Instagram grows in China, despite ban on parent Facebook

While Facebook itself is blocked by the Chinese government, Facebook-owned Instagram is growing fast in that country.

Francis Bea CNET contributor
Francis Bea is a technology writer who has written about social media, mobile startups, and the latest tech trends in China for Digital Trends and TheNextWeb. When Francis isn't writing about tech, you'll find him musing about the mobile ad industry by day for AppFlood, a mobile advertising network, and tinkering with startup ideas by night.
Francis Bea
3 min read

An image on Instagram. CNET

Facebook -- like so many other Internet sites -- has been blocked in China by government censors for years. But Facebook-owned Instagram, beloved by photographers and selfie-addicts alike around the globe, has so far managed to avoid any major scrutiny.

Since Facebook took Instagram under its wing in 2012, Facebook HQ has been quiet about Instagram's milestones in the Chinese market. The last time we heard "Instagram" and "China" spoken in the same sentence by an insider was as far back as November 2011, when Instagram founder Kevin Systrom divulged at TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing that his app was picking up 100,000 users in China per week.

It's impossible to exactly identify how Instagram is faring among China's 700 million smartphone and tablet users, but we can put Instagram's growth into perspective with the aid of market researcher App Annie. Instagram ranked 312th in Apple's App Store in China on the day of Systrom's Disrupt appearance in late 2011 and has since climbed to a 66th overall rank.

As we can see in the App Annie history below, it's clear that more iOS users in China are downloading Instagram.

Screenshot by Francis Bea/CNET

Adventurous brands

For any market to be viable for an ad-driven business like Instagram, brands must be willing to distribute their marketing budgets into the platforms that make sense and Instagram is no exception. Ogilvy and Leo Burnett are just two major advertising agencies opening up to use the photo-sharing platform as a service to clients.

"At Leo Burnett, we saw that there was a growing interest in Instagram from Chinese users and sought to include this platform as part of our social-media marketing mix," said Mo Luan, social media manager at Leo Burnett China.

According to an Ogilvy report, between November 2013 and January 2014, mentions of Instagram on Weibo have been growing 12.8 percent month over month with as much as a 43.7 percent increase in mentions between November and January -- many of these posts are shared directly onto Weibo from Instagram.

"Despite its growth, Instagram doesn't offer the scale that Weibo and WeChat do. We're still proposing this for our clients, and a couple of more adventurous brands are giving it a try," said Jeremy Webb, national director of social at Ogilvy.

Thanks to Weibo

Major news events pushed Instagram into viral adoption in the United States. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was Instagram's defining moment. The app was at the center of social media attention as it served up-to-date, user-generated images that drove users to the platform by the masses. In China, there hasn't yet been an incident of Hurricane Sandy's caliber to propel the app mainstream. Rather, sporadic incidents within the nation collectively have contributed to Instagram's growing popularity in China. What's even more surprising is that a domestic Chinese "competitor" is responsible for funneling new users to Instagram.

Instagram introduced social sharing to Sina Weibo for iOS users who select "中文" (Simplified Chinese) or Traditional Chinese on their device's language settings. Since Weibo lacks photo filters of its own, the partnership means that Weibo receives quality user-generated images on its platform, and some of these images have since gone viral -- a benefit to both Weibo and Instagram.

Recently in China, an apparent suicide was documented via Instagram and republished to Weibo, a tragedy that caught the public's attention through Chinese online media and brought more Chinese users to the photo-sharing service.

In the wider sense, opinion leaders and celebrities are also propelling Instagram's growth in the region via their re-shares to Weibo. Many of these include Chinese celebrities (and Internet celebrities) like Ling Jia Lu, Sun Fei Fei, and Zhang Xin Yuan, with hundreds of thousands of followers, as well as Beijing and Shanghai elites like Bao Bao Wan or one-time Beijing expat "beijingemily" who's picked up 200,000 users (mostly from China).

Instagram has the chance to keep keep building up its Chinese foothold. And for Facebook, all growth is good growth in the elusive Chinese market.