WeChat, Weibo, and Social Media in China

I just returned from a trip to Shanghai with my Executive MBA class at Loyola. A couple of words immediately come to my mind:


Most of our time was spent visiting businesses such as Discover and Mindshare. Before this trip, China was relatively unknown to me beyond a little social media experience. I knew there was a lot of manufacturing. I knew Facebook and Instagram would not be available. I knew pollution was an issue. Beyond these facts, I did not know what to expect.

I could go on for pages about things I’d learned and discovered, but I will focus on where my interests particularly lie: marketing, communications, and social media.

As you probably know, China controls their media. As a result, you are unable to access many sites like Facebook, Google, and Instagram. The exception to this is the 1% to 3% of the population that have Virtual Private Networks or VPNs. A VPN is an encrypted connection to a remote server that allows people to access the internet from behind restrictive firewalls. A VPN affects all of your web traffic, which means the firewall does not block Facebook and other content. Experts estimate that only about 1% to 3% of the population have access to a VPN. Since the remaining 98% of the country does not have access to Facebook and Instagram, a social media vacuum is left.

Chinese consumers can be slow to trust new brands. The most efficient way of reaching users in China tends to be Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs. KOLs are sometimes celebrities, sometimes bloggers, and often people who have large platforms on social media. A significant part of advertising budgets is spent to pay KOLs to talk about and promote your product. The price to have a KOL endorse your product can range anywhere between ¥5,000 to ¥150,000 ($750 to $22,000). A KOL is, of course, still used to some extent in the United States, but it appears to be much more useful in China.

Currently, the most powerful platforms for KOLs are WeChat and Weibo.

WeChat began as an instant messaging mobile app. However, it has now become a combination of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Chatroulette. Tencent launched WeChat in 2011, but it already has reached well over 700 million users and, according to TechInAsia.com, 73% of internet users in China have used WeChat in the past month. It is known to be more of a close-knit network-based platform. Therefore, it is thought to be a more reliable and influential KOL platform.

Weibo is primarily a microblogging platform, similar to Twitter. Weibo content is always public information, and experts estimate that around 30% of internet users in China use Weibo. It is estimated to have over 500 million registered users, predominantly in China. Reports have indicated that a significant amount of Weibo accounts are “zombie accounts,” though. Consequently, WeChat KOLs are more sought after than Weibo KOLs.

I was familiar with these platforms before my visit, but I underestimated how quickly they’ve grown and how quickly they will continue to grow. Needless to say, I’ve begun a lot of research on understanding them in much more detail in the past couple weeks, and I will continue to do so. As China quickly approaches the United States as the top consuming country, we better quickly begin learning their ways whether it be customs or social media platforms.

Brad Riemann
Emblem Design