China Insights

China Social Media Landscape 2018

Jackie Jin

Head of Research

Social 30.08.2018 / 17:50

2018 SML Infographic-EN-2 col

The paper provides a comprehensive analysis of three key dimensions – media, user and brand.

Since 2008, Kantar Media CIC has analysed the development of social media in China, continuously exploring social media dynamics and trends to provide valuable insights.

This year, Kantar Media CIC produced an up-to-date Social Media Landscape infographic to summarize the current status and insights of China’s social media development.

In three chapters, we outline the core characteristics of current social media in China from various vantage points and provide new ways of thinking about brand marketing. Our main purpose is to provide a comprehensive analysis of three key dimensions -- media, user, and brand.

Note: This is a digest of the whitepaper, the actual paragraph number is different from those in the whitepaper. To download the full report, please click here

1. Transformation of China’s Social Media Platforms

China’s social media scene originated with the founding of the first online forum Shuguang (曙光论坛) ( in 1994, and rose to prominence with the explosive growth of Sina Weibo users in 2012. Social media in China thrives today with a steady turnover rate of various forms of deep vertical or light entertainment platforms.

As older forms of social media fade out of view, new online media platforms begin to take the stage. Online video, music and gaming have become the forms of social media with the most visible growth momentum in China today.

EN CNNIC Intt User Growth 2018

China’s 2018 Statistical Report on Internet Development, China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), March 2018

Social media giants expanded from BATS to BATSB

The traditionally BATS-led market (abbreviated from Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Sina –four of China’s largest social networks) has been shaken up by ByteDance, with its precise Direct Push technology (sending interest-based content to users) supported by algorithms and machine learning. The technology has achieved quick penetration, with short video platform Douyin (Tik Tok) and headline news platform Toutiao quickly gaining popularity.

ByteDance’s model of “interest-based information streams” completely subverts the model of “using a search engine to find content” adopted by users during the web page era. In the process, when content is recommended to users, some previously undefined needs can be discovered. Under the information stream model, users have a higher tolerance for ads, and Toutiao earned 6 billion yuan from its advertising business in 2016, and revenue soared to 15 billion yuan in 2017.


Although ByteDance has attracted wide attention, the market share of traditional giants such as Tencent should not be overlooked, especially WeChat and QQ, the instant messaging platforms they represent.

1.1 Dual-layer Social Media Ecosystem

We found that social media today, have evolved from their previous functionally oriented structure in the old landscape. The new “ecosystem” is based on user relationships and how platform content is generated. With regards to these differences, social media platforms could be generally categorized into core and derivative social media, forming a new dual-layer social media ecosystem.

Core social media: For strengthening interpersonal relationships by helping users to better understand other users, core social media supports users with two-way communication. Exchanges frequently cover life experiences or other personal information, carried out on online platforms for networking, exploring interests, instant messaging and news feed.

Derivative social media: To help platforms maintain/increase user engagement, thus grow traffic. Derivative social media supports users to obtain more personalized information that is filtered by the platform, so that they can make better, more informed decisions. When using derivative social media, users are more inclined to use a one-way communication mode, that is, obtaining information from content producers, such as KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), public media and even recommendations given by the platform itself based on algorithms, so as to acquire information that better fits with the user’s interests. In a broad sense, derivative social media can be categorized into four major segments: online games, multimedia entertainment, knowledge & information, and e-commerce.

Matrix of core and derivative social media platforms 

EN Social Media Apps In Two Dimensions 

1.2 Core social media platforms: WeChat and Weibo

WeChat has been integrated into Chinese people’s daily life and is reshaping online relationships for users of all ages. As Tencent’s flagship social media platform, WeChat has the largest number of users and has been fully integrated into people’s daily lives. In 2017, 88% users said WeChat was their most used app. WeChat supports relationship building between people. It is reported that 33% of users over 60 spend more than 80% of their mobile data on WeChat.

Sina Weibo has supported video-enabled, vertical categories and MCN (multi-channel network) communication, which have not only enhanced relationships between ordinary and professional users, but also increased platform engagement.

Vertical category orientation refers to Weibo’s strategy to carefully cultivate content, aiming to build up ecosystems in vertical categories for traffic and monetization. In 55 categories, there are 25 KOLs with over 10 billion impressions per month across various fields. Weibo has invited KOLs from 1200 MCN to open 16,000 accounts.

1.3 Derivative Social Media Platforms: From Douyin to Zhihu

Multimedia entertainment: Companion-style content becomes the major product serving the ‘boredom economy’

Video-based socializing satisfies the need of masses to kill time when feel bored or lonely. According to the 41st report by CNNIC, the key reason why users like watching videos and live streaming online is to kill time.

EN Why Short Video

At the same time, these platforms generate social media posts, with users quickly sharing the content they consider interesting. Since this content comes from daily life and does not involve much thought, users generally do not sense the lapse of time during consumption. In the meantime, users get satisfaction from “acquiring information” while enjoying the fun and recognition from “sharing information” with friends. Therefore, users quickly become addicted to these platforms.

Douyin, for example, has built a content-based ecosystem and using algorithms to assist push messaging, it enables users with similar interests to expand their social networks via content sharing.

EN Content Footprint On Douyin

Online gaming: Natural entry point for social media

Multiplayer online game is a fast-rising derivative social media platform. The genre is best represented by “Honor of Kings”, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game that requires team play. When a player first enters the game, the system will randomly assign teammates, but if a player wants to achieve better game results, he/she will try to find relatively stable team mates to explore a structured battle approach to win as a team.

At this point, they might choose to bring their existing stable social relationships into the game, or take their gaming teammates into their offline social circle. Such positive import/export of social contacts from outside/inside the game generates strong user loyalty and also makes the game a natural entry point for social media connection instead of just a single-player game for personal enjoyment.

EN Game As Social Network Entry 

E-commerce: Social connection and high-quality contents create new booming retail channel

Red (小红书), a boutique community-based e-commerce platform, stands out by cultivating content and KOL influence.

① Cultivating content: Encourage ordinary users to share their life; categorize contents from KOLs so users can easily find relevant notes and videos; provide a stage for celebrities to show their “real me moment”.

② Sharing/Going viral: Notes in Red can be shared by providing a QR-code link or posting a screenshot, which can then be used to support chatting among friends and can also be used by KOLs on Weibo and E-Commerce platforms for second-wave content creation.

③ Guiding traffic to E-Commerce platforms: Popular content on Red provokes users’ interest in buying featured product and guides them to the e-commerce platform of Red. Meanwhile, other mainstream e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and JD also attract their customers by labelling items as “Red’s best-sellers”.

④ Write purchase reviews to create new sharing among users’ social media network: After a user buys a product, the “shopping notes” within the site of Red will present templates for content, photos and labels to encourage the user to share his/her review. Users are generally willing to use the simple, clean interface to share their spontaneously created content on a core social media platform, such as Weibo and WeChat. Thus encouraging further purchasing by other consumers.

Knowledge and information communities: Professionals and knowledge-seekers become the main content producers

Zhihu (知乎) is a knowledge-based community with a greater focus on high-quality answers to user questions. There are three types of users in Zhihu: Professional knowledge producers (special teams of professionals who contribute high-quality content), subject matter experts (KOLs from various industries, or scholars who possess special knowledge in certain industries) and knowledge-seekers (who are interested in better education, eager to learn and explore, have a positive attitude toward life).

EN User Tiers On Zhihu 

On July 20, 2016, Zhihu launched “Institutional Accounts”. At present, more than 8,000 brands have activated their Zhihu accounts. In order to encourage its users to publish high-quality content, Zhihu began its offline operations in 2014, one of the practices being organizing the “Salt Club”, an annual meet-and-greet between Zhihu users and Zhihu KOLs, with knowledge shows and pop-up stores.

2. Transformation of China’s Social Media Users

Now, normal social media users and KOLs have been joined by a new third-generation social media user: artificial intelligence (AI).

EN Three Types Of Social Users 

Ordinary users: those who gain access to information and express personal opinion through media, but have little influence or only have influence under normal circumstances within a limited range.

Key opinion leaders (KOLs): those who have influence because of their professionalism (expertise) in certain areas, celebrities and media personalities who have influence offline, and Internet celebrities (e.g.Wang Hong网红)

AI: is a new “user” on social media who, through computers, mimics “cognitive” functions such as “learning and problem solving”.

The constant change of the social media ecosystem is inseparable from the development of technology, and the change affects the relationship between Internet users. With the development of AI technology and the continuous innovation of machine learning technology, AI can be deeply integrated into social media in different forms and play different roles.

In the future, as machine learning continues to evolve, AI may be integrated into social media in the following forms:

• Leveraged by humans: AI used by people/brands/institutions to create a more appealing way to attract netizens and at lower costs;

• Forming independent individual personality: AI processes, analyzes, and creates content through self-data processing, forming an independent individual with a humanoid personality, and posting and interacting with the behavioural characteristics of humanoids, attracting the attention  of netizens, and even becoming opinion leaders themselves.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is intelligence demonstrated by machines, where humans program machines to mimic “cognitive” functions such as recognition, classification, learning and problem solving.

EN AI Tech App Star

AI avatars are emerging as social media users in the forms of “partners” and “celebrities”. With the birth of virtual characters such as Microsoft Xiaobingand Hatsune Miku, AI has become more mainstream.

The application of AI celebrities is inseparable from technological advances. However, innovations and breakthroughs are also often accompanied by controversy. There is still need for a discussion about how to deal with the relationship between AI and real users.

3. Transformation of Brand Social Media Marketing

With the continuous development of technology, social media enables brands to have more channels to reach and communicate with consumers. Marketing approaches have also evolved through several different stages, from simple online interaction to online-offline linkage. Social media has become a new platform for consumer experience.

Stage 1: Brands leverage social media to increase awareness

In the early days, most brands regarded a social media platform mainly as a new traffic hub, and used it to increase exposure. Brands use different types of marketing content through social media to attract attention and clicks. There was rarely commercial involvement of key opinion leaders.

For example, in January, 2006, Coca Cola and Tencent launched themed “QQ Skin” with the brand logo printed on QQ skin. This joint promotion has received more than 4.3 million downloads by April, 2006.

Stage 2: Brands engage and communicate with consumers on social media

When brands realized that social media could enable direct engagement with consumers, many began to gradually establish their presences on social platforms. Brands created styled content to attract users to follow them and encourage interaction and long-term relationships.

At this stage, brands were mainly active on core social media platforms and widely used key opinion leaders (KOLs) or celebrities to endorse their brands to form an online reputation.

For example, M&M ssuccessfully animated its brand on Weibo in 2011. It opened two accounts on Weibo, which were “Red M&M” (Hong Dou红豆) and “Yellow M&M” (Huang Dou黄豆), and promoted their interaction with the brand ambassador Eason Chan. The original post and re-posts received more than 40,000 interactions (reposts, comments and likes).

Stage 3: Brands face a new era of experience—— building a Brand Experience Circle

As social media fully matures and becomes an indispensable part of marketing, brand investment continues to expand. In addition to attracting consumers to subscribe and create interactions, social media marketing creates unique experiences in different dimensions. Indeed, the social marketing approach, in a broader sense, has developed a Brand Experience Circle, attracting target consumers to enter and enjoy a comprehensive sensory experience, guiding them to share and gradually expand the circle to attract larger audiences.

The main building blocks of the brand experience circle include: physical store, offline event, media advertisement, product placement marketing, online distribution and social marketing. With the development of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, social media is not only part of the experience circle, but also acts as a touchpoint connecting the other parts in the circle. Its inter-connecting role is increasingly important.

At the same time, based on the differentiation of“core” and“derivative” social media platforms, brands need to use these two types of platforms properly:

The core social media platform is primarily used to attract and engage followers, with campaigns and content created to motivate users to interact and follow up with the brand;

The derivative social media platform is mainly used for the purpose of expanding brand influence, with brands adapting to the style of the platform for more exposure.

EN Brand Experience Circle 

A complete brand experience circle will enable consumers to feel new experiences that meet and even exceed their expectations. Meanwhile, positive IWOM (Internet Word-of-mouth) on social media will help magnify the brand image and attract more consumers to participate in the experience circle voluntarily or through the recommendation of their friends, family members and/or KOLs.

A flawed, or incomplete, brand experience circle may cause loss of consumers as they feel the experience is inconsistent with brand image. Similarly, negative IWOM will decrease the likelihood for potential consumers to enter the brand experience circle, while also bringing in concerns to the internal circle, resulting excessive loss of consumers.

EN Imperfect Brand Experience Circle

Social Media has fully penetrated the Brand Experience Circle

Social media is more than just a form of media that can help increase brand awareness, and different types of social media channels have already penetrated every part of the brand experience circle. The core social media platform has gradually become one of the most important ways for brands to acquire consumer information, communicate with consumers and deepen user relationships. The derivative social media platform is increasingly diverse, and also becoming an indispensable part of most brand marketing strategies.

When a consumer has experienced the product and service through a touchpoint in the brand experience circle, social media can assist brands in interacting with consumers, collecting feedback, and promoting events. Thus, consumers are guided to other touchpoints in the brand experience circle as well. When a consumer has experienced the product and service through various touchpoints in the circle, he/she is more likely to stay in it and invite friends and family into this brand experience circle as well.

EN Social Media Into Brand Experience Circle 

In the future, if a brand wants to stand out in the business battlefield, it should not only perfect its brand experience circle, but also provide truly customized and upgraded experience according to the characteristics of each consumer. Social media platforms that are vivid and flexible in nature, have become a quality channel for reaching consumers directly and quickly. By understanding consumer preferences, these platforms can customize products for each consumer subject to his/her preferences.

Source: Kantar Media CIC

Editor's notes

* To download the full report, please click here ;

* Jenny Li, research manager of Kantar Media CIC, also contributed to this article;

* To reach the authors, or to know more information, data and analysis of social media marketing, please contact us;

* Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive news alerts.

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