Internet & Tech

Weibo at war

How rival web firm is taking on Sina Weibo

Weibo at war

I’m so popular: He Jiong

Move over Yao Chen, TV host He Jiong is now China’s most followed celebrity on weibo, China’s Twitter-like equivalent.

The 37-year-old television personality now has over 27 million followers on his Tencent weibo. That’s 10 million more than Yao, the actress with pole position on Sina Weibo, another microblogging platform (see WiC50). Television show host He also surpasses Lady Gaga, the most followed celebrity on Twitter, by 8.5 million.

While Sina Weibo tends to get most media attention, Tencent’s rival offering Weixin, which means “tiny letter”, has more users. The most recent official data – from September last year – showed Tencent with 310 million members, and Sina a little way back on 250 million. The competition between the two is so intense that another internet giant Baidu decided to opt out early, shutting down its microblogging platform last August.

So what’s the difference between the two platforms? When it comes to user demographics, Sina is more popular amongst white-collar users in top-tier cities. Once people sign up for Sina Weibo, they are also much more likely to use the service. Research firm iResearch found that upwards of 80% of Chinese microblog activity takes place on Sina Weibo.

Tencent’s Weixin, on the other hand, is more popular in small town China, where its QQ instant messaging tool is already widely used by lower-income citizens. Tencent – China’s largest internet company by revenue – also offers online gaming, a web news and entertainment portal and a social networking site called Qzone, all of which are linked back to the ubiquitous QQ messaging software.

Tencent has also been looking to target the more upmarket audience by offering smartphone users its new Weixin Mobile application. The app allows users to send text messages, voice recordings, video and photos to one another. Already, of the 80 million smartphone users in China, more than 50 million have registered on Weixin Mobile and 20 million are active users, according to company sources. That’s an important breakthrough in pursuing the more sophisticated demographic that has often eluded the Shenzhen-based firm. Sina is scrambling for a response, releasing its own Weiyou messaging application for Android.

“Tencent’s problem in the past was that it found it very difficult to reach the highest-end users,” Simon Fong, chief executive of Xueqiu, a consultancy, told TechRice, a website. “But now the company has a new product that is finally penetrating that market: Weixin Mobile IM. Look around you, aren’t all your friends using Weixin too?”

Although Sina and Tencent spend most of their time competing, they are finding common ground in the struggle to adopt the real name registration system that Beijing now imposes on all weibo users. The authorities have announced that a trial programme requiring microblog users to disclose their identities is now to be expanded nationwide. The requirement is that users who post comments on weibo must have registered their real name with the microblogging provider, even though they can use nicknames online.

The impact has been dramatic. Local media has reported that 3 million new users registered for Sina Weibo over the past month, down from the 20 million a month tally last year.

That’s bad news for both companies but probably worse for Sina, which is being pressed by investors to deliver more revenue. Previously, Sina has argued that it has held back on ‘monetisation’ in favour of growth, much as Mark Zuckerberg insisted in the early Facebook years. A Sina staffer was reported as saying that the new registration requirements are likely to delay the revenue-generating plan further, until the second half of this year.

Tencent doesn’t have the same problem. With more than $1 billion on its balance sheet, it also has the means to fund expansion of its own microblog. Revenue generation is also less of an issue, at least for the foreseeable future. Tencent developed its own weibo because it was worried that a new wave of social networks would lure users away from QQ. “We have no plans to monetise our microblog. We don’t need to,” a company executive told the Financial Times.

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