Chinese users tire of older social networking sites

WeChat, a messaging app, is disrupting China's social networking market

Social networking sites in China that are modeled on Facebook are having a hard time holding on to users, with customers like Beijing resident Shi Yunfeng, drifting away to newer services.

"The user activity has been declining," the 29-year-old said of Renren, a social networking site launched in 2005 and once known as the Facebook of China. Renren has grown stale among Shi's friends, who generally only use it to keep in touch with old classmates.

"My friends don't really use Renren very much anymore," he said. "Now and then I'll look at Renren, but it's never for anything really important."

Last week, a study of the country's Internet users indicated a downward trend for Facebook-like social networking sites, which saw a 7.4 percent decline in users over the past six months, according to the government linked China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). This put total users at 257 million, or 41 percent of China's Internet population.

It was the first time that the sites had shown a user decline since mid-2011, according to the CNNIC. Stiff competition and a lack of innovation are contributing factors, the study said.

But that doesn't mean that social networking products are dead in China. Grabbing all the buzz lately is WeChat, a messaging app similar to WhatsApp, with its own set of features to share photos and posts with friends. It already boasts 396 million monthly active users, most of whom are in China.

"I feel like WeChat is very easy to use," said 35-year-old Yang Juan. "It's an app that's on the phone. You can use it anywhere."

While WeChat isn't a traditional social networking site, Yang uses the product to connect with clients and promote her clothing store. Her WeChat friends number over 1,000.

"By using the app, I feel I can have a closer relationship with my clients," she said. "I'm very satisfied with it, so I don't feel the need to use other social networking sites."

While China has the world's biggest Internet population at 632 million, the government has blocked many top Internet sites and social media services, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter. That has given homegrown companies more power in the local market. But as in the U.S., China's Internet landscape is filled with competitors, who are constantly disrupting established products with newer ones geared for toward a young population.

WeChat, launched in 2011, is just the latest product to shake up the market, said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

Three years ago, China's answer to Twitter, known as Sina Weibo, was then the hottest Internet site in the country, becoming a destination for news, opinion and gossip. But over the years, government censorship cracked down on the more controversial content on the site, taking away some of its allure, according to analysts.

"Then along comes with WeChat, and it includes all these great functions," Natkin said. Users can not only send messages on the app, but follow celebrities, and even buy goods on the service.

"Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer reasons to leave WeChat and go to some other site," he said. "But that's not to say you won't see some other application come along and replace WeChat."

What that product will be is still unknown, but young Chinese users are hungry for new and fresh products, and more than willing to abandon what seems old, Natkin added.

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