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LinkedIn announces plans to shut down in China. What does it mean for brands?

On October 14th, LinkedIn announced they’ll be shutting down their Mainland China version of the platform. This wasn’t another case of the Great Firewall switching off the lights for a global social media platform. This was a voluntary decision by LinkedIn. The devil of course, is in the details.

LinkedIn was one of few global social media platforms to maintain a presence in China after the notorious 2009 shutdown of Twitter and Facebook. It was in 2014 when LinkedIn launched a simplified Chinese language version of its site to accommodate the growing Chinese user base, which already attained four million Chinese users that year.

So what did LinkedIn do to stay in the good graces of the Great Firewall? They played ball with China’s internet regulatory authorities and agreed to censor content as required by the government—something Twitter, Facebook, Google, and many more global platforms were not willing to do.

Fast-forward to March 2021, LinkedIn fell out of good graces with China’s internet regulators and had to stop new member sign-ups in China in order to review their compliance with local law. Then in May, Microsoft was called out by China’s internet regulators (along with 105 local Chinese companies) for “improper data collection” on both LinkedIn and Bing.

LinkedIn then began ramping up censorship in June, a notorious month for censorship in China with the June 4th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. LinkedIn censored foreign academics, researchers, journalists and human rights activists on the Chinese version of the platform throughout the summer.

This brought on the ire of the US Congress, who questioned LinkedIn in early October. Congressman Rick Scott stated, “the censorship of these journalists raises serious questions about Microsoft’s intentions and its commitment to standing up against Communist China’s horrific human rights abuses and repeated attacks against democracy.”

This put Microsoft in a pickle. They needed to stay on top of censorship in China to maintain a LinkedIn presence, but in doing so, they faced a PR crisis and looming regulatory blowback at home.

However, LinkedIn’s decision to pull out of China was not some demonstration for free speech. From a financial perspective, Microsoft had to let go of LinkedIn China. With only 800,000 MAU, it is dwarfed by indigenous professional networks such as Maimai, which is claiming 7,000,000 MAU in a recent report.

This decision shouldn’t alarm brands across the world, as we all know that China has its own hub of social media platforms that can’t compete with the ones from the West in terms of its usage.

With LinkedIn gone, there are a number of more robust methods to reach the Chinese professional audience; be it through digital publishers on WeChat and Weibo or recruit directly from Boss Zhipin. While LinkedIn might have seemed like an easy market-entry tool for some, it was never influential enough to be financially worthwhile for both its advertisers and Microsoft.

Pete Lin, Managing Director of We Are Social China said “The way forward for all brands operating in China is this: find a reliable partner with a strong on the ground presence, use their local market insights to develop a highly targeted program, and leverage the indigenous Chinese platforms for what they are good at: which is communicating with the Chinese audience.”

Akanksha Goel, Managing Director of Socialize Agency said “Staying up to date with changes in social behaviours, preferences and, as a result, platform choices – is especially important in culturally diverse regions like the Middle East & Asia. We’re seeing not only a fragmentation of social platforms but also a seismic shift in our ideas around digital identity & ownership. Young job seekers now own NFTs that provide access to private discord channels & participate in industry DAOs. As this trend develops, so will the role & relevance of LinkedIn as a professional networking platform. The brands that win are ones who stay tapped into culture, embrace change & take a platform-agnostic approach to define their role within social communities.