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Weibo Makes Comeback as User Base, Earnings Surge

‘China’s Twitter’ revived by passion for short video and live streaming

February 24, 2017

China’s microblogging service Sina Weibo has pulled off a rare comeback in the fickle world of social media.

The platform was largely written off after being surpassed by messaging platform WeChat in both number of users and innovation, but it has defied expectations by rebounding in several ways. And at least one of its tactics could teach the US something about monetizing video.

According to its Q4 2016 earnings statement released this week, the company saw a 33% year-over-year increase in monthly active users (MAUs), bringing the total to 313 million, 90% of whom are mobile users. Of Weibo’s monthly users, 139 million were daily active users (DAUs), an increase of 30% from 2015.

Weibo’s user base increase has been followed by a similar increase in revenues. The company reported net revenues of $655.8 million in 2016, up 37% from the previous year. Revenues derived from advertising and marketing saw an even greater spike of 42% between 2015 and 2016, hitting $571.0 million last year.

According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), Weibo’s penetration among internet users grew by more than 3 percentage points between June and December last year—although the platform still trails WeChat by a pretty dramatic margin.

Penetration of Select Social Media Platforms Among Internet Users in China, June 2016 & Dec 2016 (% of respondents)

Weibo’s resurgence has been propelled by several factors. Often described as “China’s Twitter,” the service has folded in additional features allowing users to more easily share different types of media, including photos and videos.

But Weibo’s expansion of its video offerings, including live streaming service Weibo Live, has been drawing the most attention.

Both short video and live streaming have caught fire in China over the past year, with the sector now crowded with a number of apps dedicated to sharing such media. Weibo reported that its daily average video views passed 2 billion in Q4 2016.

Video-focused services like Miaopai and Meipai have taken a different route to monetization, usually claiming a cut of money—often called “tips” or “virtual gifts”—given to content creators by viewers.

Some services are considering other methods of monetizing, including offering subscriptions or including ecommerce capabilities. By contrast, platforms like Youku Tudou have focused on generating ad revenues by giving viewers long-form content that’s often licensed from content studios.

These Chinese video apps are already ahead of their Western counterparts in offering tipping as a way to create a revenue stream for both the platform and the content creator.

“In North America, the big live streaming platforms like Periscope, Facebook Live and Snapchat don’t offer that opportunity,” Grant Gulovsen, founder of Antipodal Talent, a talent agency specializing in connecting marketing influencers in China with US brands, told eMarketer.

Social media stars like the comedian who performs under the stage name Papi Jiang are leveraging a multitude of platforms, and have discovered that creating short video content and live streams can be very lucrative. The most popular of these influencers—or key opinion leaders (KOLs), as they’re often called—are now being tapped by brands for marketing purposes.

Weibo is already looking beyond user-generated content for its live streaming platform.

The service secured the rights to stream the NFL’s Super Bowl earlier this year, although it’s unclear just how popular US football is in China. Nonetheless, sports programming seems a natural way for live streaming to expand into other categories, since it remains one of the few types of video content viewers prefer to watch live, rather than timeshifted.

Rahul Chadha

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