Social Networks in China Don’t Follow the U.S. Model

A few weeks ago I forwarded an article from a major U.S. newspaper to our China team that referred to the social network Renren as “China’s Facebook.”

Their response that the story completely missed the mark planted the seed for this guest post.

There’s something to be said for an on-the-ground view.

Yin Mei, who grew up in the United States and graduated from UC Berkeley, is a consultant based in our Beijing office. Teaming with others in our China offices – Chris Tang, Dong Chen, Tom McHale – she penned this post on the social networking scene in China.


By Yin Mei
The Hoffman Agency China
Yin Mei Hoffman Agency Beijing office

Everyone knows one company, Facebook, dominates the U.S. social networking scene.

That’s not the case in China where several social networks are carving out meaningful positions.

Renren, despite being referred to as China’s Facebook, has a user demographic that tilts heavily toward students. It’s tough to uncover hard numbers, but translating the company’s 2011 Annual Report finds phrases like “consists largely of Chinese college students, young urban professionals, and high school students” and “includes a substantial majority of all current college students and recent college graduates in China.”

Founded around the same time as Renren, Douban.com offers a second example of going after a specific audience, in this case China’s intellectual types and artsy circles. They’re often using the platform to share and critique books, movies and music.

But discussions on Douban often evolve to address social issues which presents a challenge to the company which must censor content to avoid being shut down by the Chinese government. While such censorship obviously poses an obstacle for social networks in China, many of my colleagues and friends in the United States think censorship is only applied to Western companies. In fact, all companies deal with the issue.

Looking at the overall picture, the social networks in China with traction all have a focus. They identify and lay claim to a specific demographic or specialized communities of people who share common interests.

Recently, I was part of the inaugural Beijing Alumni Ball 2012 keynoted by Dr. Robert S. Wang, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy. As you would expect, the event was well-attended by the Chinese digerati including many founders and entrepreneurs from Chinese social networking companies. I took the opportunity to talk with a few, asking what differentiates their particular platforms.

Their answers underscored the extent to which pursuing dominance in a specialized area has been critical to their success.

Derek Ling, founder and CEO of Tianji.com, a Chinese professional network with over 10 million members, described how Tianji’s membership grew out of an extended network of a core group of well-connected alumni of Beijing University, Tsinghua University and other top Chinese universities. Ling said that “in the U.S. there are established social norms that allow professionals to do business directly; in China, professionals feel much more comfortable becoming ‘friends’ first before doing business together.”

Recognizing this need for familiar circles, Svante Jerling, one of the founding members of a by-invitation-only social network called P1, has sought to create a platform for China’s top 10 percent of earners. Today P1 claims over 2.7 million members. Jerling, now vice president of P1, emphasized the importance of trying to build a product that focuses on its members’ closest clusters. This way, the product minimizes irrelevant information for its members.

By branding itself as “the private social network for China’s finest,” the P1 website emphasizes the exclusivity of its network. In order to identify China’s upper echelon, P1 positions “Street Style Photographers” at strategic locations and exclusive events to photograph and invite well-dressed, potential members to join their network. Although this concept might sound strange in practice, P1 successfully played up a certain glamour and excitement attached to being “discovered” as if for a celebrity search. As a result, most of the initial members of P1 were women.

P1 old website

P1 awards more prominent and active members with VIP silver and VIP gold statuses. The P1 website also highlights a P1 Ambassadors status which is “only granted to the most outstanding elites with wide social networks in various industries.” While this blatant display of status may be a turn-off in a Western society with cultural schemas based on equality, such allure of status and exclusivity plays well in China.

However, P1′s latest approach to forming familiar circles is the soft launch of their new website, P1.COM, starting with a core group of social hubs to slowly build a tight, intimate network of friends connected by two degrees and less. Taking a more socially responsible approach, they are emphasizing a common set of core values as the standard for P1.COM’s members.

By creating a unique identity for their networks, Ling and Jerling are defining the purpose of their respective platforms. This type of network identity proves valuable for businesses and individuals looking for a specific audience.

For instance, Limiao Cheng, founder of social e-commerce website Joyachic.com, can name more than 50 small communities of fashionistas and shopaholics that comprise her target market. By locating her audience, Cheng aims to elevate China’s sense of style through a social network for fashionable women known as the IT Girl Club. Although anyone can join the club, the most active “IT Girls” with large social circles and high fashion influence get selected to receive special benefits and invitations to exclusive events.

For those living in the United States, it’s easy to look at China and assume it is one massive market of more than 1 billion people.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Social networks like Tianji, P1 and Joyachic are showing the benefits of appealing to a specialized audience. I expect this trend will only get more pronounced over time.

Who knows?

Perhaps Facebook’s challenge down the road will come from many niche social networks as opposed to one company.

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