• Andrew Collins

The Evolution of Weibo and Why It Matters

In the Chinese social media world, there’s been a lot of discussion this past year on the decline of Weibo and rise of WeChat in China. There’s certainly no question that a shift of sorts has taken place, however, defining the change is not as simple as replacing one similar platform for another, but rather a shift in the entire social media paradigm.

The (Chinese) Social Network

Two years ago, if you asked any Chinese youth were he or she spent his or her time online, almost all of them would have said Sina’s Weibo. At its peak, Weibo had over 500 million registered accounts and an impressively high monthly active user base. Back then, Weibo was not only just an enormous channel to consume, share and find the latest popular culture going on in China, but also it was also a highly interactive tool to communicate with friends. I’m going to call this period Weibo’s time as a leading social network.

By definition, a social network is, “a network of friends, colleagues, and other personal contacts.” Think of it as the place where you have conversations and see the updates of people you know.

Evolution

Though Weibo still continues to be a powerhouse of content, distribution and spark for the majority of much of China’s viral images, posts, and controversies today, the time spent interacting with friends as a peer-to-peer tool no longer exists. It’s not that people are no longer interacting online; they’re just doing it somewhere else. Intentionally or unintentionally, this is what Weibo has evolved into now – a powerful social media channel.

Social media by definition means, “websites and other means of online communications that are used by large groups of people to share information and to develop social and professional contacts.”

Essentially, Weibo has changed from a place of mostly interacting with peers to mostly consuming content, like a news channel or television.

So what does this all mean?

Because the platforms themselves have evolved, so too must our measure of engagement. There’s not as much interaction in the traditional sense of likes, comments, and conversations- that time is now spent on WeChat- but it doesn’t take away from the user base still passively consuming news.

This is reflected in Weibo’s inclusion of post “reads” in their analytics. It’s no doubt they’ve recognised that although engagement has diminished, the reads still remain strong.

Is Weibo still relevant?

WeChat came into the market with a very clear direction, which up until now has still not really changed. Although the mega platform offers a variety of services now integrated with WePayments, etc., the fundamental use remains the same: It’s about friends, sharing moments with friends and communicating with each other.

Consequently, WeChat has become the only true social network; it’s an enormous network of interconnected lives sharing their very best moments to each others’ social cycles.  If a social network, by definition is ‘a network of friends, colleagues, and other personal contacts,’ then nothing better represents this than WeChat.

However, Weibo is still relevant. In fact, it’s more relevant that ever now. It just plays a very different role and the faster the company, and us, for that matter, understand that the better. Weibo still remains the most popular source of news, entertainment and media content. It’s now used as a media consumption platform, and like other media consumption platforms, it brings with it different metrics for assessment.

Understanding what you’re good at.

Infamous marketer, Ryan Holiday, wrote recently in a post on Linkedin that “some companies like Airbnb and Instragram spend a long time trying new iterations until they achieve what growth hackers call Product Market Fit (PMF); others find it right away. The end goal is the same, however, and it’s to have the product and its customers in perfect sync with each other…starting with a ‘minimum viable product’ and improving it based on feedback—as opposed to what most of us do, which is to try to launch publicly with what we think is our final, perfected product.”

WeChat has the ‘network’ model pretty well wrapped up for now.  The company has yet to really integrate brands, content and other forms of media into the feature moments, which suggests that WeChat is wary to the lessons learnt by Weibo (or other social media channels) about diluting a user’s personal time with branded moments.  Yet this has an upside; it’s the only thing Weibo is good at, and many users still return for their daily dose of ‘what the hell is going on in this world’ fix.

The opportunity of filtering and distributing content is a widely popular model, as made famous with Daily Candy and a dozen other major media channels.  Facebook & Linkedin today have shifted into content distributors and have been successful. Weibo currently has the number one channel for news-related materials, and this doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon.  

WeChat is busy now rolling out a suite of payment opportunities and enhancing the WeChat peer-to-peer functions to better facilitate a whole range of products. The good news is that they’re busy, and it’s time for Weibo to get really clear about it’s role in this new environment.

I see space for both companies to really dominate a part of the social media/network mix and look forward to watching it play out over the next 12 months.

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