Behind the Great Firewall: Understanding China’s social media landscape

Every conversation about social media in China starts the same way. No Facebook. No YouTube. No Twitter.

For many, China’s social media landscape is unfamiliar and disorientating, but what it lacks in familiarity it more than makes up for in size, scale, and opportunity.

In the absence of the Facebook and Google platforms, a market of social media innovation has flourished. Not a day goes by in China without the launch of a new app or platform.

However, while new players may rise and fall, there are a handful of internet powerhouses that control the market.

Alibaba, Baidu, Sina, and Tencent form the core of China’s social and digital landscape. Between them, these companies, and their social media and e-commerce platforms, have access to around 2 billion users.

Social media platform WeChat, which is owned by Tencent, has 927 million registered users alone. This is an impressive figure on its own, however, when you consider that Facebook globally has 1.7 billion users, it is staggering.



When it comes to China the numbers are always big. With a population of 1.3 billion people, more than half of which (65%) are active on social media, it is impossible not to recognise the immense opportunity for marketers.

However, it’s important to remember that social media in China is not all about WeChat, 88% of China’s social media users have engaged with more than one social media platform.

The video sharing and streaming platforms such as Youku (330 million users) and Tencent Video (259 million users), microblogging social media site Weibo (261 million users), e-commerce site Taobao (370 million active users), and search giant Baidu.

There’s also a host of other sites and apps that are vying for consumers attention and eyeballs. It’s little surprise then, that China’s internet users spend more than 40% of their time online on social media. They are always on, always connected, and always sharing – whether it’s photos of food, product reviews or selfies.

Shopping remains one of the biggest trends, helped immensely by China’s large population and workforce, its fast and efficient delivery services, and the explosion of social shopping, e-commerce is thriving in China.


77% use their smart phones to surf for products and 68% purchase products using their phone. What’s more, by 2018, cross-border online shopping users will pass 35 million with total sales volume of more than RMB 1 trillion, according to Chinese Commerce Research Centre.

This has also seen an increase in technology and innovation as platforms and brands seek out ways to further improve the brand experience online.

With 66% of consumers following brands on social media, there are clearly huge opportunities, however, lifting a social media strategy from Facebook and YouTube and transferring it to WeChat and Youku will not guarantee success. In fact, it’s likely to deliver the opposite.


Companies that want to be successful behind China’s Great Firewall need to understand the market they are entering, the consumer they are targeting and the platform they want to use.

It’s not just about speaking the right language, it’s also crucial to understand the issues of authenticity, transparency, and collaboration.

Achieving success behind China’s Great Firewall is as much about the platforms and influencers that you partner and collaborate with, as the content you create and share.

Social media in China is a unique, complex and rapidly changing landscape. Do it wrong and you will be throwing your money away, do it right and you could reap the benefits of this dynamic marketplace.

Forget about Facebook and Twitter and embrace WeChat and Weibo, as The New York Times recently said, “If you want to know how the Internet will develop, China has become a guide to the future.”