Perhaps it’s time for a new approach. After announcing $13.7 million in losses this past quarter, Sina has rolled out new VIP services for its Twitter-like Weibo platform, available for 10 RMB (US$1.57) per month, in a bid to increase profitability. Whether or not the services will significantly impact Sina’s profit margins, they are sure to change the way some use the service, perhaps for the better.
The new VIP package includes 15 new special privileges, with six levels of VIP membership based on how long a user has been a VIP, and discounts are available for users who pay for several months or more in advance.
The 15 services, translated fully here, are:
1. Exclusive VIP icon
2. Exclusive templates
3. Exclusive awards
4. Exclusive Weibo account name
5. Exclusive customer service
1. Quicker leveling up
2. Follow more users online (up to 3,000 from 2,000)
3. Special user promotion on platforms including the Members’ center
4. Ability to follow more users anonymously (up to 30 from 20)
5. Unfollow users while still appearing to follow them
1. Weibo Voice
2. Follow users by text message
3. Birthday reminders
1. Text message security reminders
2. Change password settings by text message
Interestingly, five of the fifteen special privileges are new functions related to use of Weibo on mobile devices, and the increased integration of Weibo services with mobile devices will undoubtedly increase activity on Weibo. China’s telecommunications sector is developing rapidly, and as Bill Bishop recently observed, an increase in mobile internet usage will have a significant impact on how China conducts its censorship. Will text messages pushed by SMS automatically bypass censorship to some extent? It seems that any lag or delay in this service would undermine the company’s ability to follow through on its promise to help mobile users be the first to comment on celebrity posts.
Other functions allow users to change the way they connect and interact. The ability to block or hide a user from one’s Weibo feed will allow users to direct their attention more efficiently, without having to worry about hurting other users’ feelings. This is similar to the option to “unsubscribe” from someone on Facebook; though there is no similar option on Twitter, several applications like TweetDeck provide a work-around that accomplishes the same end. On the other hand, the option to anonymously follow a user on Weibo has no clear counterpart in mainstream Western social media, though a market undoubtedly exists among jilted lovers, worried parents, and anyone ashamed to admit to a love of Justin Bieber on the internet.
Many of the new privileges fall into the category of identity promotion and individualization: Sina is banking on the fact that users will want others to know they are VIPs. The company has successfully offered VIP email service for years, so they have reason to believe this will draw in more paying customers. This may be one function that has a much larger market in China than elsewhere, due in part to a culture of conspicuous consumption that exists among some demographics. China is the second largest market for luxury goods in the world, and McKinsey has predicted it will surpass Japan to become number one in the near future.
The issue of monetization aside, Weibo’s new lineup reflects one idea about the direction of development for China’s internet: a push towards an identity-centered, technologically integrated, and convenient social media. Time will tell how much of an impact the new services have on Weibo itself, but if even 1% of Weibo users opt to become “Weibo Members,” millions of people will be changing the way they use Chinese social media.