But rumors of the impending death of Sina Weibo seem to have been grossly exaggerated with recent data from QuestMobile showing a 79 percent increase in monthly average users (MAUs) for the site for the year ending in September.
As of September, the platform’s app, which is how more than 90 percent of users access Sina Weibo, was the fourth most popular in China with 390 million MAUs. That’s still less that WeChat’s incredible 817 million MAUs, or Alibaba‘s Taobao platform with 433 million MAUs, but the growth rate experienced by Sina Weibo outstripped both of these behemoths.
One of the reasons for this sudden explosion in user growth may be the fact that Sina Weibo, which first launched in 2009, has effectively outgrown its previous incarnation as “China’s Twitter”. Though it’s still a microblogging platform with a follower/followee system, Sina Weibo earlier this year did away with its 140-character limit for posts.
The partnership between Sina Weibo and video sharing app Miaopai, which started in 2013, has also helped the platform incorporate more user-generated videos. Sina Weibo just announced that it is leading a $500 million investment round in Yixia Tech, which owns Miaopai and another video streaming app called Xiaokaxiu. In fact, it’s rare to see posts on Sina Weibo these days that don’t include some sort of video, audio or visual content, a trend Sina Weibo chief executive officer Cao Guo Wei has described as helping the platform become less of a Chinese Twitter, and more like an amalgamation of a number of the West’s most popular social media platforms, all rolled into one.
“[We have focused on] persistent multimedia innovation to attract more new users, especially young users. Weibo has attached great importance to innovation and application of multimedia communication technologies, and gradually developed into a kind of Twitter-plus-Instagram-plus-YouTube comprehensive social media platform,” Cao told People’s Daily in a recent interview.
According to Pablo Mauron, China managing director and partner at Digital Luxury Group, it’s a mistake for brands to compare Weibo and WeChat, rather than embracing both platforms for the different features they offer and purposes they serve.
“The development and increase in popularity of WeChat over the past years gave internet users in China an additional option to Weibo. Social interactions shifted from one to the other and users at first saw WeChat as a replacement to Weibo. However the behavior of the two platforms is very different and over the time, users understood that they both addressed different needs,” he said.
Ophenia Liang, co-founder and chief executive of Digital Crew, a Sydney-based marketing agency focused on developing Chinese digital strategies for Australian brands, recommends clients have a clear and individual strategy for both Weibo and WeChat.
“On WeChat people are prepared to read long articles, and the timing of the articles are going to be more when people are commuting or before they go to bed at night, so brands can write more in-depth things. On Weibo people are more checking out what is trending, so it’s shorter and needs to be more trendy and attention-grabbing,” Liang said.
In spite of the ease of using video and live streaming, Liang has found some reticence among her clients to trying more audio/visual content as part of a Weibo strategy, something she hopes will change as brands become more familiar with the platform.
Additionally, Mauron points to the rise of China’s online KOL culture and booming “wang hong” or internet celebrity business as a reason for Weibo’s continued importance to brands, as the platform remains the go-to site for celebrities to post information and the number one resource for social media users to quickly check in with the latest gossip and entertainment information.
“Brands are massively relying on celebrities to drive engagement on Weibo but it is key that the celebrity, or the KOLs, remain a support to the brand and not the other way around,” Mauron said.
In terms of brands that have excelled in China by using Weibo as a tool in their digital marketing arsenal, cosmetics brand Lancôme has built a successful Weibo presence by focusing its content around tips and information pieces about using their makeup, personal style and how to choose and make best use of Lancôme products.
Mauron points to Swarovski, which is working with big-name KOLs, such as influential blogger Gogoboi but also several others. For Atelier Swarovski’s Collective spring-summer 2017 look book, for example, the brand exclusively used Chinese KOLs as models and then used those KOLs to further consumer engagement on Weibo.
Another example is Montblanc, who recently partnered with KOL and live streaming celeb Uncle Alex, who broadcasted the launch of the brand’s new Boheme collection.
“There is no one size fits all solution in terms of priorities and budget breakdown. WeChat, because of its popularity and extended scope of features and services, accompanies the consumer across the entire user journey but Weibo still remains highly relevant for a brand that is looking for instantaneous exposure,” Mauron said.
“These two platforms should still be considered as the two pillars of any social media strategy in China.”
“On this platform, individual can demonstrate their talents, build social networks and fans, and use that to development an economic base, so Weibo has become a truly personalized business platform,” he said. “This content-based business platform model is just starting, so the ecosystem has just begun. I believe the future will be even better.”