Although Sina Weibo （微博）, China’s top microblog network, is still not making any profit, the trend setters who have a large number of followers on Weibo already found some ways to monetize their online influence. Many celebrities on Weibo, from film stars to athletes to public intellectuals who already had many fans before they started microblogging, find Weibo a powerful site for self-promotion; but I am mainly studying the people whose social capital mostly comes from their work of microblogging itself.
My favorite example is Lao Rong (老榕), an experienced writer and Internet entrepreneur who has been active in China’s online forums, e-commerce sites and blogosphere since the late 90s. But what made him a superstar of microblogging in 2011 was his live reports on the Libya revolution. During the Libya revolution, Chinese netizens found that the stories they got from official media such as CCTV or Global Times were quite different from those from International news websites, and many of them were curious about what was really going on. Lao Rong actually went to Libya on his own expense as a citizen journalist and immersed himself in the rebelling Libyans in Benghazi. Netizens found the videos, photos and first-hand account on Lao Rong’s microblog much more trustworthy and lively than the reports from tradition media. So more than 3 million people started to follow Lao Rong on Sina Weibo.
Now Lao Rong is writing about the Syria crisis, but he is also making his microblog into a site of e-commerce. He is an expert of jade, so he posts pictures of jade collectibles and promote them to his followers. Since the value of a piece of jade is very difficult to determine even if it’s closely examined by an expert, only the mutual trust between Lao Rong and his virtual followers, which Lao Rong earned through his citizen journalism, can make it possible to trade jade on microblog. Lao Rong is also running a social enterprise, through which he helps poor communities in Xinjiang Uighur area to sell their agricultural products to residents in big cities. Without the promotion on his microblog, these agricultural products would have been left rotten in the field without ever reaching the urban customers.
But you don’t have to talk about international politics to become a star on Weibo; a microblog account named “Too Much Laughter will Get You Pregnant” (笑多了会怀孕）won close to 2 million followers by diligently aggregate and repost the most popular jokes, parodies, and tabloids on the Chinese Internet constantly. It introduces itself as a curator of erotic, cold, spicy and warm-hearted jokes. Meanwhile, it sends an open invitation to advertisers who are interested in purchasing promotional tweets from it. So every once a while on this microblog, in the mix of funny pictures and witty sayings, you would find a tweet giving out a coupon or promoting a product.
Sina Weibo, despite of its 250 million registered users and its unique social influence compared to traditional media constrained by censorship, is struggling to find ways to make profit itself. Naturally it is trying to integrate the e-commerce model of Lao Rong and the advertising model of “Too Much Laughter” into its system. Sina proposed a plan to build a platform for advertisers and star microbloggers to match each other, then advertisers can purchase spaces at the main pages of the desired microblogs, and Sina will split the advertising fee with the microbloggers. Sina even suggested that the virtual currency it invented for the Weibo community, sina weibi(微币), should be used to facilitate this trade.
Wang Ran （王冉），a venture capitalist and an influential microblogger who has more than 1 million followers on Weibo, was excited about the idea and gave the following suggestion to Sina about the advertisement trading platform: “Advertisers should have multiple choices. They can choose to work with the microblogs that get millions of hits or they can choose a specific type of microblog. As a microblogger, I should also be able to choose from all the requests from different advertisers. If an advertiser only cares about the number of hits, then Sina can determine the rate. But if an advertiser is looking for a microblogger with a specific style or fan base, then Sina should give room to the free negotiation between the advertiser and the microblogger. ”