How Social Media Usage Among China’s Digital Natives Is Evolving

China today has the world’s most active social media population. According to an April 2012 report released by McKinsey, 91 percent of those connected to the Internet have visited a social media site during the last six months, compared with 30 percent in Japan, 67 percent in the United States and 70 percent in South Korea. In a country where the majority of consumers are skeptical of formal institutions and traditional media outlets, social media has emerged as an effective and powerful communication channel for Chinese consumers across all segments to engage, voice their opinions (and frustrations), as well as seek new entertainment and news content.

For nearly 14 years, since the simultaneous births of online forums and Tencent — China’s largest Internet company and owner of the country’s largest social networking platforms — Chinese netizens both within and outside of China have been experimenting with social media. Over the past few years, the surge in popular channels, such as Weibo, Renren, Weixin and others, have also revealed a transformation in people’s online behaviors as their ages, social statuses and offline needs change.

Online Social Lives Start Early

Many Chinese first encounter social media during their teenage years and sign up for a QQ and a Qzone account. Both created by Tencent, QQ is the top instant messaging platform in terms of the most active user accounts (784 million as of September 2012), while Qzone is a social networking site where users can write blogs, share photos and listen to music. Based on a May 2011 report released by Credit Suisse Bank, Qzone has the highest penetration rate across all user segments compared to its competitors. The most active users of QQ and Qzone are those below the age of 18. Young, open and enthusiastic, users during this age are usually outgoing and social, eagerly expanding their networks with classmates and people who share common interests. Students leading jam-packed schedules, trying to juggle their time between studying and school-related activities, spend a lot of time online, with the majority logging on through their mobile phones when not on a computer.

As some of the users enter universities, their online behaviors start to change. Influenced by their peers and aggressive on-campus marketing activities, college students start to view Qzone as childish and immature. Many migrate to Renren, the social networking site touted as the Facebook of China. In 2011, Renren reported 170 million registered users, of which about 95 million were active, with the majority being college students and recent graduates. College students love the features of Renren, as it serves as an ideal resource for accessing news about their respective universities, including curriculum updates, supplementary materials and class discussion boards. In many cases, the students will keep their Qzone and QQ accounts — usually, they will log in to QQ to stay in touch with their old friends, parents and classmates, but neglect their Qzone pages and use Renren instead. Based on Frog’s design research, college students filter their messages and feeds shown on Qzone and QQ (where their parents are online), while being more transparent and honest on Renren.

Sina Weibo, one of China’s most active microblogging sites, has seen a significant increase in popularity, with many Chinese youths opening new accounts. Rich in content and celebrity gossip, students browse the news on Sina Weibo and form networks outside of their immediate social circles. It is during these teen and young-adult years that students start gaining exposure and forming opinions about brands and public figures that are active on Sina Weibo, from local brands such as VANCL and Tsingtao to foreign players like Starbucks, LVMH and Adidas.

Same, Yet Different: Social Networking Among Young Professionals and the Working Class

When students graduate from college and enter the workforce, their social statuses, rising incomes and increasing maturity will start to shape their online behaviors more dramatically. As they become new professionals, these individuals tend to have relatively established social networks, comprising university friends, family, colleagues and clients. Young professionals also have a stronger sense of self-identity than students, and are careful of how that identity gets presented online. During this life stage, according to McKinsey, Sina Weibo emerges as the predominant social media outlet among consumers in higher income brackets (earning more than 8,000RMB monthly) who live in Tier 1 cities. These users seek more relevant news and topics concerning their interests, while curating the outbound content that is shared with the public.

As users’ incomes, educational levels and management positions rise, Sina Weibo increases in its stickiness and becomes a powerful outlet to help users connect, influence and engage with the community. Huawei’s CEO of Consumer Business, Yu Chengdong, uses Sina Weibo to communicate Huawei’s strategies and thinking directly to the public about its consumer electronics products. Dr. Lee Kai Fu, former head of Microsoft and Google China and founder of Innovation Works, leverages Sina Weibo to actively engage with China’s entrepreneur community. Foreign public figures, such as Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China, use microblogging via Weibo to win the hearts and minds of Chinese netizens.

China’s Masses and the Next Generation of Social Media Users

While the majority of the press and brands focus on China’s educated class and users in the Tier 1 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen), it’s also worthwhile to examine other user segments as they exert more influence on the connected world.

Given the significant inroads from local manufacturers and software companies such as Baidu, Oppo, Huawei, Qihoo and ZTE, more and more Chinese consumers outside the Tier 1 cities, including the rural population and blue collar workers, are getting their hands on low-entry Android smartphones (priced below 1,500 Yuan). According to a report released in July 2012 by the China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC), over 50 percent of the year’s new Internet users were from rural areas. For these emerging segments, the smartphones serve as their primary communication device. When Frog’s research teams observed the workers’ lunch breaks, we found people quietly sitting side by side, watching videos, chatting on QQ and listening to music instead of conversing with their colleagues. These lunch breaks served as rare windows of opportunity for the rural population and blue collar workers to connect with the outside world. With limited free time, and being somewhat ashamed of their working-class lifestyles, their usage of social platforms such as QQ and Qzone is mainly for one-on-one communication and less for sharing insights and information.

At the same time, as these working-class users become increasingly tech-savvy, many have already turned to microblogging sites to vent their grievances and disputes to the public. In 2011, the villagers and farmers in Wukan protested against the local government for selling land without fair compensation and for the suspicious death of Xue Jinbo, one of the village representatives. Several people from Wukan broadcasted the incidents on Sina Weibo, and when the word “Wukan” was censored, the villagers used the letters “WK” to continue to report the incident and leak the news to foreign media. Since the Wukan incident, other villages have followed suit, such as the recent uprising in Zhejiang province’s Cangnan country. During the end of July 2012, when Beijing was experiencing a major flood disaster, the residents of Fangshan, Beijing’s worst-affected district, took matters into their own hands and published their own deathtoll numbers using public and private chat rooms.

Embracing Openness Online

Chinese consumers across all segments are becoming increasingly connected. In May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that the number of mobile phone users in China exceeded 1 billion. Additionally, the number of Internet users in the country recently reached 538 million, with mobile Internet users now up to 388 million. As more users access the Internet, many are also accessing social media services and applications. McKinsey found that 95 percent of Chinese living in Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities are registered on a social media site, and that Chinese consumers spend 46 minutes a day visiting social media sites, compared with only seven minutes in Japan and 37 minutes in the United States.

While the social landscape in China remains crowded with many different players, these rich communication channels are allowing Chinese consumers to connect in multiple ways. While censorship does kick in, if one tool suddenly becomes unavailable, it has been shown that the Chinese will simply find another means to interact with one another. As more and more Chinese go online, digital connectivity — which started off in the ’90s as an inevitable consequence and supporting tool for the “socialist market economy” — is now being shaped by a wide variety of consumers. As they find new ways to exchange dialogue, their voices will only become louder and clearer.

This article is from Frog’s publication Insights_China, a new report that offers direct, in-the-field discoveries of consumers’ habits and aspirations, combined with deep, data-driven analyses of contemporary trends in China. Emily Chong is Frog’s AVP of Marketing, Asia, and Rocky Liu is an associate creative director in Frog’s Shanghai studio.

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