Chinese microblogging service Weibo (news, site) is planning to do an English-language launch within two months. How will Weibo compete against the more internationally-established brands, particularly Twitter?
Social networking trends in the Asia Pacific region point towards a preference for local networks and services -- this is the trend in countries that are predominantly non English-speaking. In China, the bigger microblogging services include Weibo -- operated by Sina -- and similar offerings by rival search and portal companies Tencent, Baidu and Sohu. Sources close to Sina have revealed that the company plans to bring Weibo -- often considered the "Chinese Twitter" -- to the international market by launching an English version.
Can Weibo Compete?
Naturally, the target market here would be Twitter users. While the name Twitter is the first brand that comes into mind when you say "microblogging," Sina wants Weibo to be a major player in the big leagues, rivaling Twitter's userbase. Weibo boasts of 140 million users since its August 2009 launch, which is nearly comparable with Twitter's claimed 200 million user base. However, the question here is whether Weibo will be a memorable and standout brand among non-Chinese users.
Weibo might have a market in the millions of Chinese Internet users in western countries. The idea here would be to link Chinese immigrants or nationals outside of the country with their contacts back in the mainland. Sina claims that 10% of Weibo users are located outside of China, and this figure will surely increase once the English version is launched. Weibo might also showcase its extra features as an advantage. These include threaded conversation views, embedded pictures, videos, groups, polling and such, which makes Weibo more akin to a social network like Facebook than a simple microblogging service.
Finance-wise, Weibo is said to be valued at about half Twitter's US$ 6.7 billion market capitalization. Chinese web companies are also notoriously self-sufficient, and can survive even without support or patronage from international users. To take things in context, China has about 450 million Internet users as of year-end 2010, and has the biggest Internet-using population in the world. Weibo's game plan might not necessarily include monetization at this point, but rather to grow its user base outside of China.
Is This a One-Sided Battle?
However, before comparing Twitter and Weibo, perhaps we can take one thing into consideration. China actually blocks Twitter access from within Chinese ISPs, along with Facebook and other sites that don't conform to censorship regulations. Chinese authorities, who actively monitor and filter content for criticisms against government, cite difficulty in controlling content on these services. This means that once Weibo launches an English-language version, the service can be accessed by users anywhere. In contrast, mainland users still don't have access to Twitter.
According to Sina, the English Weibo will also enforce the same Chinese censorship regulations, to prevent politically sensitive content from being posted. This might be a challenge that Weibo would have to overcome if it wants to gain mass appeal. Censorship might be a turn-off to some users, but if you're not really posting critical content, then would it matter? Chinese police won't have jurisdiction outside of the country's borders, anyway.
With these in consideration, would you consider switching to Weibo or using it alongside Twitter? What would be a compelling reason for a user to move from one microblogging service to another? As with Facebook's case, it's clear that first-to-market does not always make one a winner. Will it be possible for Weibo to usurp the top microblogging spot from Twitter in the long run? Further, with China's biggest search engine challenging Google in the search engine business soon, does this mean that big web companies should start worrying about China's possible web dominance in the future?