Professional social networking sites, which once only attracted a small number of users in China, are now in the midst of taking off in the country, according to Dan Serfaty CEO of French company Viadeo.
"Something is happening in China," he said during an interview this week. "Chinese professionals are realizing the Internet can be useful for business networking."
Viadeo, a rival of LinkedIn with 35 million users globally, expanded to China with its acquisition of local social networking site Tianji.com during the end of 2007. At that time, Tianji had only 1.3 million users. But now the site's user base has reached 8 million, and is adding 350,000 users a month, according to Serfaty.
Due to the high growth, Serfaty has made it his goal to double Tianji's user base to 18 million by the end of next year. "Tianji is exploding," he said. "I think in terms of members, China should be our biggest market in two to three years."
Social networking sites are already widely used in China. For instance, Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like website, has 200 million users. But sites like Tianji.com have taken longer to grow, partly because Chinese tend to do their professional networking offline in face-to-face interactions, according to analysts.
Serfaty, however, believes Tianji.com has started to go viral in China, noting that the company has yet to spend any money on advertising. To make Tianji.com better appeal to Chinese users, the company has sought to add features that will foster interaction among users. This has included a "poke" feature and the ability to create groups so that users can first know each other before doing business.
Due to Tianji's growing usage, Viadeo is now starting to generate more revenue from the site through advertisements and job listings.
This year, Serfaty relocated from San Francisco to Beijing in order to help lead Tianji.com. While other foreign Internet companies including Google and eBay have struggled in the Chinese market, Serfaty said Tianji.com has a chance to succeed.
"It is important to me to trust the local team to take care of the business," he said. "We are really a local company in China. We are not a foreign company."
Tianji.com could eventually directly compete with LinkedIn, which said in May the company was exploring opportunities in China. At the time, LinkedIn said 1 million of its 100 million users came from China.
But professional social networking sites including Tianji.com will face challenges in China, said Dong Xu, an analyst with Beijing-based research firm Analysys International.
One of the main threats comes from online job recruiting sites, which are already popular in the country. Companies including China's largest search engine, Baidu, have already entered this market. At the same time, existing social networking services like Sina Weibo are starting to be used for job hunting, she said.
"In the future these professional social networking sites will face a lot of competition," she said. "Offline job recruitment agencies, online job recruiting sites, these will all have an affect on professional social networking."