Western media and some “China experts” need to stop referring to Weibo as China’s Twitter clone.
While Weibo might have started out as China’s Twitter when it launched in 2009, it has transformed itself into something completely different than its predecessor. In the process, it’s absorbed features from many different social platforms and refit different kinds of content for its own purposes.
Weibo has evolved way beyond China’s Twitter. So should the comparisons.
If you’re going to draw any parallel nowadays, you should liken Weibo to a mix of Facebook and Instagram, but even that doesn’t do it justice.
Let’s take a look at how this incredible platform has evolved and expanded.
A Wide Variety of Content Formats
In the early days, Weibo was quite similar to Twitter because the main type of content was posts with a 140-character limit. Then they added the ability to post photos, but not much else. With few other platforms out there, China’s Twitter was the king of Chinese social media.
Then WeChat came and swallowed the marketplace.
Weibo continued to stagnate and started to decline (similar to what is happening with Twitter now). But then they reinvented themselves, adding new functions and features that have helped the platform make a huge comeback.
Here are some features of today’s Weibo:
Weibo increased the post text limit drastically to 2,000 characters. And if 2,000 characters are still not enough, users can now publish Weibo articles (see No. 5).
Posts longer than 140 characters are truncated, but viewers can click a “see entire text” button to unfold the rest. It’s surprising how many people still haven’t realized the character limit’s changed.
Truncated Weibo post text: Before and after
Weibo posts can include up to nine photos, which appear in a grid pattern. Viewers can click an image to zoom in and scroll through.
Similar to Facebook, Weibo’s algorithm seems to give preferential treatment to videos, especially those hosted on Miaopai. With the rising popularity of short video in China, this has rapidly become one of the most popular types of content on the platform.
While they were not the first to join China’s live-streaming trend, Weibo’s integrated Yizhibo live-streaming platform has quickly become an industry leader. When the platform first launched they only allowed celebrities, influencers and verified users to stream. This meant streamers brought along their own audiences who were excited to interact with them in this new way.
Yizhibo live-streams are also integrated with the Taobao e-commerce platform, allowing viewers to make purchases while simultaneously watching the live-stream.
Possibly to compete with WeChat official accounts, Weibo added the ability to publish article posts. While not the most popular type of content on Weibo, some accounts are using them very effectively and some are even re-purposing their WeChat content.
Through its partnership with Taobao, Weibo users can link to Taobao stores and products in their posts. Because many have their Alipay accounts linked to their Weibo accounts, they can purchase featured products with the click of a button.
E-commerce links at the bottom of the post open directly into the Taobao store.
This feature has created an entirely new industry of influencer incubators who help influencers grow followers specifically to use as a marketing channel for their Taobao stores.
The most recent addition to Weibo is the Stories feature, which is nearly the same as Instagram Stories. While it will take a while for user behaviour to fully develop, Weibo Stories has already caught on and is sure to become a vital feature of the platform.
This list is not a comprehensive run-down of all of Weibo’s functions and features, but hopefully enough to demonstrate how much the platform has changed since it’s “Twitter clone” days.
Popular Content and User Behaviour
Besides having different capabilities, Twitter and Weibo have distinct user behaviour. Abroad, Twitter has become a place for journalists to break news and businesses to communicate with customers. But, in China, WeChat has become the go-to platform for customer service and, while major Chinese news outlets do have a significant presence on Weibo, the platform is not being used in the same way by individual journalists to break stories (at least not hard-hitting news).
While Weibo’s platform features and content are somewhat similar to Facebook, user behaviour is closer to Instagram. Many users, especially younger ones, use Weibo to follow their favourite celebrities and social media influencers. They visit the platform to be entertained, whether by watching videos and live-streams, scrolling through beautiful images, or discovering the latest trends and shopping from their favourite influencers’ stores.
Weibo Will Continue to Evolve beyond China’s Twitter
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand how Weibo is a dynamic platform. Don’t discount its adeptness at evolving to meet consumer demands and staying relevant in China’s ever-changing social media landscape.