2017 brought a lot of changes to China’s social media, both opportunities and challenges, with the launch of Mini Programs, crackdowns on entertainment news and the rapid growth of e-commerce live streaming to name a few. To keep up with the changes, and anticipate what’s coming next year, here are the top six changes to Chinese social media we witnessed in 2017.
1. Censorship came for the KOLs
The year started off with an international conflict that resulted in China banning travel to South Korea. And the travel trade wasn’t the only thing impacted. “We knew things were serious when Weibo reached out to its top KOLs warning them not to spread content that mentioned Korea or Korean products” said Elijah Whaley, CMO of the influencer marketing platform PARKLU. “Though the ban has been lifted, Korean brands still feel the pinch and general positive sentiment has not fully returned.”
Then in early June, after a meeting with the Beijing cyberspace administration, WeChat was forced to shut down 25 very popular public accounts, including those of several fashion outlets such as Harper’s Bazaar and Southern Metropolis Entertainment. The accounts were accused of ‘undermining socialist values’ by spreading celebrity news and gossip. Following the crackdown, brands and companies were advised to avoid sensitive, clickbait vocabulary in their WeChat articles, especially in the headlines.
Around the same time, the government announced new Cyber Laws aimed at controlling the live streaming industry. Several platforms were forced to stop their live streaming services while other were fined for inappropriate content. Numerous foreign media outlets misunderstood the announcement and falsely reported that China had completely shut down all live stream services causing a bit of panic in the industry.
Although services weren’t shut down completely, the announcement had a significant impact on the industry. For a period of time Yizhibo, Weibo’s live streaming service, banned all live streams being filmed outside of China. Later on, some foreign accounts were able to resume streaming, but to this day there are still many that can’t. Other platforms faced similar restrictions. Unfortunately, the new rules are ambiguous making them difficult for platforms and content producers to follow.
2. Live streaming grew up
There is no doubt that 2016 was the year of live streaming in China. While live streaming was still popular throughout 2017, those within the industry have noticed a significant shift occurring as platforms are consolidating and content is becoming more professional.
Partly due to the crackdowns mentioned above, and partly due to fierce competition, the number of live streaming platforms has fallen by 60 percent year-on-year.
The bigger players that remain are increasingly pushing for more professional content, with many brands and influencers starting to create more formal live stream shows similar to live TV programs. It’s becoming much harder for anyone to just hop on a live streaming platform and earn a full-time living as a live streamer by singing some songs and chatting with the audience. Users are bored of that and seeking more.
As live streaming has become more professional, growing numbers of brands from L’Oreal and Maybelline to Audi, Macy’s and Adidas are using live streams to create brand awareness and interact with their target audience.
In 2017, Taobao Live and JD Live, the live streaming platforms connected to China’s leading e-commerce sites, became very popular. Between August 17 and September 17, nearly 35 million people watched live streaming on Taobao live alone. With the ability for consumers to seamlessly purchase products while watching the live stream, brands have realized this is one of the smartest ways to sell to Chinese consumers. The home shopping network has entered the 21st century.
3. Videos got shorter
The popularity of short video continues to grow in China, especially super short 15-30 second ones, analogous to now defunct app Vine. New platforms such as Douyin (China’s version of Musical.ly) and Kwai specialize in short vertically-shot videos featuring lip-syncing, skits and pranks. These videos are especially popular among Chinese under the age of 24, and big brands including Michael Kors and Chinese phone brand OPPO have already been experimenting with this trend.
Established video platforms are attempting to latch onto the trend; video-sharing platform Meipai has updated their short video features to include Douyin-like filters and Youtube-like Tudou has also added a landing page featuring 15 second vertical videos.
4. WeChat mini programs began to deliver
In early January 2017, with much fanfare, WeChat officially launched its Mini Program platform. While the market questioned their necessity at first, they started gaining momentum in the second half of the year. Confident in the future of Mini Programs, Matthew Brennan, WeChat expert and founder of China Channel, explained, “Mini Programs are finally starting to deliver on the hype, and the mission is ‘let’s kill Taobao’.”
He went on, “The Mini Program framework is starting to supercharge WeChat ecommerce by taking away all friction and making the entire buying experience virtually the same as Tmall. What’s more, brands can control the experience and they are not ranked next to their competitors.”
In the past, brands entering China either had the option of building their own ecommerce platform or opening a store on a third-party ecommerce platform such as Taobao or JD.com. However, neither option was ideal.
With WeChat’s massive user base, companies and influencers have been trying to figure out for a long time how to sell on WeChat directly. Official Subscription Accounts are unable to include links in their articles and the only way users could link to external websites and e-commerce was by putting a link in the “Read More” button, which had a very low click-through rate. Now, with Mini Programs, WeChat has changed the rules, allowing WeChat Subscription Accounts to include links to Mini Programs in their articles. This gives brands and influencers a much more convenient way to create direct links to products, therefore increasing conversion rates and sales.
And Mini Programs are not restricted to e-commerce. Most recently, with the aim of enhancing the overseas travel experience of WeChat users, WeChat launched its CityExperience Mini Program in partnership with Tourism Australia, VisitBritain and Dubai Tourism. WeChat also hopes the platform will help the global tourism industry to better connect with Chinese travelers.
5. Weibo and Meipai made a cash grab
Several years ago, after being surpassed by messaging platform WeChat in both number of users and innovation, many people predicted that Chinese social media platform Weibo was on its way out. Yet, over the past couple of years, through adding video and live streaming features, Weibo has made a comeback and is now more popular than ever.
This year the platform has focused on monetizing their popularity, doing so by decreasing organic reach and requiring users and companies to pay increasingly higher prices to sponsor posts. Raz Galor, founder of the extremely popular Weibo account Y China, said that his company has seen Weibo advertising costs increase threefold this year. “Nowadays influencers and content creators need significant investment in order to grow on Weibo.”
In November, Weibo reported that their revenue from advertising and marketing increased 77 percent year over year.
“For good or for bad, Weibo made a boat load of money this year. It’s becoming increasingly expensive to operate an account with a significant following on the platform, and that can make it really tough for KOLs that don’t have backing or aren’t e-commerce driven,” Elijah Whaley of PARKLU explained. “But this seems to be the direction all social platforms in China eventually fall into. Meipai is another wonderful open content driven platform, but it’s been making moves to monetize its best creators, which in the end feels more like penalty than anything else.”
Meipai’s Project M, which launched earlier this year, forces advertisers to go through Meipai’s official marketplace in order to work with influencers on the platform. The initiative doesn’t only affect brands. Meipai users who are suspected of sending out commercial content without applying through Project M will have their post’s organic reach throttled and will receive warning notifications. While it is understandable that Meipai is trying to monetize, Project M is hurting smaller influencers because brands are unwilling to go through the hassle of applying to work with them. Project M is also frustrating influencers with their own brands who are having to register their brand on the platform and go through official channels in order to promote their own products.
6. Influencers hit it big with brands
This year brands embraced influencer marketing, with several helping blow previous sales results out of the water.
One of the most talked about campaigns of the year was MINI’s collaboration with fashion influencer Becky Li. Within five minutes of sharing a limited-edition MINI Cooper on her public WeChat account, all 100 cars were sold out.
In another popular campaign, luxury brand Tod’s showed what can happen when influencers are given creative control. Top Chinese fashion influencer Mr. Bags worked closely with Tod’s designers to create a limited edition three bag collection which sold out within 24 hours. What stood out about this collaboration was that Mr. Bags let data from his followers to dictate the style and color of the bags.
This was also the year influencer owned and operated brands hit it big. For the first time in 11.11 Singles Day shopping festival history, influencer brands broke into the top ten best-selling female fashion stores. By the end of Singles Day 2017, a total of six influencer-run stores made it into the Top-30, with four of them making over 100m RMB ($15m) in Singles Day sales.