Sina's Weibo: Better Than Twitter, But Monetization Is Key

| About: Sina Corporation (SINA)

On July 23rd, two high-speed trains collided on a bridge near Wenzhou in China’s Zhejiang Province that resulted in 41 death and 192 injuries. The news first broke out on a university sophomore’s Weibo, the Twiiter-like Chinese microblogging service owned by Sina (NASDAQ:SINA). The student’s tweet was forwarded over a hundred thousand times before media coverage of the accident. Fortunately, the student survived. A week later, over 10 million messages were generated on Weibo about the accident, turning average Chinese internet users into microblogging journalists.

That was not the only time Weibo had a major impact. In early January, Weibo was used by E-Commerce DangDang’s (NYSE:DANG) CEO Guoqing Li and by two saleswomen supposedly from Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) as a battleground to wage their war of words on DangDang’s IPO price. Then in March, city government of Nanjing in China’s Jiangsu Province bowed to protests on Weibo and decided not to cut down 600 old trees for the planned subway project. Later in June, Weibo exposed a possible corruption within China’s Red Cross Society when a girl, who claimed to be the organization’s Business General Manager, flaunted pictures of her 20th birthday present, a brand new Maserati GranTurismo. And just recently, the Indian Embassy in Beijing started to use Weibo as a diplomacy tool to improve the Sino-Indian relationship by promoting culture and tourism to China’s middle-class and young people.

As of 2Q11, Weibo has over 200 million users, with approximately 20 million new users added each month. Over 50 million mini-blogs are posted each day, ranging from breaking news to trivial and mundane celebrity gossips. According to a study done by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 70% of microbloggers in China use Weibo as primary source of news and 60% believe that the news is trustworthy. This is considerably more than the 9% of Americans getting their news from social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, according to a report by Pew Center. The most followed Weibo user, Chinese actress Yao Chen, has 1 million more followers than President Barack Obama, who only has 9.7 million followers.

Sina’s Weibo is one of the widely-used microblogs in China (the other two are from Tencent and Sohu) and is often compared with Twitter. On the surface both products have the same functionality, but on a granular level they are different in both design and user experience.

Weibo features the best of both Twitter and Facebook and is designed to give its users greater flexibility in communication and self-expression. While both Weibo and Twitter limit their users to no more than 140 characters, it is important to understand that one can express a lot more with 140 characters in Chinese than in any other language. One Chinese character is essentially a word with a specific or multiple meanings, while a character in the alphabet-based languages is simply an alphabet that has little or no meaning on its own.

Another design feature that differentiates Weibo from Twitter is that Weibo allows users to tweet images, videos, audios, and a large number of emoticons as attachments, thereby greatly enhancing the degree of self-expression. After realizing the value behind image tweets, Twitter just introduced the feature on its own site. However, Twitter users still have to wait for future upgrades that allow video and audio tweets, as well as emoticons.

Weibo also offers a richer user experience than Twitter. Like Facebook, which allows users to comment on other users’ updates or news feeds, Weibo allows users to comment on other users’ tweets. This function appeals to the Chinese internet users because they like to chat as a group and this social interaction feature greatly enhances their user experience, which translates to user stickiness and increased traffic. Unfortunately for Twitter, social interaction is not part of its functionality and its users are limited to mark a tweet as a favorite, “retweet”, or reply to the author. Because of the difference in user experience, a typical Weibo user spends about 24 minutes on the site compare to 7 minutes by a typical Twitter user, according to data provided by web information company Alexa.

In less than two years of operation, Weibo's user base surpassed 200 million, a milestone that took Twitter four years to achieve. The Weibo momentum is likely to continue, as Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) surrendered to Weibo after shutting down its Baidu Shuoba microblog service. Some technology experts believe that Weibo is even better than Twitter. However, Weibo currently generates no revenue, and it raises the question whether Sina’s valuation is justified, since a major component of its perceived valuation is based on the Weibo’s future monetization.

Earlier this year, Sina CEO Charles Chao stated, “2011 will be a year of investment for Weibo.” After investment on improving functionalities and features, monetization should be Sina’s top priority, and this could be achieved through sales of Weibo applications, social networking games, e-commerce, and/or a strategic partnership with the leading Chinese dating site, (NASDAQ:DATE), in addition to ad sales.

Last November, Sina launched a Rmb 200 million fund with IDG and Sequoia for developers to create third-party applications for Weibo. To date, over 36,000 Weibo apps were submitted, of which over 1,600 apps have been approved and launched on Weibo. The approved apps include utility tools, games, messaging tools, music and photos. Sina could create a “Weibo App Store” that is similar to iTunes App Store and share Weibo app revenue with the developers. The key is for the developers to create relevant and exciting apps that complement Weibo’s functionality and value proposition, and are not redundant to the iPhone or Android apps.

In March of this year, Sina and 7Road’s, a gaming company which is majority owned by Sohu’s (NASDAQ:SOHU) gaming unit (NASDAQ:CYOU), decided to launch a Weibo version of DD Tank, a popular multiplayer web-based shooting game in China. Like FarmVille by Zynga, DD Tank is free to play but users have to purchase in-game content to enjoy the full gaming experience. Going forward, Sina could form partnerships with more developers to further expand its library to include sports (Need for Speed), family (Monopoly), and trivia (Smarty Pants) social games. Social games are likely to further increase user stickiness as they play with their friends on Weibo.

Weibo could also leverage its user base to create a “Weibo Marketplace”, that is similar to Facebook Marketplace, to enter the e-commerce space and compete with Taobao (1688.HK), E-commerce DangDang, and Amazon’s China-unit Joyo (NASDAQ:AMZN). Weibo could charge commission based on a percentage of the transaction’s value from the seller to generate revenue.

Finally, although unlikely but not impossible, Sina could monetize Weibo through a partnership with Jiayuan operates a leading Chinese online dating site with over 45 million registered accounts and 5 million active users. The company recently became the first online dating company in China to introduce a mobile application for handheld devices. Sina also recently disclosed that over 40% of the users access Weibo via mobile device.

Sina could provide Jiayuan users Weibo feeds on their Jiayuan mobile apps, allowing Jiayuan users to have a better understanding of their potential matches. The recently introduced Weibo location-based service, Wei Ling Di, could also complement Jiayuans mobile app by allowing users to post their location on their Jiayuan app and track the locations of their matches at a specific time. Jiayuan could compensate Sina by paying an annual fee, which could be passed down to its users by creating another tier in Jiayuan’s membership pricing system. In 2Q11, Jiayuan cited that average paying user accounts was 1.1 million, a 130% increase y/y, indicating that more people are willing to purchase a form of membership on

Weibo is truly impressive in its design and value proposition. Rarely do we see a microblog that can alter government policies, summon a relief effort, expose corruption, and bring breaking news coverage to the masses. Sina is lucky to have Weibo factored in its valuation, but that could all change if Charles Chao fails to monetize Weibo.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.