Tianya struggles to stay relevant in the age of social media

By Xie Jun Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-18 18:38:01

Tianya.cn, along with a number of other once popular forum websites such as mop.com and xici.net, has been on the decline in recent years due to rising competition from microblogs and other social media. Faced with financial problems and declining popularity, Tianya has decided to get listed on the New Third Board.

Photo: CFP

Tianya.cn, along with a number of other once popular online forums such as mop.com and xici.net, has been on the decline in recent years due to rising competition from microblogs and other social media.

"I don't use Tianya and none of my friends talk about this website," said an angel investor from Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province, referring to Tianya, which remains one of the most popular Internet forums in China.

The investor, surnamed Liu, is not the only person who has lost interest in Internet forums. Some of such sites have been sold to capable buyers. Others still struggle to survive.

On May 4, an Internet user posted a photo of Tianya's public transfer prospectus on his Weibo microblog account, hinting that the company was also going to be sold.

A day later, Xing Ming, president of Tianya, denied the rumor and revealed the company was planning to get listed on the New Third Board, China's share transfer system for small and medium-sized companies, according to domestic media reports.

"I have heard about it, but I don't know any details about the [listing]," an employee at the Guangzhou office of Tianya told the Global Times Thursday.

"Nowadays, people no longer want to post long articles on Internet forums," said Liu Xingliang, head of the Data Center of China Internet (DCCI), a Beijing-based research institute of China's Internet industry. "They like WeChat and Weibo. The Internet forum is outdated."

Shaping the conversation

Established in 1999, Tianya has been one of the most popular forum websites in China. Tianya has more than 100 million registered users, according to its website.

Wu Jiayi, who has been using Tianya since 1999, said she used to write long posts about her personal life on Tianya.

"When I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, I was very sad and posted a long article about the details of that relationship. Later, I received a lot of consolation and advice from other Tianya users. In a sense, the forum helped me walk out of the shadows," Wu told the Global Times Wednesday.

When Yang Xuebin, now an analyst at the Internet consultancy iResearch, was at university from 2006 to 2010, Tianya posts were at the heart of what she and her roommates talked about.

"It was relatively easy for Tianya posts to become public topics at that time," she told the Global Times Wednesday.

As time passed, however, Tianya has had less and less influence shaping the popular zeitgeist. The website has been on the decline since 2011, a former Tianya employee wrote on the tech website tmtpost.com.

"Many department heads at Tianya jumped to other IT giants like Alibaba," the employee wrote, who used a pseudonym in the post.

Tianya has also been losing money. According to the public transfer prospectus, Tianya reported losses of 31.6 million yuan ($5.1 million) in 2013 and 44.7 million yuan in 2014. Tianya's Internet advertising sales, one of its largest sources of revenue, slumped 38 percent year-on-year in 2014, according to a report on the news portal sina.com.cn on May 5.

Past its prime

Tianya is structured like a portal. In terms of content, it is separated into sections, such as politics, literature, stocks, entertainment and travel. Experts have suggested that Tianya remake itself into a more focused website.

"With the rise of Weibo, many users have dumped Tianya because the former is a more open platform for ordinary users," Yang said. "Besides, nowadays people are in the habit of reading articles on mobile phones. But Tianya's posts are usually very long and thus are unsuitable for mobile reading."

Tianya also has management problems.

According to the article on the tech website tmtpost.com, the company does not have a sound promotion system.

The article mentioned one senior employee at Tianya who created an influential online campaign called "I love my country" in 2009, yet earned less than the new employees at the company.

Tianya is not the only online forum that has run into difficulties.

"Almost all of China's Internet forums are outdated," Liu from the DCCI told the Global Times on May 12. "Few people nowadays want to write long posts and publish them on these websites. Maybe those forums will find a way to survive, but they can only play a tiny supporting role in the super-competitive online market."

Another popular online forum, xici.net, was sold to eLong, an online travel agency, in 2000. In March, eLong sold it to a media company based in Jiangsu Province.

Yang said that Tianya should consider remaking itself into a more focused website that concentrates on its strengths.

"Its contents on politics and entertainment still appeal to many users," she said.

Plans and publicity

Faced with financial problems and declining popularity, Tianya has decided to seek financing.

The website had attempted for overseas listing as early as 2005, when it received investments from International Data Group and Zero2IPO.

In 2007, Google took a 6.67 percent stake in the company. However, in 2010, Tianya ended its relationship with Google and gave up on its listing plans.

"The attitude of overseas markets about China's Internet industry has been unstable," said Yang. "Maybe 2005 was not the perfect time for Tianya to go public abroad."

Tianya is also exploring new business models such as Internet financing and e-commerce. In an earlier speech during the China Internet Finance Industry Investment and M&A Forum in April, Xing said that Tianya was about to launch a new financing website.

"It's hard to say whether such strategy will succeed," Liu from the DCCI said. "Tianya's traditional business is very different from the sectors they are going to explore."

But Liu noted that Tianya should give it a go.

"If they don't, they will have a harder time," he said.

Yang said that Internet financing is worth a try, because Tianya still has a large number of users.

But she went on to say that the strategy "sounds more like a publicity stunt."
Newspaper headline: The fall of the Internet forum

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