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Facebook sets a daunting benchmark for imitators

FACEBOOK'S US$10 billion initial public offering is causing ripples all over the world. The biggest technology float after Google and Apple is refocusing attention on Facebook's intentions toward China.

In the IPO documents, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and chief executive, described China as "a large potential market." Zukerberg, 27, who reportedly spends an hour a day learning Mandarin, has already made two personal trips to China, the world's biggest Internet market, with more than 500 million users.

Capital markets seemed to be embracing the share offer. Listed Chinese social website companies, including Renren.com, Sina Corp and Tencent (QQ), all surged between 10 percent and 30 percent in the week after Facebook announced its IPO. The question keeps getting asked: "Is there any Chinese equivalent of Facebook?"

The answer, I am afraid to say, is no.

Steep hill

It's a steep hill indeed for a Chinese social website to climb to the level of Facebook, whether we are talking about brand awareness, user penetration rates or the ability to convert active users into revenue and profit streams.

The Facebook IPO is expected to value the company at US$100 billion. By contrast, Renren's market capitalization is about US$2.09 billion, and Sina's is US$4.38 billion.

The prospectus says Facebook generated US$3.71 billion in revenue in 2011 and made US$1 billion in net profit, up 65 percent from a year earlier.

Just think what penetration in China would do for the bottom line!

"China is a large potential market for Facebook," the company's filing said. "We do not know if we will be able to find an approach to managing content and information that will be acceptable to us and to the Chinese government."

Somehow, that "large market potential" cited in the prospectus hasn't worked wonders for Chinese Facebook-style sites. Most are still struggling to make a profit.

US-listed Renren.com is expected to post a net loss of US$15 million this year due to the higher investments in online video and mobile services. For Sina, its Weibo business is still "in the investment stage," which requires huge spending in the next few years, Morgan Stanley said in its latest report.

Lukewarm response

In 2013, Renren is expected to post its first annual profit of US$24 million, only a quarter of Facebook's level last year, according to Morgan Stanley.

Another social website, Kaixin001.com is growing even slower than Renren.

Domestic Internet giant Tencent (QQ) has invested a lot of money in Kaixin001.com, aiming to build a strong social platform. Tencent - China 's biggest dot-com firm, thanks mainly to income from games - also launched social services site Pengyou, but that has received a lukewarm market response.

In China, Renren is strong among middle school and university students, while Kaixin001.com attracts white-collar workers.

"The Chinese firms have gained a lot of users in specific segments, but they don't know how to parlay that penetration across the whole society," said research firm Analysys International, a Beijing-based information technology consulting firm.

"By comparison, Facebook has a clear vision and a step-by-step strategy, from campus to middle schools, then to the whole of the United States and then to the whole world," Analysys said.

Daily necessity

Limited coverage influences advertiser spending on Chinese social websites. That's not the case with Facebook.

During my stay in the US last year, I found advertising or sponsored activity links from the likes of Amazon, REI, Canon and Expedia on my Facebook account. In everyday life in the US, a Facebook account seems to a necessity for everyone from supermarket cashiers to church priests.

People in the US also use other social-networking sites like Twitter or Tumblr, but most consider Facebook as their priority tool for connecting to family and friends.

Facebook's open platform also attracts innovative third-party application developers like Zynga, Path and Pinterest.

On campuses, Facebook seems the favored site for students and professors in marketing and communications courses. You can bet that preference will carry through to their professional careers after they graduate.

Tencent, Sina, Renren and other Chinese social websites opened their platforms recently, but their limited user coverage makes it difficult for them to attract "killer-applications."

At present, Facebook has more than 845 monthly active users, while no Chinese counterpart has more than 200 million.

In China , Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service, has attempted to duplicate some of Facebook's success. But it's still a far way from providing the social networking features and monetization options available on Facebook. Weibo has attracted millions of celebrities to its site, and Sina is offering new services, such as virtual currency, online payment and games.

But it's difficult to imagine that high-profile users like a renowned economist or the president of a property company will be interested in playing online poker through its platform.

The Chinese online social industry is as competitive as it is fragmented. It hasn't garnered the same level of capital as other areas of Internet expansion.

No new Facebook

From 2005 to 2011, venture capitalists invested US$1.09 billion in Chinese social-networking sites, less than the size of sums plowed into e-commerce sites or mobile Internet, according to Zero2IPO, a Beijing-based investment research firm. "The Chinese online social market is very complicated and investors should be cautious," said Zhang Yanan, Zero2IPO's analyst.

Facebook, by comparison, seems to be the darling of the moment for investors. Its IPO has attracted top investors, including Yuri Milner's DST Global and venture capital firm The Founders Fund, according to the IPO filing.

In my opinion, the Facebook IPO, which is scheduled to be completed by the middle of this year, is probably marking the end of a golden decade for dot-coms. There are no new Facebooks or Googles on the horizon. Is another tech bubble about to burst?


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