China's recent economic journey has been symbolised by 'tech-Darwinism', where a fitter, leaner tech offering has supplanted and replaced an inferior competitor. The dramatic rise of Tencent's phone app WeChat (Weixin in Chinese) appeared to be the latest edition of China's digital evolution.
WeChat could be described as Facebook Messenger on steroids. You can message, but that's only the start. Within the app, you can pay bills and even control your home's heating. WeChat usage spreads across demographics rapidly from millennial adopters to the less techie. According to Tencent, active users of WeChat exceeded 650 million at the end of last year.
As WeChat gathered more users, China's once predominant microblog Weibo seemed destined for the dustbin of history. However at the end of last year, according to Sina, Weibo staged a comeback, reclaiming over 220 million active users, up 33 percent on the previous year.
The seemingly zero-sum nature of China's social media seemed to have been bucked. Within the more mature digital ecosystem, there appears room for both WeChat and Weibo to coexist.
Looking more closely at Weibo, we can see how it has managed to weather the storm. It rose to prominence as the victor in the vicious battle to become China's Twitter, beating out Tencent, Sohu and Netease in the process. Sina's Weibo won in part through its reputation as a platform for celebrities, like actress Xu Jinglei and writer Han Han.
Weibo has consistently been a vehicle for celebrity broadcasts due to the platform's micro-blog foundation that allows asymmetric information to flow directly to a large audience. Pepsi saw their souvenir-can campaign go viral due to celebrity posts on Weibo over Chinese New Year Of The Monkey. Similarly, Chinese-American NBA star Jeremy Lin has seen his mainland fanbase explode on the back of Weibo.
In comparison to WeChat, Weibo's architecture is more open. WeChat, on the other hand, relies on a closed-network logic, which means you typically must follow someone or something before you receive information.
To capture the differences between the two social platforms, it is also interesting to consider the idea of digital psychology.
A WeChat user is more likely to be socially conservative and will focus on a closed circle of friends and trusted sources. A Weibo user is more likely to be curious about new experiences and perspectives from outside their current personal network.
Weibo and WeChat have two separate niches to perform. For example, when consumers research and share information on a topic, like tourism, Weibo provides access to a wider set of experts. When tourists update during their trips, WeChat provides the desired inter-peer intimacy and interactivity.
As storytelling takes on greater importance in China, brands need to harness the coexistence of WeChat's push logic with Weibo's power of dissemination to achieve success. An overly myopic focus on WeChat can be limiting, as traffic is not in public view, and content unlikely to go viral. An over-reliance either way will come across as too pushy or unnecessarily distant.
|Jerry Clode is head of digital and social insight at Resonance China|