Kai-Fu Lee's Sina Weibo Account

Twitter is virtually nonexistent in China–yes, there are some foreigners and international Chinese who run VPNs to access Twitter–but their numbers are dwarfed by the users of China’s homegrown microblog services. Microblogging started growing fast in the second quarter of 2009, adding users at a speed that shames their western counterparts.

The dominant player is Sina Weibo (新浪微博). Since launch in October 2009, it has grown to 45 million users in China, the Asia Pacific, and overseas Chinese. In its official development report published in June, Sina stated that Weibo users should surpass Twitter users in March 2011.

Four steps were key in establishing Sina Weibo’s dominance:

An infographic of Sina Weibo’s growth

#1 Celebrities

Celebrites are popular in all countries, but especially so in China. Sina Weibo concentrated on registering and verifying a massive number of celebrities from all over China and the Asia Pacific, across all sorts of trades and backgrounds. Normal users could get a flavor of their favorite star–it’s perhaps the largest gathering of famous people in the Chinese history. Sina Weibo has over 20,000 verified users today, which generates tons of traffic.

For example, Kaifu Lee’s resignation from his position as President of Google China sparked huge speculations as to his next destination. Kaifu Lee used Weibo as his platform to announce his next venture, Innovation Works.

#2 RT Volume

There is a saying that goes: “6% of users create 90% of contents on Sina Weibo.” This is likely only slightly exaggerated. Posts, especially jokes, on Sina Weibo routinely receive far more RTs than tweets on Twitter do.

#3 Badges

FourSquare is often credited as the social service that popularized the badge or ‘achievement’. Sina Weibo has been one of the successful efforts to popularize that gaming mechanism in China. Sina Weibo offers two primary badges: the “Sofa Collector” and the “Weibo Controller.” The Sofa badge is awarded for comments on a new post. The Weibo Controller awards users for the number of continuous days that they have written at least one post. And the badges level up over time–collect a certain number of sofas and your sofa badge levels up. This adds an RPG element, in which it becomes progressively harder to level up as users get to higher levels, a concept familiar to many Chinese netizens. Many users contribute to Weibo simply to level up.

#4 Corporate Promotions

Twitter recently began testing official company promotions, but Weibo has had that since the start. Company promotions on Weibo are often very simple, with the “lottery draw” being the most common: users are required to RT the original post and mention (@) their friends in order for a chance to win a prize. It’s a blunt approach, but some initial campaigns of this sort gained enormous fan bases. Still, some users decry this kind of promotion and it’s likely that campaigns will become more sophisticated.

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