Confessions of Sina Weibo

Rather than mimicking the global trailblazers in social media, Sina Weibo is far more interested in what its own users are doing and what they want when it considers what to serve them next, the company's product chief says.

While the  latest version of its social platform now incorporates Facebook-like features including linked apps, a “like” button and ability to upload photos, videos and maps, Sina product director Bryan Cheng says the company's highest priority  is understanding user behaviour.

“In terms of making social media a commercial platform, Twitter and Facebook have definitely paved the road for us. But in terms of leveraging the strongholds of Weibo, we’re still looking at what users like and don’t like and their social connections,” said Cheng.

“So we’ve reached an era of looking at how we can optimise our system by analysing our data to generate better ROI for our advertisers.”

One way to do this is real-time bidding, which was implemented by Sina earlier this year and is an ad display system that – similar in functionality to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories – matches ads to demographics, gender, location and other preferences relevant to the marketers’ advertising plan and bidding price.

(For example, if advertisers X, Y and Z all want to target males aged 20-30 living on Hong Kong Island and like McDonalds, whoever will pay the most will appear in the feeds of these people.)

“The trend for social media is monetising without hurting the public. How we can do this is utilising our social connections and their social connections.”

However, amidst the rise of WeChat, which is proving itself to be more of a social CRM platform than one for just personal messaging, Cheng is not afraid.

“Once a social media platform is dominant, it tends to remain dominant because it just doesn’t make sense for owners, who've accumulated a fan base, or for fans to go away. Facebook and Twitter are perfect examples,” he said.

“WeChat is not a social media platform, per sey. Though they’re good for a lot of social CRM pushes, they’re still very much seen as a personal-messaging platform, which not only means that users’ mindsets are really different, but corporate accounts still suffer with the problem of how to send messages to users without appearing annoying or bothersome.”

Sina Weibo, on the other hand, he explained, is an opened platform; as such, users have a default understanding that it’s a platform for broadcasting, whether from their followers or advertisers.

“So on Weibo, one single feed – regardless of how small – can be spread from fans to friends of fans, and eventually it will reach me even though I have no direct relation with that brand. And users are okay with that, whereas they still need to actively search for corporate WeChat accounts to get information from them, which – since it’s on an SMS basis – will appear bothersome.”

“Yes, WeChat is a good social CRM platform, but it’s not a marketing platform.”