Media And Viral Marketing In China Media

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Social media, a range of various new communication applications based on Internet and wireless telecommunication technology, provide a new media environment for marketing. This chapter first reviews literature about social media and social media marketing, specifically viral marketing. It then provides an overview on the development of social media in China, followed by a detailed description of a popular form of social media -- microblogs. In the last section, some Chinese characteristics of social media marketing are briefly summarized.

The term "social media," as its name implies, refers to any of the number of online communication channels that incorporate social interaction by the use of highly accessible and scalable communication technology. Comm (2010) notes that it is the individual user who creates the content of social media, i.e. it is a personal form of communication. In contrast to the traditional media where the content is created by an individual (or a group of individuals) for the purpose of obtaining a large readership (for example an online newspaper) from a passive audience, in social media the writer is both the creator of the text as well as its audience. In that sense, and this is where the main difference lies, social media is both active and interactive. The novelty of social media lies in the fact that it does not rely on a passive audience, but rather it highlights the interactivity of the communication process, and thus changes our understanding of how people communicate online.

Web-based platforms are very well suited for collaborative activities in the realm of social media. These activities include, but are not limited to, blogs (and micro-blogs), social networking sites, chat lines, virtual game worlds and virtual communities, content communities, etc. (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). They form a new type of communication, which is rapidly becoming ubiquitous as millions of people from every part the world participate online on a daily basis. A simple example of the evolution of this new social media will suffice. In the beginning, and before the popularity and ease of ownership of the cell phone (aka mobile phone), one would exchange a home phone number with another person so that one could keep in touch. Then with the advent of email, it was common to provide an email address and keep in touch online. As technology developed further, the cell phone liberated the user from the home-based phone and the desktop computer (both of which were located in a specific place). The era of Web 2.0, combined with the invention of Android-based systems that enabled the cell phone to connect to the internet, brought more and more people, especially the youth, to ask for the user's Facebook, QQ, Twitter, Myspace, Renren, and Sina-Weibo account (although one would still give out a mobile phone number). Not only has social media changed the way of contacting others, but it has also changed the way participants communicate with the outside world. By the use of a mobile device connected to the internet (the smart phone), a user can access any of the social media platforms anywhere and at anytime. Communication becomes instant, interactive and personal. The user is no longer tethered to a particular place and device (i.e. the home phone and desktop computer).

The advent of social media has also revolutionized how users receive news. In the past, the dissemination of news was solely the domain of newspaper reporters and broadcasters. Today anyone can be the reporter and the broadcaster (Meyerson, 2010). The cost of creating content is virtually zero and anyone who has basic computer literacy skills can become a publisher and make writing available to a wide audience. As Comm (2010) points out, the low cost of publication means that it not important whether the message is read or not. That is the reason why millions of people publish their views, ideas and frivolous comments in social media, regardless of whether the content has readers or not. Another effect that the low cost of publishing online has is that readers are no longer limited to the views of professional writers and publishers; now users are talking to each other (Comm, 2010). This means that it really doesn't matter whether the message is meaningful or not; what matters is that the message is delivered for everyone to read.

Social Media Marketing

With a rising diffusion of social media in society, new models of marketing through social media have emerged. Hopkins & Turner (2012), in their book, Go Mobile, highlight the fact that many users of the most up-to-date, 3G-enabled smartphones (with internet connections) can access the major social media websites. The authors predict that by 2013, the notebook computer will no longer be the number one way to access the internet, but rather people will use their smartphones to get online.

The authors also point out that it does not matter how the users access the social media platforms (i.e. from a desktop or a smartphone); what matters is that the users become familiar with as many of these platforms as possible. With that in mind, they provide the readers with a list of the top 52 social media platforms. Briefly, there are three main categories, 1) social media platforms for networking (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.); 2) social media platforms for promotion (YouTube, micro blogs, etc.); and, 3) social media platforms for sharing (Digg, Delicious, etc.). [] 

Viral marketing

The emergence of "viral marketing" has been connected to the popularity of the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The field that developed around this notion, memetics, peaked in popularity in the 1990s (Burman, 2012). Douglas Rushkoff, a media critic, in his 1994 book Media Virus (Rushkoff, 1996) was the first one who wrote about viral marketing on the Internet. Then the term viral marketing was suggested by Jeffrey Rayport, a faculty member at Harvard Business School, in his 1996 article 'The Virus of Marketing' (Rayport, 1996). From then on, in 1997, it was made popular by Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson of the venture capital firm Draper, Fisher and Jurvetson that described Hotmail's email practice of appending advertisements in outgoing emails from web users (Montgomery, 2001)., one of the first free Web-based e-mail services, is a classic example (Wilson, 2000). The following strategy was adopted by Hotmail:

Offer free e-mail addresses and services;

The bottom of every free message sent out had a tag that read: "Get your private, free email at;"

Then wait while people e-mail to their friends and associates;

The friends and associates read the message;

Sign up to get their personal and free e-mail service;

The message is propelled and disseminated to an even wider network of friends and associates.

Thus, in the outbound message sent by every user, the message window contained an attached and clickable URL. This resulted in every recipient of the email to become

the vehicle through which other potential users could get to know about this new email service. Not only did future users become aware of the company, but once they received the email, they were given a simple and immediate opportunity to obtain the email service. Through this form of marketing strategy (i.e. giving away a product for absolutely free) the number of registered users of Hotmail increased from 0 to 12 million users globally in a year and a half (Dobele, 2005). Considering that Hotmail was given away for free, more research is needed to analyse all the online marketing campaigns where the product is given away to users free of charge. With the advent of the Internet (also free of charge where there is a public WiFi connection), virtually everything on the Net is free, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, major media organizations such as the BBC, CBC, CCTV, etc..

As Wilson (2000) notes, there are some viral marketing strategies that work better than others, and he points out that few strategies work as well as the simple Hotmail marketing strategy. Having said that, and according to Wilson (2000), an effective viral marketing strategy should contain six factors: 1) offering valuable products and services, 2) providing efficient ways for communications, 3) utilizing large-scale spreading of information, 4) making efficient use of public positivisms and behaviors, 5) establishing communication networks, and 6) sharing resources with others.

Viral marketing is defined as, "marketing phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message." [] This type of online marketing depends on how many people transmit a particular message and how often it is transmitted. This is where its success lies: if a large number of senders send a message to many friends, then the message has the chance of snowballing very quickly. If on the other hand, the message is sent, but gets not response, then its growth comes to a quick end. Hotmail is often cited as the main (and first) example of a successful viral marketing strategy.

Dobele et al (2005) describe in some detail the case of Honda UK, which turned out to be a very successful viral marketing campaign. Some years back, Honda had only 3% of the UK market and the company wanted to increase its share of car sales. It was not enough to show the same car ads, where the viewers were subjected to brand-new, shiny automobiles going around corners, usually at high speed. The ads in almost all cases depicted a lonely car going through some breathtaking countryside, with mountains and blue sky, where the highway was void of any traffic. This type of ad was never exciting for consumers because it was seen to be so unrealistic as to be laughable. Honda decided on a new perspective to their advertising campaign. Most car consumers have no idea about how complex a machine a car can be, and this was the angle that Honda took. The resulting ad, known as the "Cog," showed hundreds of machined components being connected to each other. This not only showed the interconnectivity of the different pieces that go into the car assembly, but also demonstrated how all these precision components worked together.

The ad was first aired on UK television on April 6, 2003 during the Brazilian Formula 1 Grand prix. Followed by the television spot, the Honda website also ran the ad. Viewers were so fascinated by the ad that they would download it so they can watch over and over again. They shared the ad with friends via email and thus created the viral marketing campaign of this particular message. Honda was able to go beyond the traditional media (i.e. television) and promote its product globally via the Internet. According to Dobele et al (2005), the success of Honda's viral marketing strategy contained the following five points:

1) "It built in aspects of fun and wonder into the message, providing a point of interest for consumers to engage with the brand and talk about it with others;

2) It ran the ad at the right time, gaining maximum leverage with a broad base of consumers;

3) It leveraged technology by spreading the message using multiple forms of media, including television advertising and Web-based messages, enabling the Cog to cross between word-of-mouth and traditional media (the ad was often discussed on television chat shows);

4) It encouraged voluntary word-of-mouth support, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the message and the number of people who heard about it (potentially creating an audience that would then look out for the ad or search the Web for it);

5) It was tied to a visible brand that provided a real world link between the brand message and the tangible product." (p. 146)

In the context of social media, viral marketing also refers to any online strategy that encourages Internet users to pass on a "marketing message." Through the use of pre-existing social networks, the sender of the message has the possibility of creating a potentially exponential growth in the message's visibility and effect. In many ways, viral marketing is different from the traditional marketing methods. For example, viral marketing spreads the marketing information online among the users who have a tendency of trusting the message more because it comes from a known source (i.e. "friends"). Viral marketing is also different from the traditional word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing in that it has the advantage of being launched via web-based communication platforms such as BBS, web logs (i.e. blogs), instant messaging (IM) systems, and so on (Sundaram, Mitra, & Webster, 1998; Bartlett, 2006; Yang, Yao, Ma, & Chen, 2010). As Sterne (2009) notes, there is a reason why they call it viral marketing - it is because the best social media functions like a virus.

Both the traditional WOM marketing and the viral marketing campaigns are carried out over social networks (Yang, Yao, Ma & Chen, 2010). In other words, it could be argued that social networks are the foundation of viral marketing. It is through the Internet that social networks move online and seem to be the most effective. Among the social networks, blogging systems have gained a great deal of attention as they encourage bloggers to share their posts or personal information with others (Li, Lai, & Chen, 2011). Undeniably, the web logs (i.e. blogs) indeed provide a more open, as well as a more convenient channel, for people to read, comment on, socialize in, and even reach out beyond their social networks, make new connections and form communities.

The smart phone coupled with an Internet connection makes Short Message Service (SMS) technology very easy to use and has narrowed the time it takes to connect to other users. A walk through any major mall will provide ample evidence of users (mostly the young) typing on their mobile devices as they are strolling in and out of the shops. SMS is a short message (usually 140 characters of text or less) sent by one user to another, and the cell phone is the primary device used for this purpose. Sending an SMS via the mobile phone lends itself extremely well for viral marketing campaigns. Using SMS technology could potentially create a "buzz" (either negative or positive) for a product, service or brand. The promotion of newly-released Hollywood movies is a good example of creating a "buzz" (Dobele et al, 2005). In addition to the term "buzz," specific terms such as "peer-to-peer," "customer-to-customer," "word-of-web," as well as "word-of-mouse" communication have been associated with the process of viral marketing (Bampo et al, 2008)

Role of buzz and WOM

The interconnections of people (and consumers) on the Internet has been dramatically facilitated by the improvement of bandwidth, SMS technology and the 4G network. Newsgroups, online forums, email referrals as well as customer reviews of products encouraged by company websites have allowed consumers to receive and share information far more easily than ever before. In addition, this global interconnectivity has facilitated the dissemination of both positive and negative WOM (Shankar, Smith, & Rangaswamy, 2003). As these authors point out, this dissemination cannot be easily controlled and influenced by marketing companies (De Bruyn et al, 2008).

As De Bruyn et al (2008) point out, marketers can use viral marketing to leverage the power of social and interpersonal networks in order to promote services and products. The assumption is that email, as peer-to-peer communication, is an effective means to transform communication networks into influence networks. By doing this, companies can capture the attention of the recipients, trigger their interest, which will eventually lead to the adoption of a product and an increase in sales. These assumptions are difficult to prove, as De Bruyn et al (2008) note, because there is not enough evidence to explain why and how viral marketing works, and perhaps this is why it is currently viewed more like an art as opposed to a science.

Moreover, e-mail has become ubiquitous, and it is clear that peer-to-peer, e-mail-based communications will continue to play a pivotal role in influencing recipients' behavior while at the same time providing new information. Recipients have become suspicious of unsolicited emails, especially unsolicited spam messages (i.e. bulk emails). Consumers, in their daily email communication, experience a high level of clutter filled with all kinds of unnecessary and unwanted messages. For the companies that design viral marketing campaigns, it is important to understand how to make them more effective and to design these messages more effectively. The viral marketing companies need to better comprehend which online referrals have a better chance of cutting through the email clutter and which are not. The main objective of these marketing companies is to have the consumer read the message and, most importantly, to pass it on to a friend. From the existing WOM literature, and as De Bruyn et al (2008) concur, it is important to note that referrals via email differ from their "offline" counterparts (i.e. traditional WOM advertising) in two significant ways:

1) They are sent via computers (i.e. email) and thus have no face-to-face component.

2) These emails are usually unsolicited, and since recipients are not looking for information, they have a tendency of not paying attention to these particular messages.

De Bruyn et al (2008) note that although there is extensive literature on WOM, there has been very little research done on unsolicited WOM marketing. With the advent of viral marketing it is important to develop methods to study and generate substantial findings about how WOM messages are passed on from consumer to consumer and how this type of communication influences consumer behavior.

Dobele et al (2005) posit that in order for a message to be passed on from one consumer to another it has to be "engaging." The term "engaging" is very subjective and the question is, "What makes a message engaging?" Dobele et al (2005) suggest that consumers are encouraged to pass on certain marketing messages if these messages:

1) Capture the imagination by being fun or intriguing. A viral marketing campaign should make "fun" an integral part of any campaign;

2) Are attached to a product that is easy to use or highly visible.

Dye (2000) suggests that there are certain aspects of a product or service that can create a buzz phenomenon. Some examples of the more successful campaigns include Viagra, Gucci baguette bags, Palm Pilots, and collapsible scooters. These campaigns generated WOM discussions due to one of the following: the simplicity of the idea, their visibility and their early timing.

3) Are well targeted. Reference groups or the power of opinion leaders can have a significant influence on the decision making process of consumers. For example, a first group of consumers or clients actively spread the message to others about a service or a product. This first group of WOM consumers could potentially be opinion leaders and these messages are clearly targeted to a specific group of consumers.

4) Are associated with a credible source. In order for WOM messages to be effective, the sender and the receiver have to agree that the information has some value. In order for a message to be regarded in a favorable light, the readers of the message need to agree that the source is credible.

5) Combine technologies. In addition to notebook computers, consumers have used mobile devices to spread viral messages via SMS technology. This technology is cheaper than making a phone call on a mobile phone and is simple to send. SMS requires no additional software and teenagers are particularly susceptible to this mode of communication. The example from Japan is particularly telling: teenagers in that country have become such experts in writing messages on the phone's keyboard and sending them out via SMS that they have created a new culture referred to as the "Thumb Culture." (Dobele at al, 2005, pp 146 -148)

Successful viral marketing campaigns depend on consumers perceiving value in the transmission and deeming it worthy of passing on to other consumers. It is natural that people love to talk and the challenge for marketers is to use this natural tendency to communicate through the Internet, which is almost ideally suited for this purpose.

The Internet makes it much easier for consumers to talk, it is low cost (or virtually no cost at all), it is instant and the market potential is huge if marketing companies are ready to put in the effort to design viral marketing campaigns that are attractive to consumers.


The film, The Blair Witch Project, released in 2001, is widely used as an example of a successful viral marketing campaign. It is still being debated whether the comments generated by the fans were in reality written by them. Or, were the comments generated by people who work for the company that produced the movie. There have been suggestions that the filmmaker's friends were encouraged to post positive comments in an organized WOM campaign. This created doubt about the veracity and credibility of the messages. Doubts about messages, it turns out, can have serious implications for viral marketing managers. In any design of a viral marketing campaign, the creators of these campaigns must seriously consider whether the consumers are likely to be "used" or feel "cheated." Marketers will also have to deal with WOM messages which are negative (Dobele et al 2005).

The terms, "reference groups" and "opinion leaders" have been mentioned previously and it is these people who are the main influencers in any viral marketing campaign. The term "influencer" refers to specific key individuals (or types of individuals) and classifies these individuals who have influence over potential buyers. Peck at al (1999) claim that influencers consist of people who may or may not belong to an organization, but exert an influence over potential customers and the corporate organization (Peck, Payne, Christopher, & Clark, 1999). Similarly, Brown & Hayes (2008) suggest an influencer should be a person (or persons) who shapes the customer's purchasing decision in a significant way, but may not receive the credit for this influence. Moreover, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) defines an influencer as an individual who has an impact or reach through word of mouth in a particular market. Furthermore, Keller & Berry (2003) describe five attributes of influencers:

Activists: influencers get involved, with their communities, political movements, charities and so on.

Connected: influencers have large social networks

Impact: influencers are looked up to and are trusted by others

Active minds: influencers have multiple and diverse interests

Trendsetters: influencers tend to be early adopters (or leavers) in markets

Moreover, the interactive agency Razorfish identified three types of influencers in their 2009 Social Influence Marketing Report called Fluent (Sterne, 2010, p 68). They are:

Key influencers in specific fields have an outsized influence on brand affinity and purchasing decisions on social platforms. Key influencers typically have their own blogs, huge Twitter followings and rarely know their audiences personally.

Social influencers are everyday people who participate in social platforms. These users are typically in your consumer's social graph and influence brand affinity and purchasing decisions through consumer reviews, by updating their own status and Twitter feeds and commenting on blogs and forums. In some cases the consumer knows the social influencers personally.

Known peer influencers are the closest to both the purchasing decision and to the consumer. They are typically family members, or part of the consumer's inner circle. They influence the purchasing decision most directly and have to live with the results of their family member or friend's decision as well. (Sterne, 2010, pp 68-69; Razorfish, 2009).

With the prevalence of viral marketing via social media platforms, the influencer plays a key role in promoting products and services. The passionate and energetic individuals on social media are in reality specialists or professionals who use Web 2.0 tools as part of their work (Morin, 2012). Some scholars believe social media influencers (SMIs) represent a new type of independent third party endorser who shapes audience attitudes through blogs, tweets, and the use of other social media (Freberg, Graham, McGaughey, & Freberg, 2011). They also propose that "SMI capital" exists as an analogous notion to that of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) capital (Gaines - Ross, 2003). Moreover, Morin concludes that there are five main types of influencers that are found on social media websites (Morin, 2012). These five types of influencers on the web are based on the ideas first proposed by Lisa Barone (Barone, 2010).

The networker (Social Butterfly): one who has the biggest contact list and is found on all platforms. He or she knows everybody and everybody knows him or her.

The opinion leader (Thought Leader): one who can become the best ambassador of a brand. He or she has built a strong authority in his or her field based on credibility. Their messages are most often commented on and re-tweeted.

The discoverer (Trendsetter): one who is always the first to use a new platform. Constantly on the lookout for new trends, they become the "hub" in the sector.

The sharer (Reporter): one who distributes information to the bloggers to journalists through the specialized webzines (i.e. Web Magazines). He or she usually amplifies messages.

The user (Everyday Customer): one who represents the regular customer. He or she does not have a network as large as the networker, but his or her network remains equally important.

As Sterne (2010) points out, influencers play a key role in viral marketing and they play this role by virtue of their access to a large audience, the degree of their connectedness and the power of their voice.

In sum, influencers play a pivotal role in any successful viral marketing campaign. Consumers have to see a certain value in the viral message and they have to be willing to pass it on to other consumers without feeling "used" or "cheated" in the process. It takes a creative leap on the part of viral marketing companies to make consumers transmit messages which they deem positive.

Development of Social Media

The development of Chinese social media is characterized as "following the Western model with Chinese variations." The dominant trend is to keep abreast with what has been developed in the West. During the course of the development and diffusion, some innovative changes have been made to adapt the social media to the Chinese market. Most of these adaptations are in the micro areas of technical and operational modifications to cater to every small need of the customer. Chinese Internet giant "Tencent" has epitomized this philosophy by publicly declaring that what Tencent pursues are "mini innovations."

Nascent phase: Dating SNSs

The development of social media in China can be divided into three phases: 1) Dating SNSs; 2) Interest-sharing SNS, and 3) SNSs based on offline social networks. The earliest Chinese SNSs were dating sites represented by eFriendsNet Entertainment. Their foreign model was Friendster.

Friendster was founded in the USA in 2003. It was not the first social media site but it set off the first worldwide wave of SNS sites. Launched in March 2003, it accumulated the number of registered users to one million in a very short time. A year later, the figure reached eight million. In its peak period, there was an increase of 200,000 new users every week. In six months, Friendster obtained $13 million in venture capital, setting up a worldwide trend for SNS sites, and attracting countless imitators (Ximen, Ma & Liu, 2009).

At the end of 2003, a Chinese variation of Friendster UUme was launched which attracted a large amount of venture capital with the concept of "Chinese Friendster." At the same time, two other similar sites eFriendsNet and Duoduo appeared. In less than a year, more SNS sites were established such as YOYONet, LianQu and you2you. All of them were imitations of Friendster. They were built on the concept of "six degrees of separation" which theorized that human beings were connected to each other by an approximate average of six steps. Through a chain of friend introductions, any two persons on this planet could be connected in six steps or fewer. By linking friends' friends, these sites aimed to expand the users' circle of contacts. This was a new way of enlarging one's social network through online media of communication.

However, before long, people found that these SNS platforms did not grow as rapidly as expected. They did not sustain a steady rise in the number of users and a good viscosity for users to spend more time. Most of them were run at a loss and could not survive. Some of the pioneer SNSs such as eFriendsNet and UUme were quickly bought by other companies due to a lack of financial support and became unrecognized in content and design of the sites. [] Meanwhile their prototype Friendster changed to an online game site. In 2004, Friendster suffered a big setback when its server was overloaded and the access to it slowed or even stopped. It caused strong dissatisfaction among users, leading to a loss in its popularity and market share.

In retrospect, these SNSs did not come at the right time. Between 2004-2005, there were eight Chinese Internet companies listed on the Nasdaq in New York including Ctrip, 51job, eLong, Tom Online, kongzhong, Linktone, etc. None of them were SNSs. The public understanding of social media was still at the stage of information sharing and grassroots production; users enjoyed the freedom of anonymous speech over the Internet. The social networking function of the Internet remained to be discovered.

At that time, users were most attracted to forums and blogs which provided them with platforms for self expression and opportunities to rise to "Internet celebrities." Many "hot personalities" were created in forums and blogs including Riffraff Cai, Baby Anne, Furong Sister, Tianxian MM, Muzi Mei and so on. [] There were also Internet-made popular songs like "Mice Love Rice," "Stimulus 2005," "10,000 Reasons."

Phase II: Interest-sharing SNS

As the Internet technologies advanced, more applications which enabled sharing of information, images, video and voice files among friends appeared. They started catching attention particularly from young users.

During this period, Myspace was the leader in the SNS market with 40 million registered users. In 2005, it was bought by News Group for $580 million and generated $400 million advertising revenue for Fox Interactive, a share of 80% of the total revenue of Fox Interactive. Many SNS companies were established in China to follow suit. In 2005 alone, more that 100 SNS sites were launched in China, and the major ones included Pengpeng, 51, Uuzone, Hi.mop, Wangyou, ifensi,, and so on. It was also in this year, the Chinese Internet giant Tencent launched QQ space (Qzone). Four years later, its active users reached 228 million, becoming the largest SNS platform in the world. [] In these SNS sites, users could carry out a personal display in a full range in self-made videos, and shared them with their friends and anyone who was interested in such topics.

During this time, some specialty SNS sites appeared, mainly copycat versions of the overseas counterparts. For example, Tudou [] and Youku [] were modeled on Youtube, Hudong Baike [] was a Chinese imitation of Wikipedia.

Phase III: SNSs based on offline social networks

Myspace represented a SNS aimed to make friends based on interests, whereas Facebook signified a SNS model which was based on offline social networks of friends in the real world. The differences between the two lay in disparities in ages of major user groups and the nature of social connections and networks behind them. Facebook was based on the social relations of schoolmates, alumni and colleagues and reconstructed them on the Internet. On one hand, it provided a free communication and management system to maintain the social bonding which had a very high level of loyalty and viscosity. On the other hand, this closeness of social relationships constituted a driving force for hundreds of millions of users to passionately and incessantly generate content for free. These two essential elements formed the core value for Facebook's services and created a solid foundation for its success. Facebook, established only in 2004, quickly took over Myspace to become a world leader in SNSs. In June, 2008, it became the largest SNS site in the world, with over 200 million users from 31 countries and regions. The annual revenue was $400 million (Ximen, Ma & Liu, 2009).

Chinese imitations of Facebook have also been successful. In December 2005, Wang Xing, the founder of Doudou, copied Facebook in its interface and product experience, and changed the site name to It even copied Facebook's business strategy of "hunger marketing" and only opened it to students of the top tier universities such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, and People's University in the initial stage. During that period, joining became a fashionable status and pride of college students. Following Xiaonei, many other similar SNSs were set up, such as 5q, Zhanzuo, Yeejee, Dipian, Daodu, Kejiancao, and so on. In 2009, OPI which owned acquired Xiaonei, and changed the name to Renren ( In 2011, Renren was listed and traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Kaixin001, in comparison to Renren which was based on the social networks of schoolmates and alumni, was formed primarily on the workplace relations. In March 2008, Kaixin001 was founded. Adopting several innovative viral marketing schemes which included simple games of "Friends For Sale," [] "Parking Wars," [] and "Biting," [] Kaixin001 became popular in several months and occupied the market of workplace SNS.

SNS then became an important component of the Internet environment. Many major websites started to add SNS services. Portal giant Sina developed; Baidu came up with; famous financial website Hexun set up Wiki.hexun;, a leading online community, completed its SNS conversion. Other SNS services included Taobao's Jianghu, China Mobile's 139 community and Sohu's SNSs finally planted their roots in China.

During this process, specialty SNSs also made progress. For example, [] and [] were popular with consumers' reviews and comments; [] specialized in music and gathered music lovers.

One of the interesting examples was Founded in March 2005, Douban specialized in book reviews and film reviews, attracting a large number of loyal users. The site had a clear business model, developed a high viscosity among users, and gradually affected the purchasing behavior of the users. Users were able to form theme groups which naturally became an interest-based SNS. By November 13, 2007, the members in Douban reached one million. [] 

This period also witnessed a rapid development of smart phones. According to the statistics of iResearch, in 2012, China had over one billion mobile phone users and the smart phone penetration rate reached 13% (iResearch 2012a). With a quickly growing diffusion of smart phones and their Internet uses, some cell phone SNS sites came into being.

In 2006, a start-up company called Obvious set up by blogger's founder Evan Williams launched the Twitter service. It offered a typical microblogging service through a series of technologies of wireless network, wired network, and instant messaging. Instead of sending SMS to individual users, it allowed users to send the latest news or improvised thought in the form of SMS to social groups linked through mobile phones and SNSs.

The emergence of Twitter triggered a new wave. In 2007, imitations of Twitter emerged in China. Wang Xing, the founder of Duoduo and Xiaonei formed a new site and But both of them were shut down in September 2009 due to political reasons. In August 2009, Sina seized the opportunity and launched its microblogging service: Sina Weibo. It had no rivals, and created an instant legend in the microblogging development in China.

The Microblog

The constantly changing and affordable state-of-the-art Internet technology has altered the way people communicate. They no longer have to wait for TV "talking heads" to access information. Now they are "twittering" (sending "tweets" - 140 character messages - on Twitter) and posting their opinions on Facebook and other social media sites. The world can know what's on the users' minds in an instant (Hansen, 2010). Mainland China is experiencing a similar phenomenon, led mainly by the youth. They are seen logging in to Renren, seen as the Chinese Facebook, or a Sina Micro-blog (Weibo) when they are with their friends, waiting for the bus on the way to work, socializing with their co-workers or even when they are alone. 'Thumbing' (or texting) on the mobile device, sending the message online, then hoping to get an answer from others, the more the better, while at the same time observing what message the others have written. In other words, as Meyerson (2010) points out, social media has revolutionized how we receive the news. Once only the domain of newspaper reporters and broadcasters, today anyone can be the reporter and the broadcaster.

The microblog is one of the new forms of social media in the age of Web 2.0. It uses a new-style platform to communicate, reply, share and interact with information. Users can update and refresh the page through their mobile phones and renew their blogs at any time in order to build their own communities and to get the latest information from the outside. As its name implies, the micro-blog can be understood as the micro version of the traditional blog. In comparison to the traditional blog, the micro-blog's content is typically smaller, less than 140 words, uploaded through websites or mobile phones at a high speed. That is the reason why it is termed the "micro" blog. Moreover, the content of the messages is less academic than the traditional blog and the micro-blog is more closely associated with daily life, i.e. mostly just telling others 'what I am doing/thinking now.' In addition, and also because of it's immediacy, more than 20 percent of the events that have spread through the Internet in 2010 and attracted nationwide attention or global attention were tied to micro-blogs in some way. Many of these events were first reported in microblogs and rapidly became the focus of Chinese people's concern (Zhang, 2011). Thus the microblog is an instant communication tool for social networking and in many cases plays the role of 'eye on the ground' or watchful eye for society which has been dominated for decades by traditional media.

Furthermore, the microblog functions as a primary SNS which focuses on facilitating the building of social networks or social relations among people who share common interests, activities and real-life connections. So in essence the meaning of the microblog to individuals is not only to report news, but also to listen and show concern. As Li & Li (2011) claim, the individuals of microblogs will be more willing to listen to, and be concerned with information released by the person they follow and form a relationship by replying.

Moreover, interacting in a microblog is different from the traditional media. Information can be transmitted at a geometric rate, far exceeding any previous media in terms of speed and scope (Han & Bee, 2010). Specifically, there are two ways to spread information using the microblog. Firstly, the user can communicate with other users, the followers who subscribe to the user's page. For example, if A posts a message, his followers B, C, and D (or many more) can receive the message in real-time. Then the followers can re-tweet the message to their followers. If A's post is noteworthy, B might forward the message, which is instantly synchronized to his micro-blog. At the same time, B's followers will receive this message in real-time and forward it. This is a new pattern of information dissemination. Under this kind of dissemination (Figure 1), the spread of information increases geometrically (Lv, 2010). The process continues, and the message is widely dispersed, just like a virus (Lee, 2011).

Figure 1: Information Dissemination Mode of Microblogs [] 

Characteristics of Microblogs

As the name suggests, the microblog, is a mini version of the blog. From this perspective, the key point of micro-blog is 'mini.' What does this really mean? It refers to the characteristic of a message which is succinct, short and to the point. According to a 2010 report released by the research firm Outsell, 44% of visitors to Google News scan the headlines without accessing the newspapers' individual sites (Wauters, 2010). From this one can infer that netizens prefer the succinct words to the long articles or blogs. Specifically, the slogan of the microblog is "changing the world with 140 characters". It is not only the microblog's powerful weapon but the predominant advantage in the war with other media because it lowers the limitations of posting messages by the users and captures the eyes of an audience with the most relevant messages.

Additionally, the term "micro" also means "mini" which represents the use of "mini time". Here "mini time" means the time which is fragmented, and normally refers to the break or the very short free time. Compared with traditional blogs, the microblog's mini characteristic fits into the users' reading behavior, namely, the message has to be brief and easy to read in a short time (Li & Li, 2011). What follows below, describes some of the specific characteristics of microblogs.

Fragmentation of text

The fragmentation of text means most of the posts on a micro-blog could be considered as "chatter" or the small things in daily life. This is different from the traditional blog where users post well-thought out and rather lengthy messages. It is also different from private email communication, which has a specific purpose and audience. Finally, the messages (or "tweets") on a microblog are different from the instant messages sent on QQ or MSN. In the microblog, the communication is not seen as a form of "chatter" or meaningless messages, but rather it has an element of sharing with many users. According to Li & Li (2011), this kind of communication, namely, sending messages to a lonely public, means that the user can receive psychological comfort and satisfaction. It also completes the emotional preparation for developing further interpersonal relationships.

Compared with the traditional blog, the environment of the microblog in which the user publishes information is casual and full of uncertainty. It includes the factors of time, space, emotional situation, etc. (Luo, 2010). Specifically, the users of microblogs don't need to think carefully before posting while the users of traditional blogs have to form an idea, a perception or an emotion by thinking carefully. The former fulfills the need of immediate expression, but the latter shows well-developed ideas and notions during a longer period of time. It is evident that one would find it rather difficult to express ideas in any great depth by using only 140 characters of text. Besides, the pubic in microblogs can focus on themselves, concerned about just the "small things" around them (Li & Li, 2011). They can become the center of attention for themselves as well as the center of attention for the others and both parties can fulfill the desire of self-expression. As analysts state, using a microblog is not about activism; it's about free expression, sharing information and connecting with people in the know (Barboza, 2011).


Gerbner (1970) defines communication as an interaction through messages and suggests that messages signify special events (or certain aspects of these events) and they contain an enormous variety and creativity which is unique to human culture. This indicates that the process of communication does not depend solely on a specific message (sending and receiving messages), but rather it is a procedure of complex interaction and affections. From this perspective, the microblog is not only a communication medium, but also a tool for interacting. Its users inter-communicate mainly through reposting, commenting and chatting. The function of tagging (or mentioning others in a post) means that the message will be seen by the persons concerned. Tagging can further increase the speed and expand the scope of communication. Moreover, the communication mode is referred to as "half broadcast half real time" (Luo, 2010). The microblog combines and improves the communication modes of traditional blogs, email and IM. Traditional blogs and email provide a time-delayed communication, in which the user doesn't usually expect an immediate response. IM seems too immediate because once a message is received; the sender expects an instant response. The communication mode of microblogs solves this problem and satisfies the subtle need for users to form relationships (Luo, 2010).

The interactive feature of microblogs has caught the attention of government officials as they think that the micro-blog is an effective platform for disseminating government information. This interactivity also helps the government to be more transparent in its dealings with the public. That is the reason why many government departments and government officials have opened microblogs. Barack Obama, the American President, used Twitter to rally the grassroots movement of the American electorate and this, as one of the major factors in his election campaign, contributed to his winning of the United States presidential election in 2008. Another example of using microblogs comes from the People's Republic of China. The Information Office of the People's Government of Yunnan Province opened a Sina-Weibo on January 1, 2009 to reveal information on the Relocation of Luoshi Bay in Kunming, Yunnan.


Grassroots is a political movement, and it is in direct contrast, and in opposition to, the mainstream media or central leadership. The China grassroots culture focuses mainly on disadvantaged groups in China, which generally are comprised of peasants, peasant workers (named nongmingong in Chinese), the unemployed, the outcasts, etc. The grassroots use microblogs to their full advantage. The use is about the resistance of the common people to the elite. Just as Lv (2010) stated, among the numerous users in Sina-Weibo, there is a group called "grassroots" which includes the ordinary people, as compared to celebrities. The limitation in the number of words (no more than 140 characters) for each post, lowers the requirement for publishing, which used to be the right of the elite before the age of the blog, and highlights the grassroots. So everyone can express himself/herself using a few words and sentences. (Li & Li, 2011; Luo, 2010)

At the same time, the microblog, as a grassroots medium, means that everyone can own a microblog even if the user is just an ordinary person. This diminishes the influence of professional media in the communication and dissemination of the news, especially in the reporting of news about accidents and unforeseen events (Luo, 2010).


The information uploaded to a micro-blog is updated by the minute. This is due to the fact that writing a text on a microblog can be done using a mobile phone, a computer, or any other mobile device that can access the internet. The use of any of these devices means that anyone can become a "moving journalist" and the user is instantly ready to write about, and report on, what he/she sees every minute. This ability of being "on the ground" combined with the speed of the technology in reporting accidental news is very effective for disseminating news "as it happens." For instance, in releasing of the news about the Wenchuan Earthquake on May 12, 2008, the users of Twitter were the first ones to release this information and were able to give this event a voice that was made accessible to a global audience.

The Microblog in China

In China, people usually say "Have you Weibo today?" Weibo are the Chinese words which mean microblog service in China. Additionally, a homonym "圍è„-" (pinyin: Wéibó; literally "scarf around the neck") is used as an Internet slang for "Weibo."

Fanfou is the earliest notable microblog service. It was launched in Beijing on May 12, 2007 by Wang Xing, who is co-founder of Xiaonei (now called Renren) as well. Its users increased from 300,000 to one million in the first half of 2009. So before July 2009, Fanfou was the most influential microblog website in China. Some other microblog services, such as Jiwai (嘰歪), Digu (嘀咕), Zuosha (做啥) and Tencent's Taotao (滔滔) were launched during 2006 and 2009.

After the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, the Chinese government decided to shut down most of the domestic microblog services including Fanfou and Jiwai. Many popular non China-based social media services like Twitter, Facebook and Plurk have been blocked as well since then. Analysts said this was because the Chinese government wanted to prevent the services from distributing uncensored information (Barboza, 2011). Seizing this opportunity, Sina launched Sina-Weibo on August 14, 2009. Its executives invited and persuaded many Chinese celebrities to join this platform, leading to an increased growth in user numbers (Ramzy, 2011; Epstein, 2011). It has become the leader in the market of microblogs in China.

Microblogging has become an amazing platform for social sharing of information. Press conferences, celebrities' opinions and breaking news can be publicized instantly and shared by a large number of users. It combines all the social connective bases including personal interests, online communicative networks and offline social relations in a single efficient communication platform. Sina-Weibo has a distinguished marketing strategy. It provides a good user experience by having a simple domain name "" and offers a VIP status to celebrity users. It secured a leading position in China's microblogging sector. Within a year, many other major sites launched microblogging services including, t.people, t.163 and t.qq, but none of them could shake the status, or match the predominance of Weibo.

By the end of 2011, the number of registered users in Sina-Weibo exceeded 300 million. Users sent more than 100 million Sin-Weibo messages every day. Daily active users accounted for 9% of the total users. The traffic flow to Sina-Weibo had just exceeded that of The platform is showing a strong viscosity for users. It is interesting to note that Sina-Weibo usage through cell phones and tablet PCs has exceeded usage through PCs. The trend will be more prominent as the popularity of mobile Internet grows. Its commercial value will be immeasurable. Sina-Weibo now has more than 130,000 certified business accounts (, 2012). Corporate publicists as well as Internet mercenaries have all found a business model to work on and profit from Sina-Weibo.

Following Sina-Weibo, two other Chinese Internet portals, Sohu and NetEase, launched the closed beta versions of their microblog sites almost concurrently, on January 20, 2010. The public beta versions of these sites were launched on March 20 and April 7, 2010, respectively (, 2010;, 2010).

On January 30, 2010, another Internet portal, Tencent, closed its former microblog service Taotao and, started a new one, Tencent-Weibo, on March 5, 2010. With the large ready pool of its instant messaging service QQ users, Tencent-Weibo later attracted a large number of registered users and became the primary competitor in the battle of microblogs in China (Lim, 2011).

According to the survey data below (Figure 2), Chinese microblog users increased from 8 million in 2009 to 240 million in 2012. Specifically, the usage soared by 837.5% in 2010, compared to the situation in 2009. But the growth rate fell to 93.3% and 65.5% in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The figures show that the market for microblogs in China increased rapidly in 2010.

Figure 2.

Nielsen, the world's leading market research firm, released a report (2011) which focused on the Sino-US comparative study of microblogs. It shows that participants use Weibo more frequently than Twitter. Moreover, compared to Twitter, the former will be more intense. Specifically, 19% of Weibo users use real names; 26% of them frequently publish very personal information; 41% of then allow access to personal website location information; 86% are willing to share with others living in the exchange; and 47% of users on the Weibo pay attention to the "colleagues." In contrast, 41% of Twitter users use their real name; 4% frequently publish very personal information; 17% of then allow access to personal website location information; 64 % of users are willing to share with others living in the exchange; and 19% of users on the microblog pay attention to the "colleagues." Moreover, 60% of Chinese Internet users who have been interviewed own Weibo accounts, while 19% of US users interviewed have a Twitter account. 31% of Weibo users' release more than three posts daily, whereas 6% of Twitter users release 22 or more posts per week. [] 

Article name: Media And Viral Marketing In China Media essay, research paper, dissertation