Online communities in China – does it work?


Online communities as a market research method is becoming more and more popular now.  Since we have conducted several global market research studies using online communities ourselves, we have observed significant differences of the communication behavior between Chinese and users from other countries. Therefore, it is time to share some thoughts about what we learned from online communities.

In Germany, every time I search for a certain topic, for example: how to repair a bike, what should I do if I don’t get my parcel, where can I find mushrooms in the forest, what does it mean when a man stops calling etc. I will always find myself ending up in a German community (in German: Forum). To my surprise, there are pages of long discussions for each post, people do really share their experiences and opinions in a sincere way, they also quote other people’s opinion and write down what they think about it.

 At the beginning I thought this kind of posts would be old, 10 years ago. But they are all up to date and there are also new posts being posted daily in the community, which really surprised me.

There are two interesting points for me as a Chinese: (1) People in Germany still use online communities actively. (2) People do write a lot in the community forums and discuss with each other.

In China, it is totally different.


Fact 1: Online Communities (in German: Forum) are not the major platforms for Chinese people anymore.

A community, which is called BBS (Bulletin Board System) in China, appeared in China in the 90s. First there were only internal BBS in the universities with students as users. Back then, only few people could get enrolled in a university, they had passion and hope, they were eager to share their own opinion to everything including politics. A BBS is the perfect platform for them to post their opinions and discuss it with peers. At that time, the user behavior in Chinese BBS in the 90s was similar to what I have observed in Germany right now in 2020.

Since BBS was a very new thing at that time, the censor did not pay much attention to it at the beginning.

In 2002 and 2003, a personal computer and internet have become more affordable. The boom of public BBS took place. That period was also the peak of the BBS development in China. High quality posts and discussions were being produced every day, influencers with a high education level and knowledge were being worshiped and followed.

But meanwhile, plenty of “low level” users got into the BBS as well and became the majority of users, publishing a lot of meaningless posts like advertisements, complains or personal insults and attacks. The major influencers as well as polite users who care about quality posts and discussions started to leave this platform around 2004 and 2005. 


Fact 2:  Users tend to write and read short answers, one or two lines maximum.

After 2006, Renren (similar to Facebook but mainly for students), Sina Blog (similar to WordPress) and later Weibo (similar to Twitter) reached a dominate place in the internet. Unlike a BBS where every corner is public, each individual user now gets his own “page” for himself on these three new platforms. In Renren and Sina Blog users were still used to write long posts, but later, in 2009, these two platforms declined as well.   

Chinese users are now living in an internet world where everything is on “real time”, each information is short in terms of length and duration. There is no place left for long posts and discussions because the internet has become extremely dramatic. Users do not need to chase and search for information, new information comes like waves from a stormy ocean. Chinese users have lost their patience. A BBS as a communication platform is out of date in this kind of environment.


Fact 3: There are still some BBS left but no actual interaction takes place among the users

BBS hasn’t disappeared completely in China. Those who focus on very specific topics still have active users, for example BBS for photography, for NBA/Sports, for travel experience exchange, for car usage experience exchange, for Excel usage etc.

But there is no actual discussion happening. Most of the posts look like this: One user posts his experience, for example how he fixed a bug in a car system, then there will be 2 to 10 replies, all of them saying: “Thank you! Good post!” Nothing more. This kind of user behavior pattern can also be observed on other online platforms, such as Weibo (similar to Twitter) and Zhihu (similar to Quora).

The only exception I have observed are NBA BBS with mainly male users: One user posts a sport game clip, commenting the performance of one specific player, and others comment as well, writing 2 or 3 lines about their knowledge about facts, such as “He has got 19 scores on game XX in year 2018, that was not good enough”, “Oh no you should watch him playing in 2019, he has improved." So, there is some exchange of information and interaction among the users, but it is still totally different to what I have read in German communities.


What does it mean for the market research business?

  1. It is ok to use online communities as a research methodology. If participants should really have meaningful long discussions with each other, recruitment criteria need to include that respondents have a university degree from good universities and should be born around 1984.
  2. For the majority of participants, a community should be built more like an online diary or survey, where everyone has his own page to answer programmed questions. Interactions among the users might not happen nor will it bring much more insights.
  3. The Chinese users are used to write only 2 to 3 lines of short answers, sometimes even 2 to 3 words, the community moderator needs to plan enough time to ask plenty of follow up questions to get more input from the participants.
  4. Even the moderator has commented in a post, it could happen that participants tend to ignore comments or answer with 2 to 3 words again. If one researcher really wants to get deeper insights, a personal in-depth-interview is a more suitable approach.


For more questions about conducting an online community, please feel free to contact Spiegel Institut.


Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim

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