Tencent recently announced an international social network, with a beta version coming in early 2011. This follows the launch of QQi, the international version of the QQ instant messenger. So is Tencent going international?

Not really. As with QQi, the focus of the new social network is to connect Chinese and foreign friends, with a focus on expats. It’s more “China-plus” than it is international. So please no articles on “Tencent to Compete Internationally with Facebook.”

But nor is international a top priority for Tencent. The release of QQi, a multi-language version of an instant messenger with some added 3rd party services, took nearly 2 years (one year light experimentation, one year international beta). The QQ International team, headquartered in Shanghai, is staffed with only “10 to 30″ employees out of tens of thousands of total employees at Tencent.

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Yet a social network to connect China and the world does address a niche need. Facebook is blocked and China’s largest networks, RenRen and QZone, lack English-language versions.

Just be warned, your connection is on the Chinese government’s terms. Content on QQi and the new social network will be censored as it is on all Chinese social networks.

The Intended Killer Feature: Groups

Tencent already has a strong QQ Groups product and intends to leverage some of these functionalities in its new international social network.

For example, a Chinese school could set up its own site, connect foreigners to tutors, ask and answer questions, and upload large files at fast speeds. “Every group page will be able to store any kinds of files online,” says Marc Violo, a Product Manager at QQ International.

We could have chosen to provide a simple translation of QZone or QQ Groups, but we’re dealing with a completely new audience. So we started something from scratch. The focus is groups rather than individuals.

Of course, users will still have a personal page, but we’re pushing users to represent themselves in all the groups that they belong to in real life.

Hopefully Tencent will find the right format to build groups into this social network, as it’s been a struggle for others including Facebook.

A More Mature Image

Pengyou, Tencent’s real-name social network, seems to be a more mature version of QZone, Tencent’s nickname-based social network.

Nonetheless, this new social network will not require real names, which is the policy for Facebook and Pengyou. “We don’t want to force our users to provide information. That will not be included in our terms of use,” says Violo.

But will foreigners also love the penguin?

Slow, Steady Progress Towards Internationalization

QQi has traction addressing this niche. It claims over 2 million registered accounts, with an average of 170,000 daily active users. About 60% of users are inside China and 40% outside. And about 45% of users are Chinese, who want to communicate with foreign friends or simply prefer the international version.

A user’s QQ (or QQi) account will of course be able to synchronize with the new international social network. And users will eventually be able to view the QQ chats they’ve had with friends on the network.

Silos within Tencent

The social network space also reveals silos within Tencent. There are several different teams working on social networks, largely independently: this is Tencent’s third social network property after Qzone (nickname SNS) and Pengyou (real-name SNS). Earlier failed social networks by Tencent include QQ Campus and Xiaoyou.

All of these networks connect to QQ, Tencent’s flagship product, but it’s unclear if they will otherwise connect to each other. I’d always envisioned Tencent as a top-down, tightly-integrated firm, but in the case of social networks, they’re operating multiple parallel products. Marc Violo notes, “We’re quite separate, we’re like mini-corporations within one corporation.”

The new social network’s name is not yet public, so for now we can only speculate: Qsocial or Qbook?

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  • http://twitter.com/thepekingorder Jeremy Webb

    Are you sure about Pengyou being a real-name network? That’s what everybody was saying when it came out, I know. And what, exactly, does “real name” mean?

    I have used Pengyou for a while and I haven’t used a real name. Some of my friends aren’t even using anything that resembles a name: my friend goes by 雨后, for example.

    True, you aren’t identified by a QQ number any more. And true, verification for colleges and employers is very strict. However, I haven’t seen much real-name action yet. I wonder if I am getting something mixed up here: perhaps my definition of a real-name network is off or maybe I am just using it wrong?

    • http://www.kailukoff.com Kai Lukoff

      I think “real name” is Tencent’s intention with Pengyou, though enforcement may be lacking. Still, Sunny’s spiderman profile pic was deleted and the site asked him to upload a real pic.

      Facebook and RenRen do the same when they catch it. In the early days, Facebook waged a constant war against Bart Simpson, Elvis Presley, and parodies of George Bush. For a while, RenRen flagged my profile pic and withheld certain permissions until I emailed them explaining that I’m actually not Chinese. Really.) Setting a real name precedent creates an online environment that reflects your offline life and encourages according behavior.

      Tencent is trying to follow suit, but it strikes me that their execution is poor in social networks–maybe that’s why they’re failing to catch many instances.

  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com/ Ellie K

    LinkedIn is the best example of a real-name network. That includes both stated policy on the site AND enforcement.

    As Kai mentioned, Facebook is also a real-name network. They are not omnipotent, but they are vigilant. Here’s another example: many account holders on Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life were using their Second Life avatar names to create profiles on Facebook. These included first name, last name, photos, videos, residence, relationships etc. Well, eventually Facebook became aware of this and these accounts were closed. There wasn’t any fraud or intent to commit such, however, Facebook does have a real-name policy. Yet at least two years elapsed before Facebook really ended it.

    Interestingly enough, I am seeing the same thing happening on Quora right now. There are members with Second Life names and photos for their profiles. Or there were, until a few days ago. I’m guessing that Quora admins are enforcing a real name requirement.

  • Albanworld

    With DST (shares) and Naspers (parent company), Tencent has already a portfolio of international partners in several emerging countries. I understand the strategy of expanding international gradually. However, thanks to its business model based on micro-transactions, I think that Tencent could monetize worldwide now (white-spaces to fill in). If the firm does not decide to do so in 2011, it could more difficult for the firm to become a global player. Facebook could implement a more powerful micro-transaction model into its application. In my opinion, entering mobile transactions in emerging countries such as Brazil and Russia now is a unique opportunity to increase brand awareness and to prepare for the m-commerce boom.

    • http://www.kailukoff.com Kai Lukoff

      Hi Alan, having foreign investors and foreign users are two very different things. About a year ago I heard that Tencent was thinking of moving into SE Asia, where they see more cultural similarities and less competition. I haven’t heard anything since though.

      I think they could move somewhat quicker on their international products (1-2 years for QQi?), but I wouldn’t rush it or bank it. China’s internet is very different from the internet anywhere else and Tencent probably understands that better than anyone else.

  • Alan

    Hi Kai, what do you think about the pace of expanding operations into emerging countries? 谢谢

  • http://twitter.com/TheNeoTycoon Henry Z. Liao

    This might wind up becoming another Myspace… How will they push “users to represent themselves in all the groups that they belong to in real life” when they won’t require or enforce real names? They need more than “groups” to draw Westerners in. LinkedIn might have a better shot at this kind of international network (since it isn’t blocked in China) if it decided to fully support Chinese and delve into a little more “social” content.

    Kai, I always thought you were Chinese, how’d you get away with it all this time lol. Youku pulls the same stunt on professional-looking videos with Westerners in it – they blocked several of mine because of “copyright” infringement even though they were home made… -__-

  • http://twitter.com/thepekingorder Jeremy Webb

    Waging a war against Bart Simpson… I love it!