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Social media users in Western nations tend to be very precious about their favourite networks.

Witness the uproar when Facebook introduced the new timeline back in 2011, or the disbelief when Twitter dared to introduce blue lines linking related tweets.

We seem to be unwilling to accept that social networks should do anything other than the simple tasks for which they were originally designed, ignoring that fact that agility and innovation was what made these companies successful in the first place.

Instagram is perhaps the ultimate example of this, as it has become phenomenally popular despite the fact that all it does is share photos (admittedly it does that extremely well and I’m an avid user).

And I’d be interested to see the reaction if Instagram ever tried to drastically alter the interface or develop new functionality.

There are signs that this attitude is changing however, as nobody seemed that bothered when Snapchat recently added a text chat and video calling.

But the prevailing mood does seem to be that Western users prefer their social networks to stick to what they’re good at and keep things simple.

In China it’s oh-so different

The same can’t be said of the Chinese market, where social networks seem to be streets ahead of their Western counterparts when it comes to innovation and functionality.

It’s not uncommon for networks to involve messaging, photo sharing, and gaming, but Asian companies have also been quicker to monetise their apps with mobile payments and virtual goods.

For starters, take a look at Ben Davis’ write up of Japanese app LINE, which started out as a free messaging tool, but now offers a timeline, photo and video sharing. There are also several successful spinoff apps that include gaming drawing, photo editing, birthday cards and even Antivirus.

And what of China’s other major networks? Read on to find out, or for more information on China read our post looking at why Western brands are flocking to Alibaba’s Tmall or our stats roundup showing the size of the Chinese ecommerce market.

Sina Weibo

In a recent interview with Hootsuite's Ken Mandel I was made aware of the fact that there are many different weibos in China, as the word simply means 'microblog' in Mandarin.

However the daddy of them all was created by Sina, and now the term Weibo is shorthand for Sina Weibo, despite the fact that it has numerous competitors.

Burberry's Sina Weibo page

Sina Weibo is often described as the Chinese alternative to Twitter, but that does a disservice to the former’s superior functionality.

Weibo offers a much broader range of multimedia tools, which led Forbes to suggest that it is like Twitter “with elements of Yahoo’s Tumblr and Facebook’s Instagram.”

Coupled with the fact that 140 Chinese characters allow you to be far more descriptive than 140 of our own Roman alphabet, it means users can be far more expressive (censorship issues aside) on Weibo than on Twitter.

In terms of numbers, Weibo made $56m in ad revenue in Q4 (up 163% year-on-year) and boast 61m daily users, however there are signs that it is a declining force.

The BBC reported that Weibo lost 28m users last year due to a combination of increased government censorship and the lure of its main rival – Tencent’s WeChat.

WeChat

Chinese tech giant Tencent launched WeChat in 2011 and racked up more than 100m followers in 15 months.

Its rapid success was thanks to Tencent’s ability to cross-promote the app through its other products, such as the desktop messaging service QQ.

WeChat now has 396m monthly active users and made close to $50m in revenue in Q4 2014, which is impressive but only a tiny fraction of Tencent’s overall revenues of $1.9bn that same quarter.

Even so, WeChat is commonly seen as the Chinese version of WhatsApp, which as yet has no way of monetising its product other than the few dollars people pay to download the app.

The reason for WeChat’s relative success in bringing in revenue is largely down to Tencent’s ability to tie it in with its other products and services, such as payment service TenPay.

Alongside text, video and voice messaging users in China can make mobile payments, browse ecommerce stores, play games, or book a taxi. It even offers access to an online investment fund.

Whatever Facebook has in store for WhatsApp, it will require a massive amount of product development and a major step change in consumer expectations for it to live up to WeChat’s example.

In conclusion...

This is by no means a full run-through of China’s social networks, but it does show the differing expectations that consumers have in terms of what social platforms and apps should be capable of.

There are others that Western marketers should be aware of, including Tencent Weibo and Renren, however the latter is said to be on the decline in terms of users.

The WeChat example also seems to be a good indicator of Facebook’s ultimate aspirations. 

To outsider’s its acquisitions can occasionally seem like a random power trip aimed at stamping out any competition, however if it can build its own eco-system of social apps then it can begin to monetise its platform beyond relying on ad revenue.

As mentioned, this would require a big change in user expectations, but if Facebook can successfully add mobile payments and other related services to its existing range of apps then its profits could potentially skyrocket.

David Moth

Published 20 May, 2014 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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