust reviews and insights on social media three times more than a recommendation from an acquaintance off the Internet.

As we discussed, the ‘usual’ Social Media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked in China.  The equivalent Chinese brands like Kaixin and RenRen are the Facebook equivalents.   Youku and Tudou are equally prolific as their YouTube counterpart.  Here is a chart with an overview:


Social Networks
Blogs Micro-Blogs Community BBS Video Sharing


Sina Blog Sina Baidu Post Bar Tianya.cn Tudou



Baidu Space Tecent Douban Mop Youku



Qzone Sohu 55bbs



Social Networking Sites (SNS) – the most popular Chinese platform

SNS (Social Networking Sites) are online platforms which focus on building or reflecting social networks among people who share the same interests or activities. A Chinese social network service essentially consists of a presentation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, his/her interests and a various number of additional services, which differentiate the networks among each other.

The most popular SNS platforms in China are Kaixin, RenRen, Tianji and Wealink. Kaixin is definitely the largest SNS in China, and it is mostly used for entertainment purposes. Functions include writing diaries and sharing photos and videos. The website RenRen can be called the ‘little brother’ of Kaixin, since it is operating in the same way, but focuses on a different, younger target group which mostly consists of students. The other two sites, Tianji and Wealink are more oriented towards building a professional network instead of entertainment. Both offer ways of recruitment for associations, and members are able to put their personal resume on the site.  To give a comparison with the Western Social Media portfolio, Kaixin and RenRen can be compared to Facebook, while Tianji and Wealink have more similarities with LinkedIn.

Some associations are starting to form their own online networks.  An example of this is the Association of International Accountants an international organization representing accountants. AIA’s China affiliate leveraged Kaixin.com to post its introduction and promote its activities in China and attracted 6709 fans by Nov 3, 2010.

Blogging  – day-to-day life vs. celebrity stories

Keep in mind that these Chinese Social Media tools are not just copies of their Western counterparts, but new creations that incorporate elements of the Chinese culture and Internet customs.  For instance, Sina microblog, the Chinese alternative to Twitter appeals to multimedia-loving Chinese and thus has extremely well developed video and photo sharing functions, better even than Twitter itself.

The total number of bloggers in China is currently 221 million, according to China Internet Watch (2009).  Users can be found on three main blogging sites which are Qzone, BaiduSpace and Sina Blog.  According to a report released by Baidu, which can be compared to the Western brand Google, Q-zone is the most visited service, followed by Baidu Space (the blogging service of Baidu) and Sina Blog.  Qzone differentiates itself by being connected to an Instant Messenger tool. It also offers good ways of personalization and is an entertaining blog.  Baidu Space is connected to other services from Baidu, such as Baidu Q&A and Baidu Post Bar. The brand Baidu offers a more professional image and is more consistent with its Western archetype Google.

Sina Blog really differentiates itself by having a focus on celebrity members and celebrity posts.  Sina Blog members’ major interest is to follow celebrities instead of providing their own stories. The blog is connected to newspapers and the local tabloids.

There is also a Western company publishing a blog in China, MySpace. So far MySpace ranks 12, but its traffic is growing quickly.  A recently launched report of BaiduSpace forecasts that MySpace will rank in the top 10 in the very near future.  This is an interesting development for associations, since they might prefer MySpace just for the advantage of already knowing how to use it.

Micro-Blogging channels – small but powerful

As everyone knows, micro-blogging let’s you share small updates to many people like the popular Twitter.  The most important Micro-blogging sites in China are Sina Micro-Blog, Tecent Micro-Blog and Sohu Micro-Blog.

Sina Micro-Blog is integrated to the Sina Blog.  The Tecent Micro-Blog is connected to QQ, the instant messenger tool of Tecent and is, therefore, used mostly by Tecent users. Both Sina and Tecent are restricted to 140 characters per update, while Sohu allows its users to post more than 140 characters. Apart from that, all three channels offer photo sharing and can be compared to the Western software Twitter.

Video Hosting Websites – 60 million visitors per month

A video hosting service allows individuals and organizations to upload video clips and comment and recommend them. While YouTube is the most popular website in America and Europe, both Youku and Tudou are popular in China.  Youku was launched first and has an excellent performance on video playing speed. Functions include the upload and sharing of videos and watching movies and TV programs. The website Tudou has replicated Youku and offers more video resources and also has a friendlier interface. Even though functionality is the same on both websites, Youku is still leading the market with more than 100 million daily unique views and more than 60 million visitors a month according to venturebeat.com, 2010. In addition to Tudou and Youku, 56.com and ku6.com are also popular video sharing websites in China offering  similar functionality.

BBS in China – typically frequented even more than blogs

BBS (Bulletin Board System) was the tool that started the Web 2.0 revolution. It is a software that allows users to leave messages and access information of general interest. It is, therefore, basically an online community which main functions are chat and discussion forums.

The three most popular systems in China are Tianya, Mop and 55bbs. The largest one is Tianya, having almost twice as many unique users as Mop currently. Looking at the value for associations, it should be mentioned that while Tianya and 55bbs work heavily with advertisements, Mop is free of advertisements. A key point to appreciate about BBS in China that should be considered is that anonymity is preferred when it comes to posting messages on BBS. While BBS is not that popular in Europe and America any more, it is highly adapted and China and is typically frequented even more than blogs and micro-blogs.

Toward a Chinese Social Media

Social Media in China is growing rapidly. Just three years ago social media did not even exist in China.  As was mentioned in a recent Asia Social Media Forum event, “Asia is the most exciting part of the world for what’s going on in Social Media.”  Sharing has taken on a whole new meaning for Asians.  For social media users, sharing is a broad based interactivity across various platforms.  Social Media is even being credited for changing consumer behavior in China.  Social Media users are going online to experience a convenient environment full of information on products and services.  They are fascinated with the ability to be able to influence others in their buying decisions and are very actively embracing it.

According to a recent survey by OgilvyOne China, a full 55% of Chinese social media users will comment on a brand or marketing activity. In fact the distinction between brands and friends is now blurred. Social media users in China consider their favourite brands as “friends.”  They see brands and their discussion of them as an integral part of their social network. In turn companies and organizations are learning to treat their online consumers/fans like “friends” and “equals.”

It is important to understand that China has its own Social Media ‘culture’ and is not adapting the westernized Social Media platforms.  With the exponential rise in the number of users and high acceptance of these social media platforms in less than three years, associations interested in using Social Media in China must be able to understand the various channels outlined above and use them correctly.

Here now are some recommendations to help your association adapt its Social Media strategy to China.

  1. Relearn what you know about Social Media platforms:  Using Social Media in China requires understanding which platforms offer the kind of reach you need to build brand awareness.  These tools can be different in terms of capabilities given they are designed for Chinese user preferences.
  2. Know your target audiences and their domicile in the Social Media world :  Different social media platforms have different target groups. It is important to identify those and engage on the platforms that suit the associations’ mission and objective.
  3. Understand the Chinese way of communicating:  Less is often more – China is a low-context country, meaning that communication should be short and precise.  Chinese users prefer short message services to long blogs and articles.
  4. Stop thinking campaign, think communication:  Social Media is about interaction and reactions, it is about engaging.  A predetermined campaign cannot deliver that value without blending a more spontaneous, two-way communication that reacts to users.
  5. Mind the new generation: The younger generation in China knows how to handle media and is adapting fast.  Associations have to be prepared, otherwise users already moved on and actions are too late.


About the author


Theresa joined MCI in January 2011. Previous experience was in technology sales and hotel sales for a combined 29 years in sales to the association industry. Previous companies include Marriott Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, and Fusion Productions. At MCI Theresa work with clients to help them grow their organizations internationally, specifically concentrating on meetings and conferences.

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