Marketing Social Media

Facebook: Banned in China, More Popular Than Ever


With the highest number of active mobile Internet users worldwide, China represents an untapped–and supposedly impenetrable–content market. But Facebook is now more popular than ever in this often closed-off country, despite a government ban on both it and the social site Twitter. Recent research findings show just over 63 million active accounts in the second quarter of 2012, up from a paltry 7.9 million in July 2009. But can companies take advantage of this weakness in the red wall?

Local? Sure, I’m Local

According to a recent Global Web Index survey, the number of Chinese Facebook users is on the rise, though its 63 million pales in comparison to Google’s 106 million or the Chinese-only Sina Weibo’s 264 million. Of course, the number of FB users should be zero if you believe the Chinese government, but seven waves of research tell the tale: Users in China want a social media fix and aren’t afraid to go around the government to get it. Global’s data also indicates that these accounts don’t simply exist–their holders post at least once a month from PCs, smartphones, and tablets.

Most users do so through virtual private networks (VPNs) or virtual cloud networks (VCNs), which make it seem as though they’re in another country and thus bypasses any firewall security. They may also use mobile apps such as Flipboard, which–under certain conditions–permit access to Twitter. Despite the continual refrain of Chinese government officials, it’s clear that Western social media is gaining steam–but how do content providers get on board?

New Friend Request: Fakey McFakerson

The growing number of “non existent” Facebook accounts in China bears similarity to the increasing amount of fake accounts on the site–an October 1, 2012 Ad Age article discusses the social network’s own estimations that it has 80 million “potentially dubious” profiles. In fact, it recently sent out a (supposedly) anonymous survey asking users if their friends’ accounts were actually under their real names or if they had made up hilarious doppelgängers. It promised no action against supposed fakers, but the user base was understandably displeased.

It’s easy to write off supposed Chinese accounts and fake users as not worth the time, but both are actually an untapped market. If users in China can post content, they can access it as well. With a population of approximately 1.3 billion, this represents a massive market opportunity. Similarly, fake accounts aren’t inactive or unimportant–in fact, their owners often take steps to appear more legitimate than the average user. Even if content producers got a single foot in the door–a single Like or retweet, for example–it could do wonders for their brand both in the short term and the long game. Fakers (who are typically real users not comfortable using their real name or who own dummy accounts) are the same kind of unspoiled marketing wilderness as Chinese Facebook users. No established conventions exist; the field lies wide open.

Shooting in the dark won’t yield high returns, but it’s companies that start down this path that will set the tone for all to follow. The great firewall isn’t so impervious as once believed, and the groundswell of social interest starts now, not when the barrier finally falls.

Image Source: David S. Wills

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