QQ: The biggest digital platform you've never heard of

QQ is one of the biggest social media platforms in the world, but chances are that you've never come across it. What is QQ, and why is it so unknown outside of its home country of China, despite its huge size? And what do brands who are considering marketing on QQ need to know about it?

You know WeChat. Everyone knows WeChat. It’s the biggest thing in Chinese social media.

But only barely.

WeChat only this year became China’s most popular social media channel. That dethroned champion is QQ, which is probably the biggest social media network you have never heard of. QQ is so huge, it set a Guinness world record for having the largest number of users online at the same time.

QQ’s story is inspiring and ultimately tragic — as far as tragedy goes in the world of apps. It’s also one that every marketer hoping to understand the Chinese social media environment should know.

The early days

As China’s first hugely popular messaging service, QQ shaped the development of both China’s web and mobile web. Despite being launched all the way back in 1999 (5 years before Facebook), QQ has survived the trials of time. It has also survived a sustained effort by its own founders to destroy it.

Today, QQ still has some 850 million active monthly users – more than double the number Twitter claims. In other ways, however, it is only a shadow of its former self.

QQ was the first product released by the company Tencent, which is now one of the largest internet companies in the world. Tencent’s founder, Ma Huateng, known as “Pony Ma”, received startup capital from powerful billionaire Li Ka-shing through a hometown connection between the men.

The original 1999 logo for QQ, featuring a slightly angry-looking black and white penguin next to the letters OICQ

The original 1999 logo for QQ, then known as OICQ (or Open ICQ). 18 years on, QQ’s redesigned logo still sports the familiar penguin, now wearing a red scarf and winking.

At launch, QQ (then known as OICQ) was just a simple instant messenger and a blatant copy of an Israeli app called ICQ. However, improvements quickly followed. Today, you can play online games, customize your avatar, send and receive emails and large files, share Snapchat-style disappearing videos and animations, and join online groups of like-minded individuals.

You can also stream music, find a partner via QQ’s dating service, and use the Facebook-like Qzone for sharing with friends and reading their posts in your news feed. No longer just a desktop app, QQ and Qzone are also available on your smartphone.

QQ hit one million users in its first year and 50 million in its second. By its tenth year, in 2008, the startup had 856 million total users, a record of 45.3 million simultaneous online users, and more quarterly income than the next two largest Chinese internet companies (Alibaba and Baidu – you may have heard of them) put together.

Despite this huge success with users, QQ and Qzone have not done as well with marketers. Most revenue actually comes from consumers — in the form of gaming revenue, freemium upgrades and digital purchases.

Why QQ is no longer no. 1

Here’s where the story gets tragic for QQ — although not for its parent, Tencent.

As the mobile computing era got under way, Tencent worried that desktop-native QQ would not make a successful transition. Instead, the company came up with what we now know as WeChat, a messaging app that works even if users are on different phone carrier networks.

Like QQ before it, WeChat quickly gained a multitude of new features, capabilities, and users. WeChat in many ways is the upgrade to QQ. On the older platform, historical sharing comes naturally, while in WeChat’s Moment feature the emphasis is on the here and now.

WeChat represents that shift to mobile and instant communications, and its QR code mobile payments allow for larger, more varied transactions than can be carried out via QQ.

QR codes enable consumers to pay for products easily using WeChat

Imagine it this way: QQ is the less attractive, shorter, and less intelligent older brother who is always upstaged by his younger sibling. “Little brother” WeChat now has 963 million monthly active users.

In the face of WeChat’s dominance, “Big Brother” QQ risks a Yahoo!-like future of gradually increasing irrelevance. To fight that possibility, QQ is reinventing itself as the online destination of choice for the youngest internet users: teens and pre-teens.

So how is QQ going about doing this, and will it be enough to make the platform relevant to marketers again?

Why marketers should consider QQ

QQ’s demographics trend towards the young and unsophisticated. They are less likely to hail from Tier 1 cities, and 60% are under 30 years old. Many users are grade-school and high-school students who have not yet purchased their first phone but do have access to a computer. While QQ’s total active user count fell in the second quarter, it had strong growth among users born since the year 2000.

QQ is also popular in the workplace. To give you an example, the team in Juwai.com’s Shanghai office uses QQ during the work day more than WeChat. They like its ease of use and facility for transmitting large files like images and video.

Many celebrities use also QQ and Qzone to communicate with fans. Chinese boy band TFBoys boasts 42 million QQ followers — better than the 38.6 million their American equivalent, One Direction, has on Facebook.

Looking at our Shanghai team again, they use QQ for office communication and file transferring at work, but they turn to WeChat to arrange Friday night drinks at a nearby bar. For them, WeChat is more personal, and so they continue to catch up on it throughout the weekend, sharing photos and news.

In the same way, international marketers can use both QQ and WeChat to reach different audiences at different times.

The marketers who will be most successful with QQ are those who can benefit from reaching its growing core of younger users. If you can capture the loyalty of a 17-year-old, then you potentially have a customer for life.

Of course, this target audience isn’t for everyone. Juwai’s social media team tested some campaigns on QQ and found the audience overall too young for our purposes. As Juwai targets consumers with the means to invest in overseas real estate, our target audience tends to be slightly older than QQ’s typical demographic.

Brand managers for high-volume consumer products are a better fit for QQ. Among the major brands that have conducted successful campaigns on QQ are Chinese mobile phone giant XiaoMi, Oreo Cookies, Nike and KFC.

Just as with WeChat, interactive and content-oriented marketing campaigns tend to be the most successful. One powerful current campaign is a video that appears in users’ Qzone feeds. In it, an uptight but beautiful young high-school ballerina learns to loosen up and enjoy hip-hop dance, cool boys, and being popular by drinking Fanta.

A boy hands the ballerina in the ad a Fanta

Unlike most similar Western content, this commercial runs on for almost 6 minutes. With a strong story and good acting, it feels more like a short movie than an advertisement — although the product shots are just as heavy-handed.

QQ was once an indispensable part of people’s lives, but the smartphone and WeChat have eclipsed it. Nonetheless, QQ remains today a huge platform with one of the world’s largest active user communities. It is beginning to successfully reinvent itself for the younger consumer, and by association, the marketers who want to reach them.

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