Behind China's Great Firewall: A Booming Internet

Chinese Have Their Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Zynga -- Only Different

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Abbey Klaassen
Abbey Klaassen
After a week in China behind the government's Great Firewall, I am back in the land of Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs and YouTube. How did I survive? I'll admit, a week sans these online staples was somewhat inconvenient. More than once I cursed the fact I couldn't watch the YouTube videos ubiquitously embedded in content across the Western web or tweet a photo of the view from my Shanghai hotel room.

But more surprising than having survived a week with out Twitter (imagine!) is that the Chinese internet, perceived by the West as being unsophisticated and stifled without our influence is, well, thriving. In fact, in some cases, it's even far ahead of us and the potential for innovation and high-quality online content is greater than here.

The Chinese have virtually every internet service we do, but under a different name. Their Facebook equivalents are RenRen and Kaixin; Foursquare is Jiapang; Twitter is Sina's Weibo; and Zynga Farmville is Kaixin's Happy Farm.

"Everything that you've seen outside you've seen inside," said Jean Lin, who heads global strategy for Aegis's digital network, Isobar. "They're not just copies, they also add things that allow it to catch on."

Ms. Lin has a global role and she's acutely aware of internet development across Asia and the western part of the world. But she is based in Shanghai, where she started Wwwins, the agency that eventually became part of Isobar's network.

I asked her whether she sees any opportunity for reverse innovation--new technologies developed in China that could be imported to the U.S. She hasn't seen it yet with the technology and applications, but she certainly could see it with business models, she said, giving the example of QQ.

QQ, the massively popular instant messaging services launched by Tencent, started as a messaging tool, but quickly grew into a gaming empire. Then it added a currency component, which now links back to places like metro transit passes and phone bills--an innovation created to address the fact the banking system isn't that mature and few young Chinese have credit cards.

Another lesson from the Chinese internet? People are starving for good content. Tudou, which is one of China's versions of YouTube (and, per Reuters, is preparing for a $100 million to $150 million IPO), has three legs of its business: user-generated content, licensed content and, increasingly, premium Tudou-produced content. It's a business model YouTube never really went near, but it's the one Tudou CEO Gary Wang told me he is most excited about. A recent web show Tudou created for the launch of Anheuser-Busch's BudLime brand in China this summer snagged about 10 million views for the first two episodes, though between 1 million and 2 million is more typical for these types of things, he admitted.

One of my favorite stories from China is actually about unlicensed content and I suppose proves the axiom that if you make good content available people will watch--and if you don't they'll still find a way watch it. Ford built a TV campaign that starred "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller because research and listening to the social-media sphere proved the actor and the show had an enormous fan base in China. The only strange thing? "Prison Break" never aired in China, it was built on the back of millions of consumers watching unlicensed episodes online. (Also surprising? Nearly every ad agency exec I ran into in Shanghai had seen the finale of "Mad Men." I had to warn against spoilers as it aired while I was flying to China.)

The limit for China's internet innovation may actually be higher than here, in no small part because there are just fewer non-internet entertainment and media options for young Chinese. And, while many Westerners live in multiple-TV households, that's not always the case in China. And the internet population is growing fast: there are more than 384 million Chinese online in 2009, up 29% from 2008. And 233 million mobile internet users.

Richard Lee, CMO of PepsiCo China, told a story that to him illustrated the "new" China he came back to when he returned to Shanghai over the summer to run marketing from here after holding a global role based in New York for the past three years.

"I went to a place near Guangzhou, to a lower to middle income family and there was a girl there, about 14 years old," he said. "In her whole life, she has only been Guangzhou two times even though her home is only a three hour drive away. She knows everything that is happening around Korea's pop culture scene. She knows about the hottest things happening in the U.S. through the internet. That's amazing."

"People here have a stronger demand for the internet," he added, "because in China the internet is the portal to the world."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abbey Klaassen is the editor of Advertising Age. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/amklaassen.
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