The State of Chinese Social Media in 2016: What You Need to Know

Five Trends in China's Fast-Moving Social Landscape

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The Chinese social media landscape moves fast – and if you haven't been paying attention closely, there's a lot you've missed. New platforms have popped up, while main players including Alibaba and Tencent have consolidated their power. In general, China's social landscape is involved in innovations in video, engagement and payment that have evolved differently and faster than anything in the West. For the last 8 years, Kantar Media CIC has taken the pulse of China's social landscape. Here are five changes and developments that we think brands, agencies and tech players should understand for 2016.

China social media landscape 2016. Credit: Kantar Media CIC.

The BATS, the core of China's digital and social landscape, have grown ever more powerful

Chinese internet powerhouses Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Sina (referred to by the acronym "BATS") together have upwards of eight different social media and/or e-commerce platforms, each with hundreds of millions of active users. They are the absolute core of China's social and digital landscape because of their cumulative 2 billion users. These key players are at the heart of making the Chinese internet viral, informative and practical. Let's call that "VIP." The "I" and the "P" are particularly important in differentiating China from the rest of the world. Trusted Information in China can be scarce, while the plentiful information on social media such as news, word of mouth and rumors is often the type of content that cannot be found anywhere else, even with government regulators keeping a close watch. This makes social media more important in China than most global markets.

As for the "P," the practicality of Chinese social media is unmatched due to the deep integration of payment solutions and services such as Alibaba's Alipay and Tencent's Tenpay. For over 700 million netizens, WeChat is the go-to platform not only for e-commerce transactions, but also for P2P transfer, bill payment and even mutual fund investment. Nowhere else in the world are there complete social media ecosystems connecting internet word of mouth and payment so seamlessly. For example, looking at the Tencent ecosystem of properties, you might first hear about a WeChat e-shop selling a niche beauty brand via WeChat conversations or on the Sogou WeChat search engine, then make a purchase using TenPay.

E-commerce categories and platforms pop up fast

As the number of consumers increases, the desire for a wide variety of products grows as well. Even today, some products are not always readily available offline or even on some of the largest e-commerce platforms like Taobao, Tmall, JD and Yihaodian. We are seeing an increasing number of e-commerce categories emerging in China. Some of these new platforms include group sales sites such as Nuomi and Meituan; flash sales sites such as Glamour Sales; second-hand sales sites such as Xianyu; crowdfunding sites such as JD Finance; O2O sites such as ticketing service Gewara; and cross- border retail platforms such as Little Red Book.

Now that payment is so integrated with social media, we are seeing the boundary between social media and e-commerce becoming blurred. Traditional e-commerce sites are integrating social features such as Taobao's Weitao, which has a Pinterest-like sharing feature that allows not only discovery of cool products via your friends' feeds but also instant purchase. There are also inherently social platforms integrating e-commerce, such as Little Red Book, which powers overseas purchase agents selling luxury fashion and beauty products not found anywhere in China.

Video continues to rise and branch out

Traditional video sites like Youku and iQiyi continue to be important platforms. They allow netizens to watch legal versions of local and imported long form content like TV dramas. Recently, many other sites have started to integrate danmaku, or "rapid fire" netizen commentary, where other people's ideas and thoughts appear to fly across your video screen. Danmaku, also called danmu, started in China on platforms Acfun and Bilibili, which focus on more youthful content like anime, cartoons and games. Other video categories include short video apps like Meipai and Miaopai. These two apps have recently become a primary source of user-generated content on the social web. Live-video broadcasting apps similar to Periscope, including Panda TV and Zhanqi TV, have gained traction with consumers and attracted the watchful eye of government regulators. Brands including Maybelline have started to use live video platforms to promote their products. Maybelline sold over 10,000 units of lipstick in two hours, via a live video broadcast hosted by actress Angelababy.

Q&A has been reinvigorated

For people who have ever wanted to ask a celebrity about his or her sex life, that's an option on "Ask Me Anything" sites like Fenda and Zhihu Live. Recently, these platforms have gained significant traction. For a fee ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand Chinese yuan, Fenda allows netizens to ask celebrities questions. Recently, celebrity Wang Sicong made over $45,000 on Fenda for answering questions involving his personal gossip.

Another platform, Zhihu Live, provides a platform featuring experts from various industries. The app launches private sessions which allow opinion leaders to share information and insight with netizens. This gives netizens who are interested in certain categories the ability to easily communicate with industry leaders. Brands can consider how to use these sites to more effectively leverage their key opinion leaders and celebrities.

There's a rising subcategory of internet influencers

It's worth paying close attention to wang hong – a growing group of influential cyber celebrities who target a large segment of internet users and have also garnered fortune from their online web channels. Their prominence has added a layer of complexity to the landscape of China's key opinion leaders. We are now dividing key opinion leaders into three basic subcategories: experts, celebrities and wang hong.

Experts tend to focus on their specific fields, like beauty or fashion, where they are able to persuade and inform the masses with their expertise and experience. Wang hong, such as fashion bloggers MiuMiu & Viviandan, focus on turning their online fame into an actual business. This is achieved by creating unique personal brands. Wang hong tap into their social media following to promote and sell their products, leading to e-commerce sales that could not have been achieved without their social media promotion. Wang hong are more willing to share their personal life on social platforms, which can make them seem more "authentic." Celebrities that are famous online and offline command a premium price, yet do not appear as "authentic" as Wang Hong. With this increasingly complex landscape, brands need to pay more efforts to obtain the right fit to optimize media impact.

In summary: The China social landscape is fragmented and fast-changing

Underpinning these five trends is the everlasting trifecta of defining characteristics of the China social media landscape: It's unique, fragmented and dynamic. In the West, you may be able to get away with a two-platform strategy consisting of Facebook and Google. However, in China, there are not only unique platforms that do not exist anywhere else, but also multiple overlapping platforms and ecosystems that are in constant flux. An environment like this requires persistent diligence in order to understand, plan and execute for maximum and appropriate impact.

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