Social media in China

In 2009 Kantar Media, a global research company, published the results of a major survey asking people in Asia what media they trusted. The survey was conducted in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

The survey’s most significant finding was the fact 54 per cent of respondents said they trusted recommendations from friends and family, well ahead of a mere 14 per cent for television advertising.

Social media is about relationships and trust. People tend to become “friends” or “follow” individuals and companies they trust. The survey result has significant consequences for the broadcast industry because as audiences migrate to social media, it is logical that advertising will follow.

From February to April 2010 Ogilvy One China commissioned the China Polling Company to survey social media use in China. In July Chris Reitermann, Ogilvy’s president in Shanghai, said a “massive 83 per cent” of survey respondents claimed to have used a social media site.

Ogilvy concluded social media users’ greatest need was to find information about “frands” – brands that can be shared with friends. This was indicated in the title of the report they published – Frands: Friends, brands and social media in China. Users were also technically aware and affluent, with nine out of ten having accessed the Internet from their phone that week.

Reitermann concluded that social media was booming in China.

This is despite the fact the Chinese government blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Google’s Gmail is also extremely slow. The ban has had the twin benefit of restricting Western influence and forcing Chinese people to embrace local products.

In Chinnovation, a book about innovation in China published in 2011, author Yinglan Tan noted that QQzone, the local equivalent of Facebook, had 450 million users in 2010 against about 550 million worldwide for Facebook. Perhaps more significantly, QQzone makes big money. That year the company had revenues of $US2 billion and profits of $US 1 billion.

Only people with the money and technical expertise can set up a virtual private network to access Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in China. This explains why Facebook has only about 600,000 members in mainland China.

China has a range of local versions of Twitter, the American micro-blogging site. It is called micro-blogging because people blog via a limited number of characters, typically 140. The best-known Chinese micro-blogs are Sina Weibo and Renren. A Report on Online Public Opinion published in March 2011 said China had about 180 million micro-bloggers by the end of 2010, and Sina Weibo claimed 50 million of them.

Media companies in China are appreciating the power of micro-blogging and have embraced it. In August 2010, 466 Chinese media houses had Sina Weibo accounts, the Report on Online Public Opinion said. Three months later the number had doubled to 939 accounts.

In November 2010, 49 government agencies and 237 police bureaus had Sina Weibo accounts, China Daily reported on its front page of 5 February 2011.

Politicians have become aware of the power of micro-blogs for connecting with audiences. On 23 February 2011, in the build-up to the March plenary session of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, People’s Daily reported that “hundreds of legislators and political advisers have opened micro blogs to solicit ideas”.

The Chinese equivalents of YouTube are Tudou and Youku. Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific director of Ogilvy’s 360 Digital Influence, said Chinese netizens used online video sites differently from Americans. “Rather than short videos of cute animals or silly domestic mishaps that may be popular among YouTube watchers, Youku and Tudou are filled with longer form content, up to 70 per cent of which is professionally produced,” he wrote in China Business Review.

Chinese viewers watch up to an hour a day of Tudou and Youku, compared with about 15 minutes Americans spend on YouTube.

Blogs have also blossomed in China. The National Report on Micro Blogs said Baidu Space had 100 million registered users in 2010. Baidu Space is the blog section of the Baidu search engine, which has more than 80 per cent of the search traffic in China (remember Google departed the Chinese market).

Earlier this year Baidu became China’s largest Internet company. Forbes listed chief executive Robin Li as the richest person in China.

Social media and e-commerce are inevitably linked in China. China’s e-commerce market was worth $79.9 billion in 2010, more than double the previous year, the China Internet Network Information Center reported.

Broadcasters seeking links in China need to understand the significance of social media.

* This article appeared in The Channel, the magazine of the Association for International Broadcasting, under the headline “Social media in China ” in September 2011, page 52.

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