These days, China’s social media landscape is fragmenting along multiple fault lines. That means consumers are starting to spend less time on WeChat and Weibo, and luxury brands need to plan for ways to reach these users in their new online homes. In a bid to break WeChat’s dominance, Alibaba, Jingdong, and ByteDance are all developing new social platforms that target students, turning the college campus into a crucial battleground for the future of Chinese social media.
That arena has become particularly crowded over the past two years, with the number of Chinese social media platforms vying for market share growing exponentially. In 2018 alone, 159 new platforms appeared in Chinese app stores, with another 53 apps debuting during the first two months of 2019. In comparison, the entire seven-year period between 2008 and 2015 saw the launch of 153 new social media apps.
Alibaba’s new student-focused platform, Ruwo (also known by its English name, “Real Like Me”) is attracting particular interest. The e-commerce giant began beta testing the app in September, but an earlier version was also tested under the name Lanlan in several Zhejiang colleges towards the end of 2018.
The app is targeting a perceived yearning for authenticity, as that idea is often associated with Gen Z consumers. The platform promises that its users can “share and discover real people, real things, and real feelings.” Users can scan friends’ faces to add them to their network, use a celebrity face-match feature, and use an array of filters and stickers.
Young people with a college education want something that belongs to themselves that is also different from WeChat or Alibaba.
These new platforms are battling it out to emulate WeChat’s success, but they should each offer a distinctly different user experience from Tencent’s all-conquering app. This is mostly due to growing disillusionment with WeChat’s ubiquity, prying family members and friends, and overbearing, influencer-driven commercial content. Research by QuestMobile shows a decline in WeChat usage, suggesting that users are looking for alternatives. WeChat users spent 32.4 hours on the platform in June 2019, compared to 35.4 hours in December 2018 — a drop of 8.6 percent.
It’s no accident that many of the new social platforms are targeting college students. China’s college campuses have witnessed the passing of the generational torch this year, with undergraduate classes now composed exclusively of Gen-Z students. Experts believe Gen Zers are ready to break ties with WeChat in favor of a platform that can offer a more private experience and allow them to express themselves and post what they want, away from the watchful eyes of older family members.
There is a precedent for college-based social networking in China: Renren, which started in 2005 as one of the country’s first social networks under the name Xiaonei. Renren was hailed as China’s answer to Facebook, gaining over 100 million users at its peak. However, as the smartphone era dawned, Renren was quickly eclipsed by Weibo and then by WeChat. Renren’s original fanbase graduated — both from college and in terms of technology — and in spite of a 2011 IPO, the platform was soon rendered irrelevant, though it attempted to reinvent itself numerous times.
Sun Baohong, a marketing professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, said college students will welcome platforms that speak specifically to their experience. Sun said that demand has not been met by the platforms that have burst onto the scene in recent years, such as Pinduoduo and Douyin. “The increase in popularity of those platforms has been contributed to more by young people from third- and fourth-tier cities,” says Sun. “Young people with a college education want something that belongs to themselves that is also different from WeChat or Alibaba. So somebody needs to come out and serve them.”
Indeed, Alibaba wasn’t the only company rolling out a new platform to coincide with the new college semester. September also saw JD Finance begin testing on its campus-centric app, Liwowo. Only verified students can use the platform, which promises to connect like-minded users by deploying AI, a personality test, and interest-based tagging. As with Ruwo, Liwowo’s marketing seems designed to emphasize authentic relationships by appealing to students’ desire for true friendship rather than networking for the sake of networking. An ad for Liwowo promoted the platform as an antidote to campus loneliness, promising its users will find close “confidants.”
In the same month, Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, acquired the college networking app Biu Campus. Biu Campus was launched in 2017, but reports on the acquisition noted that no updates to the app had been released in over a year. The app allows students to leave comments, or “impressions,” on their classmates and see what classmates are saying about them.
Sun believes that Alibaba will have to overcome several challenges if Ruwo is to succeed. The company historically has been less mobile-savvy than some of its competitors, and it doesn’t have a lot of experience in building communities, partially due to its focus on e-commerce and a lack of user-generated content. Laiwang, Alibaba’s 2013 foray into social networking, was a failure, but on the bright side, Alibaba has seen success with its workplace network DingDing, which Western observers have labeled “China’s Slack.” “It’s hard to tell if Ruwo will be successful or not, but clearly it’s the right direction,” says Sun.
Thomas Graziani, the founder of the WeChat agency WalktheChat, said the biggest challenge to WeChat will come from established contenders like Douyin, Kuaishou, and Toutiao. However, he believes WeChat’s appeal will endure even as the social landscape fragments. “It’s not so much fatigue as it is a wider choice of apps for more specialized uses,” says Graziani. “WeChat will likely keep dominating relational social networks, but there is a lot of space for new interest- and entertainment-based platforms such as Douyin.”
Sun agrees that given its power as an ecosystem, WeChat will remain important for the foreseeable future. The introduction of WeChat’s app-like Mini Programs has bolstered the platform even as user engagement has fallen: the QuestMobile study found users were spending 23 percent more time inside WeChat mini-programs. Indeed, Sun distinguishes between WeChat’s potency as a mass-market driver of sales and its value as a branding tool. “Brands are not going to leave WeChat because it’s a more useful platform to acquire customers,” she says. “But to build a luxury brand image, I think now is the time for brands to find a social media platform that the new generation will hop on.”
Emerging, campus-oriented platforms could offer companies that opportunity, but it depends on the shape they’ll eventually take. Sun cited platforms like Pinterest and Keep as examples of how communities built around shared interests can create openings for brands. If Ruwo and its counterparts do emerge as more private social networks, brands will need to develop smart strategies for reaching potential loyal customers within the communities where they spend time fostering close relationships with people similar to them. How these platforms will ultimately roll out is uncertain, but brands need to be where Gen Z is or risk losing out on China’s wealthiest generation of consumers to date.