With most social networks failing to bypass China's so-called Great Firewall, one might be forgiven for assuming the country lacks a diverse social media landscape. And yet, China's political context has catalysed a myriad of innovative startups, many of them set to reshape the globe's social media ecology.  

Weibo: The social network of China

Imagine a monolithic hybrid of Facebook and Twitter with 600 million registered users, all of them expressing themselves via microblogs and multimedia news feeds. Once one of the world’s most popular social media destinations, Weibo has in recent times fallen prey to external regulation. In 2014, the Chinese government began ramping up its moderation of free opinion, particularly on hot-button political commentary, even arresting a number of prominent users. Making matters worse, Weibo has recently seen an increase in spam and sales bots, prompting multitudes of users to leave the channel for greener pastures.

Meilishuo: Get creative!

Consider Meilishuo, the Chinese equivalent of Pinterest. Aimed exclusively at women, the site allows users to share products and outfits they already own while helping even the most style conscious keep up with new trends via the site’s personal style boards and brand pages. Unlike Pinterest, though, Meilishuo is overtly transactional. 95% of items ‘pinned’ by users can also be purchased through the site’s own shopping cart. Given Meilishuo’s wild growth — from less than 100 users in Q3 2013, to more than 32 million today — it’s entirely likely that Pinterest is looking at Meilishuo to inform the development of its own functional e-commerce portal.

Fact: If Meilishuo opened itself to an initial share offering, it could be worth 2.5 billion dollars

WeChat: For everything else

WeChat is a behemoth.

Multi-faceted, complex, and intriguing, the chat-based program has exploded in popularity since its 2011 release. With over 650 million users and growing, and features that dictate trends for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, WeChat is one of the globe’s most influential apps.

At its core, WeChat is similar to the Facebook-owned chat service WhatsApp — users can sign up, register profiles, and send text and audio messages over data. The real reason for the chat service’s success, then, may lie in its optimisation for Mandarin, a language commonly thought to be easier spoken than typed. More than this, though, WeChat features a Facebook-style friend feed, an offering that continues to provide competition to rival other social networks.

What truly distinguishes WeChat, though, is the way in which it facilitates unprecedented access to and interaction with brands. Brands can set up their own channels and develop in-app stores which go beyond the simple buy-and-sell mechanics offered on similar apps. And marketers can even install chat bots to interact with users — recently, Starbucks developed an AI system that cleverly responded to any emoji with a relevant song. Brands can also easily direct their audience to new content or products. Burberry launched a virtual runway show and broadcasted live updates from celebrities attending the production; later, the brand provided personalised Lunar New Year notes for its followers to send to family and friends.

WeChat has also been a pioneer in e-commerce innovation, shaping how our devices interact with the real world. Not only can users order cabs in the app; they can split the cost of the journey with their mates (like Uber). Users can also split restaurant bills, send money to a friend’s WeChat account (like the Commbank app), or pay for purchases with an in-app wallet.

Advice for Australian marketers

Some Australian marketers with international appetites have bitten the bullet and embraced Chinese platforms:

“There’s more than 400 million active Weibo and WeChat Users in China, and 500,000 in Australia,” says Ben Campbell, Digital Marketing Manager, International at Deakin University.

Our digital strategy is geared towards a number of key international markets, with China being one of them. For those brave enough to take the plunge, there are countless benefits of having an engaged Chinese market. The Chinese enjoy good content, like everyone else, but they also have a high propensity to share content with their friends. WeChat is particularly unique, in that the platform delivers brand messaging as a push notification, allowing instant, real-time cut-through in a time where traditional social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are filtering branded content against an algorithm.

At Deakin, China is just the start of our international ambition. Within the international Digital Marketing team we’ve pioneered multi-language engagement, with our team boasting a Chinese social media manager who runs our Weibo, WeChat and Youku accounts. We also have an international presence on Line, the fastest-growing social media platform in Japan, Indonesia and Thailand. And we’re also experimenting with Facenama, the premier social media platform in Iran.

Marketers need to understand that although your brands’ key messages might stretch globally, the digital platforms for delivery do not. An effective, audience-led digital marketing strategy should take into consideration the needs – and wants – of your brands’ international stakeholders. When going outside western markets, stop thinking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Instead, start thinking about the platforms you probably haven’t heard of yet.

Could Facebook become the Western WeChat?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Facebook will implement its own version of the WeChat model. Facebook’s chatting app, Facebook Messenger, already exhibits the capability for a shopping component. With pioneering brands like Everlane already utilising advanced chatbots for customer service, Messenger may well soon adopt WeChat’s model of centralisation within the app. And while currently only being trialled in the US, Messenger’s payment transfer system is set to roll out internationally in the coming months, with features set to challenge both traditional banking and the credit card.

Whether Weibo, Meilishuo, or WeChat will expand into the Australian market in their current forms or in new incarnations is debatable. In any case, what is perhaps most important for Australian marketers is a working knowledge of what these apps can do, and how audiences use them.

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Camilla Gulli


Camilla Gulli,

As Editor at Red Wire, Camilla is particularly passionate about diversity in tech, content marketing, social media, and disruptive platforms.