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Breaking Through the Great Chinese Social Media Firewall

5 min read
 Although many of the Chinese social media sites are seemingly clones of American social media networks, the important differences in both conception and advertising make China a difficult – but not impossible – market to break into.

Here at PinLeague, we’ve always been interested in worldwide marketing.  In conjunction with an upcoming personal trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong, I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of Chinese social media and how Western brands might be able to take advantage of it. By first digging into how both Chinese and Western social media platforms grew, it became obvious to me that China was an amazing, complicated and largely untapped opportunity for brands to connect with 500 million Chinese Internet users.

 The Great Timeline of Chinese and American Social Media

Timeline of American and Chinese Social Media
Click to enlarge


USA: Facebook began in 2004 as an internal social networking site for Harvard students before expanding to other Ivy League schools and eventually to most American and Canadian universities.


USA: Facebook opened its “doors” to high schoolers in September of 2005 and teens with invites began joining logging onto the previously co-ed only site

China: Joseph Chen, a graduate of the University of Deleware and MIT, founded Xiaonei Network (which translates to “on-campus network”). Xiaonei later was renamed Renren, literally meaning “Everyone’s website” to reflect the companies desire to go from a college-only site to the biggest social media platform in China.  Renren is known as the “Chinese Facebook” due to strong similarities in design, layout and user interactions.


USA & China:

  • Microblogging met its perfect partner in Twitter (or twttr, as it was originally know), which was launched in 2006.  The first tweet from creator Jack Dorsey read, “just setting up my twttr”.
  • 2006 also saw Facebook open to everyone over the age of 13, jump starting its massive growth trajectory.
From 2006 to 2009, Facebook and Twitter were not blocked by the Chinese government.



  • Three years after opening the site to everyone, Facebook became the worlds largest social networking site with more than 200 million users.
  • Twitter became a mainstream news source in January of 2009 when a Twitter user broke the story of the plane landing in the Hudson River in New York. The tweet that alerted the world to the crash read, “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”


  • In July 2009, many western social networking sites were blocked by the Chinese government after deadly riots broke out in Urumqi, China.  The entire country felt the consequences of the riot when Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WordPress and a few other sites were blocked nationwide.
  • Sina Weibo, the “Chinese Twitter”, was launched shortly after Twitter was blocked in China, in August of 2009.
  • Pinterest precursor, Meilishou, was launched in December 2009 as a way for women to catalog their favorite fashion and beauty items on the web.  Meilishou, meaning “Beauty Talk” or “Conversation on Beauty”, allows users to find and share products they love with followers as well as allowing them to purchase that product directly from the site.


USA: Picture and information sharing site, Pinterest, was launched in 2010 to a small audience of influencers in private beta.



  • Although Pinterest was still, technically, in beta, the company opened up invitations to the public.  By requesting an invitation to Pinterest, users gained access to the social networking platform. By the end of 2011, Pinterest had more than 10,000 users.
  • Twitter overhauled it’s website design and reached more than 100 million users in 2011.


USA: Pinterest did away with invites in August of 2012, opening the site up to the general public. It has since become one of the top three social networks in the US.

China: By the end of 2012, Sina Weibo and Renren hit 400 million and 30 million users respectively.

Early 2013 saw Meilishuo pass the 30 million user mark.

Breaking Through the Great Firewall of China

With the blocking of American-based social networks and the Chinese social media sites being closely guarded by the government, it’s incredibly hard for Western marketers to break through – but it’s not impossible.  In fact, many Global 500 brands have active marketing in mainland China.  Because the Chinese social media sites are largely clones of American sites, many Chinese platforms are using similar marketing techniques to enable targeted advertising for brands.


With more than 31 million active users, Renren offers marketers a chance at a highly-engaged and very loyal user base.  Gaming is an extremely popular past time for Renren users, so brands that successfully engage with users over social games reach the obsessive audience.  Another feature available to brands is “The Forum”, which is a collection of popular posts throughout the day.  Brands can buy a spot on “The Forum” to have their message reach the millions of Renren users daily.

Sina Weibo:

Sina Weibo, the 500 million user strong Twitter clone, provides businesses with an instantaneous way to connect with their Chinese fans.  On average, Sina Weibo users follow 8 business accounts and 43% of users are interested in a product one of their friends shared over social media.  After a few scandals (including an incident with contaminated milk that killed over 1,250 children in 2008), Chinese consumers now trust social media marketing over traditional media.


Unfortunately for Western brands, Meilishuo only allows users to curate their accounts from the Chinese eCommerce site Taobao. While Meilishuo may not be able to drive any traffic to Western websites, Pinterest has yet to be blocked by the Chinese government and has the potential to be a useful platform to target the Chinese audience.  Although China only accounts for 1.7% of Pinterest’s pageviews, it’s likely to grow over the next year – as long as it remains unblocked.


Until the Chinese government loosens their censoring grip on the Internet, Western companies have to play by their rules.  Although the language and laws might be a little different, the need to engage users on their level remains.  Marketing companies, like Market Me China, help Western brands set up a winning strategy for Chinese social media.  With a little effort, a world of 500 million Internet users can be at your fingertips.


Melissa Megginson is resident Community Manager and Cat Lady at Tailwind, the leading Pinterest & Instagram tool for brands. Melissa specializes in affiliate marketing, public speaking, and making our members look good. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MelMegg.

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