Weibo Inc., China’s leading Twitter-like social media service and a Sina affiliate, claimed to have 231 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter of 2015, more than 70% of Twitter’s MAUs in the same period of time.
However Weibo’s ad revenue in both the fourth quarter and the whole of 2015 was only about 20% of Twitter’s.
Ads, including in-stream, paid posts and display ads, contributed 84% of the company’s total revenue in 2015, and the consumer-facing value-added offerings stagnated in revenue despite active user growth.
Interestingly, 36% of Weibo’s ad revenue in 2015 still came from Alibaba-related ad spending, which is actually down from 41% for the previous year.
When buying into Weibo in 2013, Alibaba pledged $380 million USD in ad spending over the next three years. Alibaba-related ads on Weibo include Alimama, the AdSense-like ad network for online sellers on Alibaba’s marketplaces. The deal ended at the end of 2015 and wouldn’t likely get renewed, according to Charles Chao, Chairman of Weibo and CEO of Sina. Mr.Chao said he expected the contributions from Alibaba would decline later on.
Excluding Alibaba-related ad revenues, Weibo’s ad revenue in 2015 would only be about 10% of Twitter’s. Weibo management have emphasized in recent quarters that the revenue growth driven by their own advertising and marketing offerings has surpassed that by Alibaba ad programs.
While the company’s parent, Sina, has been counting on brand advertisers, Weibo has long sought out SME advertisers. A self-service ad system launched in 2013 caters directly to SMEs, and ad sales from SMEs in 2015 more than doubled from the previous year, representing 39% of the total ad revenues.
A large portion of Weibo’s 650,000 SME advertisers hails from e-commerce companies and platforms. Given all advertisers with Alibaba’s ad programs own online stores, it’s safe to conclude a majority of Weibo’s advertisers are from e-commerce sector.
Last year Weibo began to see rapid growth in video views, especially short videos. Sina has invested Miaopai, one of the most popular video services on Weibo and in China in general. Video ads will possibly be a major ad revenue driver for Weibo and Miaopai in the near future.
Weibo Has Diversified Their Monetization Strategy, But Traction Is Low
In the early days, Weibo’s management claimed the company has monetization potential in six categories, advertising, gaming, consumer-facing value-added services, e-commerce, data licensing and real-time search. Weibo has also developed a third-party app platform, but it hasn’t become a major player in China’s crowded app store market.
It’s the seventh year since Sina Weibo’s launch, and it’s been the only major player in China’s microblog market since the social war between big Chinese tech companies ended in 2014. It’s one of the few major Chinese social networks that doesn’t depend on consumer-facing offerings, including gaming and membership subscription, for a big chunk of their revenue.
Weibo’s monetization, which officially launched in early 2012, actually began with a membership subscription. It reflects a widely believed theory in China’s tech industry that so long as you have a large user base, it’s only a matter of time before you can convert them into paying customers. Virtual items in online games and subscription packages proved to be a solid revenue stream, so it’s not surprising that Weibo also added a channel for third-party games before long. The two categories did manage to generate considerable money for Weibo, but their combined quarterly revenues haven’t grown much since 2014.
When it comes to e-commerce, Weibo developed a flash sale and group buying channel, and introduced an online payment service. More recently the company began to sell financial products and services. None of those offerings have gained much traction.
Alibaba did seem to benefit here. Shortly after Alibaba’s investment, Weibo enabled direct purchases from customized posts published by retailers through Alibaba’s system.
Weibo also tried out a few other monetization approaches such as online lotteries. The company claimed that lottery sales had been pretty good before Chinese authorities suspended online lottery sales last year. The ban was lifted very recently, but it obviously remains a very risky business in China.