Weibo lurking is not all it seems



The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the true number of users on Sina Weibo. The author discusses a study conducted by researchers at Hong Kong University that was based on a sample of roughly 30,000 users.

The results were quite surprising: 57% of the user studied had no posts at all in their timeline, while almost 87% made no posts during the seven-day study.

These results led the author to conclude that a significant number of Sina Weibo users are “just ‘lurking’”.

Based on my personal experience with Sina Weibo, I agree that many users are not actively creating content on their Weibo accounts; however, this does not mean that they are not doing anything useful on Sina Weibo, nor that they are of no value to brands.

In fact, Sina Weibo’s quieter users may be quite different from the ‘lurkers’ or zombie accounts on other platforms like Twitter, in part because of the technicalities of the Chinese language.

Sina Weibo has the same 140-character limit as Twitter, but 140 characters in Chinese can contain far more information than the same number of characters in English.

Collectively, these short Chinese language posts can consist of three or four sentences, and provide enough content to tell a story or a piece of news on a single weibo post. In contrast, there is usually only enough space for one sentence plus a link in a tweet in English.

As a result, Weibo users can gain a sufficient amount of information simply from reading the posts in their Weibo feed, without even having to click through to any external linked content.

For this reason, many people use Weibo as a customised news portal that allows them convenient access to real-time updates across a variety of topics, and from a variety of sources, all in a single feed.

They may not contribute to this feed themselves, but nonetheless, they take a considerable amount of value away from their experiences.

Another interesting fact is that many ‘lurkers’ on Sina Weibo are not perennial ‘lurkers’. Indeed, our research indicates that it’s relatively common to find users who are quite active during a given period of time, but become ‘lurkers’ at times when they have less time to participate in more creative Weibo activities.

It may be discouraging for brands to find that active engagement is comparatively low on their Weibo accounts, but a lack of ‘creative’ activity is not necessarily a sign that things aren’t working.

People may well go on to read links included in posts without reposting, or may choose to share them in other ways in different contexts (e.g. via more intimate conversations in platforms like WeChat).

This highlights the need for marketers and observers to understand the benefits that their audiences take out of social interactions, rather than analysing social platforms with the same metrics that they’d use to evaluate a traditional advertising medium.

Our advice for brands that find themselves in a situation of lower engagement is to explore a more ‘irresistible’ content strategy that encourages ‘lurkers’ to become more active users.

Part of this will involve experimenting with different approaches to understand what those audiences want and expect, and working with the more active members of the community to build dynamic conversations that draw other users into the action.

Most importantly, though, it’s about moving away from product-centric updates, and understanding how brands can add real value to their audience.