Social Media in China

So how different is Social Media in China? Our team in China have put together a nice piece together (based on research, case studies and in-house insights from the Middle Kingdom’s social hotpot) to consider how it is different, identifying several key elements which underline and explain why media agencies/buyers and clients should consider China an extremely unique climate for social media marketing.

As well as describing the background facts and figures surrounding each featured element unique to China, we also provide possible implications into how they may better instruct future social media campaigns here and how it will affect the gender gap in China.

-A Huge Social Media Community
-The Netizen
-Social Anonymity & Avatars
-Archaic Social Media Prevails: BBS

A Huge Social Media Community


BBS (Bulletin Board System) was launched in 1994, marking the beginning of the Chinese Internet Community. Today the Chinese internet population is the largest in the world with over 298 million users (Source, iResearch). Astonishingly this may only reflect an internet penetration within the country of 15-22% (Source, CNNIC). Figures suggest next year may see a massive increase yet again in internet population to over 389 million users (Source, BDA).

Among the 298 million estimated internet users currently in China, last year saw 202.4 million engage in some aspect of social media (Source, Ogilvyone). Within this population, 111.8 million have managed a social network profile. This compares to the US and UK where the figures are much lower, at 57.8 and 12.1 million respectively managing a social network profile (Source: Wave 4 UM).

It is also important to note that this audience is actively involved in modern internet behavior, such as viewing video content: China has the largest internet audience in the world, with 180 million regular viewers of online video content (Source: CASBAA). The frequency of video viewing is also incredible with 33% reporting they watch video clips ‘pretty much every time’ they go online (Source: CASBAA/China Youth Daily).

Unique implication for Chinese social media
Although the internet and social media are still in their infancy in terms of growth within China, they already have a huge presence on a global scale. The potential for social media growth in China is unseen in our digital age, and consequently, I expect we will see many social media milestones and developments occur independently within the Chinese social media landscape.

This is because China is a social media world unto itself and the size of its culture and community mean that it acts as its own trend-setter, being less world-weary to Western developments. For this reason, it is unlikely to fully adopt Western attempts at translating across SNS (Social Network Service) models from the UK and US.

China is already catering to niche social media behavior and activities, unique to its netizens, within its domestic SNS. If Western social media is going to captivate Chinese netizens, it will do so, not by pushing and translating across Western social media learnings and motifs, but by building social media around the traits of the current Chinese digital age.

The Netizen

The majority of netizens in China are made up of young people. Students account for 33% of the online internet population with over 60% of the current internet population being educated to high school or college levels (Source CNNIC). With almost 70% of internet users in China under 30 years old, the majority students (source, Trendspotter), this makes for a stark contrast to the UK, where the average netizen is 38 years old (Source, Nielsen online analysis).

Chinese netizens spend on average more than four hours a day on the internet- far higher than the time they spend watching TV; this is not the case in Western countries where TV still predominates over the internet in terms of media consumption habits (source, DCCI).

The average Chinese netizen has more digital self-expression compared to US Netizens, as shown in research by IAC and JWT (2011). Their research showed Chinese netizens are much more expressive within internet communities, as 72% answered positively to the statement “I have expressed personal opinions and/or written about myself online”.

Only 56% of Americans answered positively. While many Americans may feel at ease expressing and showing their opinions in everyday life, with some disregard for how their opinions are received, most of today’s Chinese youth has lived within sheltered households and consequently the sharing of opinions are more regularly and subtly conveyed via the internet, with acceptance in a group being the ultimate goal.

This ‘self-expression’ aspect is certainly expressed in Chinese blogs. 90% of the Chinese internet population actively read internet blogs, and a huge 81% are now actively writing blogs (Source, Wave 4 UM). This compares to the US (66% read blogs,33% write) and the UK (58% read blogs, 25% write blogs). As a result, it is not surprising to see that Ad Age showed further support of Chinese netizens’ tenacious blogging habits, with statistics showing over 60 million blog, more than double the number of bloggers in the US.

There is even more contrast in considering how social media influences Chinese netizens compared to American Netizens: research by Netpop, showed 58% of Chinese netizens responded positively to the statement ‘User Generated content influences my purchase decisions’. Only 19% of US respondents answered positively. This is a dramatic difference in the importance of internet user’s opinions on Chinese netizens compared to Westerners.

All the facts point to a difference in Chinese mavens compared to Western mavens: The Chinese value the independence and freedom of communication and expression offered by the internet to a greater degree than Western mavens- as a result, the internet community is embraced as a larger part of their lifestyle. A survey, again by IAC and JWT, validates the theory, showing while 42% of Americans agree that they live some of their life online, 86% of Chinese youth do. Asked whether they have a “parallel” online life, only 13% of Americans said yes, compared to 61% of Chinese. The internet online community is embraced on a deeper level for Chinese maven’s identity and lifestyle.

Unique implication for Chinese social media
Chinese netizens are completely different to Westerners, specifically UK and US netizens. Chinese netizens are, on average, much younger, and usually in college or education. Chinese netizens see the internet as the key output for self expression in their life and this is supported by their tremendous blogging behavior and reported susceptibility to the influence of others’ opinions online. Indeed, many more Chinese netizens see the internet as part of their life compared to Westerners in the US.

Because the Chinese netizen is so different, it is impossible to take a social media campaign from the West and simply plug it into China. To make it more effective it should tap into the qualities that make Chinese netizens the perfect advocates of social media. For instance, social media campaigns should focus on the youthful age of the internet’s core audience; It should also play on the individual’s susceptibility to shared opinions and values, by making the campaign as interactive as possible around the brand/product.

The campaign should aim to make the Chinese netizen feel liberated by offering them opportunities to express themselves within the campaign: this could be done via profiles, avatars, BBS and blogging elements within the campaign. As well as making an impact, the social media campaign also has to measure the impact using the unique qualities that indicate success, based on the extremely impressionable Chinese internet audience.

Social Anonymity & Avatars

Research shows Chinese netizens feel more free to express their feelings online compared to Americans (Source IAC and JWT, 2011). 73% of Chinese netizens agreed with the statement, ‘ Online, I feel free to say and do things I wouldn’t do or say offline’; this compared to only 32% of US netizens, suggesting the internet more significantly holds the value of freedom of speech for the Chinese online community compared to the West. This is likely due to political constraints within everyday life created by the government.

BBS boards (explained in more detail in next heading) are a staple part of Chinese netizens’ online community diet. A primary feature of BBS boards are their ability to make netizens anonymous and invisible compared to the ‘real world’ where everything is closely monitored, with identity at the forefront of each person’s societal role. By being anonymous, a person in China can express any opinion or idea they want with less fear for public or political scrutiny. Ad Age report one avid Chinese internet fan saying, “Online, I can be gay. I can be king of darkness. I can be whoever I want to be. No one can judge me.”

The idea of being free to express oneself anonymously is surely of large appeal within Chinese social media; however the recreation and reinvention of oneself is also particularly important in China: this is in the same vein as other Asian countries such as Japan, where social media has been largely motivated by escapism from reality’s constraints.

The desire for reinvention becomes heavily realized within the invention and championing of online avatars in China. Because online they can respond more to their inner cravings, many Chinese netizens create online versions of themselves that represent their ‘self-territory’ outside of their work/school/parent’s constraints. This occurs in such a limited way to the digital world, that the rewards and reputation for this expression occur only within the online world also. For this reason, avatars are an important part of many Chinese netizens’ online identity- regardless of whether their identity is real to life, or not.

Most Chinese SNS sites, such as QQ or Kaixin001 (and even those created by Brands, such as McDonalds or Levis: Levis World ) are aware of their netizens’ need for self-expression and cater via heavily customizable avatars. The level of virtual expression via avatars has now reached the extent that one can create accessories for their virtual self and even physically purchase virtual goods such as clothes, hairstyles, makeup. QQ’s annual revenue performance last year was greatly boosted by these features.

Unique implication for Chinese social media
Social media in China is considered a place for netizens to speak their minds and generally feel free. This is very different compared to the West, where liberation on the internet does not appear distinct compared to everyday interaction. Of course, the big difference in China comes from political constraints created by the government.

As Chinese netizens are looking for ways to express and describe their freedom on the internet, social media campaigns should cater for this by placing opinions and ideas at the heart of their message. Whether this means having netizens as ‘Brand Ambassadors’ or whether you employ a reward scheme that favors expression and creativity, or broadcasts a netizen’s idea to the community- it has to promote freedom.

The easiest way for Western Brands to tap into China’s desire for free expression, when creating social media campaigns, would be to offer BBS boards or customizable avatar profiles. It should be noted that it is not good enough just to offer the user the ability to create an avatar on joining the campaign community, and then have no development or activities based around that creation.

Instead games, contests and community interaction should be promoted around the avatars, with rewards allowing further expression and customization of one’s profile/avatar. It is important that the individual’s achievements, profile, and activities are available to the whole community, the more public, the more suited to Chinese netizens’ lust for expression.

Archaic Social Media Prevails- BBS

BBS was the first online communication tool on the internet, and due to Chinese netizens’ fast adoption of the internet and its community functions, BBS became popular in the nineties and remains the center of the Chinese internet community today.

Currently, 98 million Chinese netizens participate in publicly sharing topics, perspectives, and passion via BBS. Within the 98 million over 98% have contributed content to a BBS (Readwriteweb, Jan 2011). User’s interaction with BBS is also fairly intense for a social medium, with 96% of users spending at least 1 hour a day on BBS (Readwriteweb, Jan 2011).

The BBS’ role in China is extremely unique, serving as a modern ‘water cooler’ for the Chinese people, usurping the original places for Chinese chatter, within hutongs and bars. BBSs are now a staple inclusion in almost every commercial portal, SNS and gaming website in China.

Anyone who has used BBS will know that the core value of BBS lies within content, not individuals (although the social element obviously plays a role). This is typical of Chinese society, where sharing and affirming opinions and information acts as a cornerstone of their collectivist culture. The opposite could be said to be true of Western social media, where SNS sites like Facebook and Twitter celebrate the individual.

There is also a level of exclusivity within the latter sites, where one chooses and picks who they consort with; BBS, on the other hand, creates open, public conversations that are usually free to all netizens. The desire for free conversations open to everyone are a clear side-effect of China’s heavily government-controlled culture.

Due to the strong value of sharing and actively participating within BBS culture, the BBS posts have often been the birthplace of many famous online Chinese social memes. For example, the story of Jia Junpeng (see references) was a viral meme spread in August,09, beginning from just one BBS post. The relevance and ‘insider’ nature of the BBS platform, means one post with a single line of characters can contain a rich amount of social information and application to the community. As a result, viral memes often spread from single posts, fueled by the quest to extend and add value (often comedic) to the subject at heart.

The key value Chinese netizens find in BBS stems from its ability to allow the open sharing of opinion. A survey by CIC in 2009, showed that this was the clear motivation on BBS, as over 72% of respondents chose this motivation. Opinion sharing in Chinese culture is important, but heavily monitored in everyday life. Therefore BBS social communities offer the opportunity to express their values and feelings in a safer environment.

Unique implication for Chinese social media
On a basic level, if you want to get your audience talking about your brand or campaign in China, you should have a BBS board somewhere in your campaign. This is an extremely far removed notion when considering the creation of social media campaigns in the West, and therefore this is a classic example of why Chinese social media is extremely unique.

With 98 million netizens using BBS boards every day and 96% of these contributing for at least 1 hour, this may be one of the best platforms for gathering/creating buzz or feedback about your campaign or product in China. It could also be said that BBS boards are the perfect place to hear what people really think about your brand/product in China, due to the ‘water cooler’ nature of BBS in China’s closely controlled society.

It should also be noted that the BBS is the ideal place to start a Viral Marketing campaign in China. As BBS boards are mainly text driven and publicly open, the audience is massive and the cost is low. The BBS audience in China are the best advocators of social memes and will ensure the growth of an ingenious viral marketing idea.

See also: Part 2 of the Uniqueness of Social Media in China