SHANGHAI, China — In the parallel internet universe behind China’s “Great Firewall,” where search engine Baidu is Google, etailer Dangdang is Amazon, and video sharing site Youku is YouTube, the microblogging service Weibo (pronounced Way-Bwah, literally microblog) — launched in August 2009 by online media giant Sina Corp — has emerged as the country’s answer to Twitter.
According to brokerage and investment group CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, China is set to become the world’s largest luxury market with demand from “Greater Chinese” to account for 44 percent of global sales by 2020. Analysts are also seeing a surge in China’s internet usage: according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center, by the end of 2010, there were over 457 million Chinese internet users.
Set against staggering statistics like these, Twitter-like Weibo — a platform with over 100 million users (growing at 10 million users a month) and the centrepiece of Sina Corp’s transition from a Web 1.0 news and entertainment portal to a social networking service — has recently captured the attention of the world’s leading fashion brands.
Back in October 2010, Louis Vuitton became the first global fashion brand to launch a Weibo presence. But in the first quarter of 2011, we’ve seen a rapidfire build up of fashion brands on Weibo, with Chanel, Gucci and Burberry all launching accounts within the first few weeks of the year.
Much like Twitter, Weibo lets users post messages of up to 140 characters, which in Mandarin Chinese is substantial, allowing for more detailed expression than is possible in English on Twitter. Weibo also offers threaded discussions, voting and polling features, and events, as well as Tumblr-like features which make it easy to post photos, videos and audio. Indeed, Weibo’s product roadmap points towards a robust Facebook-like social networking site, with expanded profiles and location-based services, according to a highly informative presentation put together by Bill Bishop, a US-born, Beijing-based China expert, blogger, investor and advisor to several startups.
While Weibo may not be the largest microblogging service in China — Tencent claims more microblog users than Sina Weibo — according to Mr. Bishop, the platform’s users are higher quality that Tencent’s “great unwashed” and include movie stars, singers and other members of the media and business elite. Like Twitter and Tumblr in the West, fashion has also emerged as an important topic on the Chinese platform, ranking 9th overall in terms of most popular profile tags.
But Weibo is largely personality-driven and the top ten Weibo accounts are all maintained by celebrities and other prominent individuals (Chinese actress Yao Chen currently holds the most popular account in China, with over six million followers). As a result, the personal accounts of fashion industry figures often attract more followers than the accounts of large fashion media brands. For example, Vogue China’s editor-in-chief, Angelica Cheung with almost 200,000 followers, has a higher following than both of the magazine’s two official accounts — one for print, the other for online. Chinese fashion models Liu Wen and Sun Fei Fei have followings that well exceed half a million, while fashion glossies like Harper’s Bazaar and Elle have attracted less than a quarter of a million followers.
But for fashion media brands, Weibo is more than a place to build a following. It’s also an incredibly powerful real-time research and testing tool. “You can immediately see how the market and your following will respond to something if you want to do research,” says senior fashion editor of Elle China, Leaf Greener. Indeed, Weibo is a great way to test which celebrity or model will work best for a front cover, editorial spread or ad campaign.
The value of a Weibo account depends on a brand’s objectives, emphasized Jeffrey Sprafkin, managing partner at China-based media industry consulting firm Media Pacific. “If it’s awareness, there’s probably value there … If it’s for acquisition or activation, it’s got to be a part of a broader strategy,” he continued. “Maybe it’s tied to an event.”
Chanel has done just that, launching a Weibo account specifically for Culture Chanel, the brand’s current exhibition at Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art. But while the content is nicely focused, with imagery and text relating to the exhibit, the account had only attracted 18,540 followers at the time of writing.
Gucci, another global luxury fashion brand to embrace Weibo, joined the platform on January 26th and has since developed a following of 16,195 fans. But Gucci believes that there is tremendous potential in Weibo. Robert Triefus, worldwide director of marketing and communications at Gucci, noted that “55 percent of Chinese consumers like to read the history of their preferred luxury brand online, especially European brands,” adding that “50 percent of Chinese consumers like to share images and information on luxury brands.”
At the moment, it may be too soon to predict how Weibo will evolve — and what other alternatives may surface. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with Sina in Beijing over the winter holidays, sparking much local speculation on the platform’s future direction, while Sina’s CEO, Charles Chao, intends to improve the service’s “stickiness” and has hinted at a bilingual, Chinese-English offering. But according to a recent blog post by Gady Epstein, Beijing bureau chief at Forbes, “China is in a very advertising-heavy brand-building phase with a potentially outsized e-commerce market, and the momentum for both brand-building and e-commerce ad dollars is in the direction of social networks.”
With this in mind, Weibo may well be the perfect place for global fashion brands to test and learn what resonates with their Chinese internet fan base and prepare for the future.
Elizabeth Peng is an Associate Contributor at The Business of Fashion.