Game-Changer – From Weibo to WeChat

November 26th, 2014

Will the exodus from Weibo to WeChat change the way brands do social? How can marketers best adapt to the changing social landscape?

China has a number of “Weibo” (Twitter-like) platforms. But Sina Weibo is China’s biggest. In July, Sina announced 2014 second-quarter advertising revenue growth of 29 percent year-over-year to $155.8 million off the back of Weibo, exceeding the company’s $155 million goal. There is no denying that China’s Sina Weibo social media platform has reached a high point in brand involvement. But the problem is that audiences have moved out.

As social audiences in China move to mobile, they are also finding their way to mobile-first applications, namely WeChat (Weixin). WeChat is a relatively new player to China’s social media landscape, but 2014 second-quarter results show combined monthly active users (MAU) for Weixin and WeChat increased by 57 percent year-over-year to 438 million. Mobile video applications like Meipai, Weishi, and a few others have also eaten into Weibo’s user base.

This presents a difficult situation for brands, which have come to rely on Weibo as the go-to social platform for seeding and spreading messages to audiences in China. Weibo’s rise as a favored social media advertising platform has in the past been built around a consortium of agencies, key opinion leaders (KOLs), and listening/monitoring tools.

As a result, a well-organized process has been established, with Weibo recognized as brand-friendly by offering a transparent view of audiences (for China), trackable and measurable data, and a wide set of tools for brands to build around. The brand consortium (mostly) love Weibo.

In Weibo’s early days it was relatively easy for good brands, working with agencies and KOLs, to get really strong, passionate responses from audiences. The organic engagement levels were exciting. Even some pretty mediocre efforts from brands could be rewarded with good responses. Add in an ample dose of KOL support from agencies, and follower counts went through the roof. In some cases, brands in China had follower counts that were larger than the rest of the world combined (versus Facebook for instance).

Measuring ROI

Brands and their agencies kept looking around to see follower counts grow into the millions – and with that came rising expectations for bulk audience results. The key performance indicators set for Weibo campaigns have, in the past, revolved around follower count, rather than great content to enthrall audiences. But Weibo’s rise has been more about juicing numbers with KOLs, promotions, and a lot of fake followers.

Weibo’s structure (Twitter-style, open sharing) is so strong and potentially so productive for brands who have a message worth sharing. But it is becoming harder and harder to build awareness through Weibo. For brands to get the impact they expect, they have to rely on ever-increasing contributions from KOLs. However, compared to efforts on Facebook and Twitter, true engagement and organic reach are very hard to come by.

With the move in China to mobile-first and an abundance of weak brands and KOL messages filling the streams of Weibo, Chinese audiences today are shifting to WeChat.

The Weibo system in China has gotten so bad that Tencent (WeChat’s parent company) recently decided toreassign key people from its Tencent Weibo to other areas of its ecosystem, including WeChat, QQ, and its micro-video platform Weishi, knowing that the game has moved to different spaces.


For consumers, the game has shifted decidedly toward WeChat, as it provides a cleaner platform for audiences. Zero display advertising and a closed-system social structure make building follower counts a much slower process. And, the consortium of parties that has made Weibo a brand-friendly tool – KOLs, monitoring/analytics tools – is not yet fully embedded in WeChat.

The result is that to date, follower counts on WeChat for brands are far lower than on Weibo, and brands cannot easily use WeChat to build reach and awareness. As a result, brands are still supporting Weibo – while users are spending more of their time on WeChat.

Going forward, brands are going to have to reset their expectations about how to build social media in China and will have to work on creating much better quality content.

Compared to Sina Weibo, WeChat follower numbers right now are lower, but good-quality content applied to a clean environment (with few-to-no fake followers) means engagement levels and impact can be very good.

There are some strong cases supporting this. A luxury travel site recently completed an interesting experiment using both its Sina Weibo and WeChat accounts to seed content, without any KOL support. The results were very interesting. The same piece of content yielded 3.4 million views on WeChat, and only 16 forwards/10 comments on Weibo. Had they chosen to use KOLs on Weibo, the results might have been different, but without influencers to push it out, WeChat appears to be much, much more effective.

The key focus of brands in China should be on WeChat and creating quality content, and strong links to e-commerce. Native content is essential – mobile-ready, video, pictures, and interactive graphics. Looking further ahead, brands should aim to transplant this “content-first” approach into some of the other up-and-coming social platforms, including Meipai, Weishi, and Papa, together with vertical-specific sites. And, whether it be WeChat or the new wave of social sites, there should be a strict focus on making sure that any content is designed to add something to the unique user experience of the medium in question. And because WeChat and the next wave of social sites are still more focused around close friend connections, content will have to be genuinely good quality.

Tencent now faces the challenge of how to make WeChat more brand-friendly, such as providing better access to KOLs, and ways of making content more searchable. But it looks like quality content is going to keep a place in Weibo for a while. The question is whether the KPIs that brands have traditionally used to measure success will adapt to encompass a better appreciation of content quality, or whether they will continue to maintain the same traditional expectations built up through Weibo for bulk audiences.

As published in ClickZ

Posted in WeChat, Weibo