Weibo is best known as the Chinese Twitter, but unlike Jack Dorsey’s company, it is booming, with user growth soaring, revenues up, and celebrities like Madonna, JK Rowling, and Leonardo DiCaprio jumping on the bandwagon.
Weibo is called the Chinese Twitter for a very good reason.
It offers users the chance to speak their mind in 140-character bursts, like Twitter. It lets users follow other users, repost messages, and follow trending topics with the use of hashtags, like Twitter. Indeed, when Twitter was banned from China in July 2009, Sina, a Yahoo-like web portal, launched Weibo as a virtual clone just one month later.
The imitation goes both ways, though, as some Weibo features have been folded into Twitter’s service, including quoted retweets, photos, and links not counting toward the character limit. And they each have video features — Twitter has Vine and Periscope, Weibo has Miaopai and Weibo Live.
Both social media services have verified accounts. Katy Perry, who has 93.5 million Twitter followers, is the biggest celebrity on either platform, with Justin Bieber a close second at almost 89 million. Chinese actress, singer, and TV host Xe Nia has over 87.4 million followers on Weibo, beating out the likes of Taylor Swift (81 million) and Barack Obama (78 million).
In recent years Western celebrities have flocked to Weibo to raise their profile in China. Tom Cruise was among the first Western stars to open an account on the service in 2011, and recent years’ new joiners include Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Hawking, and Tim Cook. This week saw Leonardo DiCaprio, Madonna, and “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling all sign up.
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But Western stars haven’t gained the same following on Weibo as they have on Twitter. DeGeneres, for example, has less than 5,000 Weibo followers, while she commands a following of 42 million on Twitter. Stephen Hawking has fared better, gaining 4.2 million followers since launching his account in April.
While many celebrities handle their Twitter accounts personally, giving fans a direct line to their idols, many Weibo accounts for Western stars are purely for PR purposes and managed by third parties.
Overall, Twitter had 313 million monthly active users as of June 2016, while Weibo has 282 million. But Twitter has stagnated — with user growth up just 3 percent year-on-year — while Weibo’s user numbers have shot up 33 percent over the same period.
Both services rely almost entirely on ad revenue to make money. In the second quarter of 2016 Weibo’s revenue was $147 million, just a quarter of Twitter’s $602 million for the same period. But while Weibo’s ad revenue grew by 45 percent year-on-year, Twitter’s grew only 20 percent, its smallest gain ever. Analysts have also predicted that Twitter will post revenues of $2.85 billion in 2017, down from an earlier estimate of $4.3 billion a year ago.
And this is where the services diverge.
Twitter’s share price has plunged 20 percent this year, dropping below its 2013 IPO price of $26. Conversely, Weibo’s share price has soared 171 percent year to date, from below $20 a share to over $51. This means that Weibo’s market value of around $11 billion is closing in on Twitter’s $12.6 billion market cap.
While Weibo has continued to attract investment, particularly from the Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba (which increased its stake in microblogging platform earlier this year to 32 percent), Twitter has been unable to attract a buyer despite widespread reports that founder and recently returned CEO Jack Dorsey is looking to sell.