[Ed: This post is edited by Josh and co-published on ReadWriteWeb.com. Here is the original post.]
According to latest report from China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), by end of 2007, there are over 200 million Internet users (including 163 million broadband users) in China. 2008 must be a very busy year for Chinese Internet, and the Chinese market seems a heaven for Social Networks. You can find QZone which is owned by Tencent with the support of QQ’s over 220 millions active users; some alternatives are also available, such as 51.com which proclaims 160,000 new users daily; Linkist and Wealink are two popular professional networks based in shanghai; Tianji.com is another professional networks based in beijing and it has partnered with Viadeo, one of the world’s largest online business communities to create a premier business platform for online networking between China and Europe; Xiaonei, Zhanzuo and many others are sharing the campus social networking market. With the massive user base, of course the Chinese market is one of the most attractive place to the western networks. MySpace has set up its office in Beijing; Facebook might acquire a Chinese SNS, Fenbei.com and surely will have local presence in 2008; Friendster expects the same success story in China as they did very well in south-east Asia market. Xing, a professional network from Europe has set up its office back in 2005; Last.fm is trying to be more localized in China to compete 9Sky, Yobo, 8box and so on.
So it seems that Chinese Internet will be no any fun without these web2.0 Social Networks? But it is actually not that right. If QQ is the first Internet experience for Chinese netizen, then you might ask what service is the second? It is not those web2.0 concept social networks, you should be surprised, it is the rather traditional Bulletin Board System (BBS) actually played a very important role in Chinese Internet life. In China the registered BBS users have reached 3000 million (one netizen might register himself in more than one BBS); 80% of Chinese sites are running their own BBS and the total daily page view is over 1600 million and 10 million posts are published every day. We are writing this article to show you this undiscovered Chinese Internet phenomenon. To understand more about why BBS can be such a heat in China and how it will co-exist with the modern social networks, we also interviewed Kevin Day the CEO and founder of Comsenz Inc., owner of Discuz!, the first ever social platform – a BBS system in Chinese Internet. More than 400,000 BBS sites are built on Discuz! system nowaday in China, in other words, Discuz! now takes over 70% Chinese BBS market.
The Phenomenon of Chinese BBS
According to a report produced by iResearch Consulting Group in 2007, In China around 36.3% users spend 1-3 hours on BBS, about 44.7% users spend 3-8 hours and even 15.1% users are on BBS for more than 8 hours a day. Over 60% of users will login at least 3 BBS more than 3 times each every week.
So what are the primary purpose for Chinese to log on the BBS, report says finding a solution, discussing topics, browsing information, and sharing the life experience are the top 4 motivations. 98% of users have been more or less contributed to their BBS by publishing articles, replying a post, participating a vote, etc. The users trust BBS mainly because they think the information there are usually first-hand, updated frequently and environment of the virtual communities are comfortable.
Chinese BBS life have apparently extended to the real life. The report also says 64.5% users have been attended some offline events organized by BBS administrators or users. More than 80% users are using BBS to search for the information of the product they plan to buy and 61.7% users are keen to ask other BBS users for opinion before make the purchase. 47.3% users have bought products directly from the BBS, which implies the BBS are also becoming an important form of e-business.
The screenshot below shows a BBS set up by the fans of Jinglei Xu, a very famous Chinese celebrity and blogger. This site has over 65,420 registered users, and you can find thousands of online communities like this one built on BBS.
The History of Discuz!
If you ever log onto a Chinese BBS site, most likely it is built on the Discuz! system. Discuz! was first developed by Kevin when he was at his first year in university. In 2002, the first version of Discuz! was sold to a HongKong based company; In 2003, Kevin decided to discontinue the student life and founded Comsenz Inc. in 2004 in Beijing. Discuz! was soon widely accepted by the Chinese users and become a commercial software. In 2005, Comsenz Inc. partnered with Zend and established the Zend China support center. Later in 2005, Kevin announced the open source of Discuz!, which is described by the local media as an earthquake to Chinese software industry. Comsenz Inc. got its first round fund around $10 million from Sequoia Captial, Morningside and Google in 2006. Now Comsenz Inc. has grown to a household name with 200+ staff and offer a serials of products, including Discuz! (bulletin board), X-Space (social Network platform), SupeSite (content management system), ECShop (open source B2C and C2C system) and SupeV (online Video-sharing system). It is also running a few Internet services including a free forum hosting service 5d6d, a free B2B shop hosting service Maifou and a community advertising network Insenz. Kevin is now only 26 years old but he has been publicly recognized as the one of the most outstanding entrepreneur born in 80’s.
The BBS and Social Networks
With 70% Chinese BBS built on Discuz! system, Kevin is obviously the key guy who created this phenomenon. The first question we asked him is that why the BBS has been so popular in China. “The first Chinese BBS was probably set up back in 1997. Like Email, BBS is one of the first Internet services recognized by Chinese netizens. Chinese like the communities, they are normally a bit quiet in real life but in Internet they love to express their opinion and to follow up some discussion of hot topics. BBS provides a perfect and easy-to-setup show stage for everyone. BBS has evolved as a media platform, it is not the main stream media yet and might never be in China, but the latest and hottest news are always from various forums, spread and discussed by millions of users.” Kevin said, “Take a look at how fast the blog grows in China, you will understand my point here. The BBS users are more mature, they are mainly at the age of 20 to 40, well-educated and with various professional background, and their contribution to all sorts of forums make BBS a valuable information source.”
So we asked Kevin: “how you see the development of BBS and SNS in the web2.0 era. Will SNS be a replacement of BBS in China?” Kevin shared with us his views on this: “BBS will not be replaced by SNS and they will not be the competitors to each other either. BBS is a must-to-have application in SNS, at least in China. The features of BBS can help the social network users to exchange their ideas efficiently. On the other hand, SNS is a people-centric networking platform but BBS is a topic-centric platform. SNS is to map the social relationship in real life into the cyber space, which in my opinion is one of the reasons people love Facebook; But BBS is there for users to follow the hottest topics and expand your social experience virtually. In BBS, people goes there because they are interests in the topics, and whom they communicate with are not really matter.”
The Monetization of BBS
The global web2.0 market is still struggling to seek the best way for the monetization, but it seems BBS service already found its way to drive the revenue. Kevin introduced us his Insenz, a BBS-based marketing service which have been launched for half a year. It sounds like a very Chinese version of Google Adsense/AdWord services. If you are running a BBS focusing on the mobile phones market, you can join the Insenz advertisement campaign and allow the mobile phone related ads or articles posted on your BBS. Insenz’s customer are from all sorts of industries, car manufactures, telecommunications, IT companies etc. Insenz will monitor the user feebacks ( e.g. how many replies to the article, how many times the post has been viewed, etc) during the campaign and the final report is a very valuable and first-hand marketing information to its customers since Chinese so indulge in the BBS. The revenue from this campaign will be shared by Insenz and all the participate BBS sites.
Of course Insenz takes the advantage of Kevin’s Discuz! kingdom. But actually in China Insenz is not the only one offering this service. Daqi.com which started as a portal service is now also taking the advantage of the phenomenon of BBS for marketing purpose. Instead of distributing ads across the forums, they invented a technology to help gathering and analysing the discussion on the products of their customers. Daqi has closed its second round fund from WI Harper in 2007.
An universal BBS search engine will be definitely more valuable than blog search in China, even though Kevin said that he would not bother to do this simple because he think the search engine giant Google or Baidu have better technology to implement this. It seems that Google China has finally understood the Chinese market right, they took a stake of Tianya.cn a very popular BBS-based social network with 6+ million registered users and 200,000 online users daily. So should we suggest MySpace, Facebook etc to enhance their BBS features when they are in China?
Also in China, none of these new Internet companies has turned the web2.0 into a significant cash flow. But Comsenz Inc. certainly achieved this. Another story is also astonishing. No one would consider Alibaba.com a Chinese e-business portal as a web2.0 service. However, it is expected that it will be in net profit next year to 1.02 billion yuan ($136 million), and a 44% increase in 2009 to 1.47 billion Yuan ($196 million).
So what have you learned? Definitely lots for us to think.