The Next Internet Craze
Live streaming has not provided the payout many anticipated, but a new model has emerged in China that could fill in the gap – paid subscription knowledge sharing platforms. How have they been able to rise to prominence?
The Next Internet CrazeBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 621 )
Late last year, the Today column of Taiwanese children’s book writer and Grimm Press Ltd. publisher Hao Kuang-tsai went online on Dedao, the mobile app founded by Luogic Talkshow host Luo Zhenyu. In daily eight-minute webcast segments that combine illustrations with audio, Hao tells stories from his book Today for 365 days. Though an annual subscription to the series costs 199 renminbi (about NT$870), more than 12,000 people have signed up.
A reading guidance course on the classical Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber that renowned China-born novelist Kenneth Pai (Pai Hsien-yung) held at National Taiwan University in 2014 was launched on China’s popular Douban website and app last month as a Douban Time column. For a subscription fee of 128 renminbi, users get 132 installments of less than half an hour per episode in which Pai discusses the Chinese classic.
Also on offer for a 128 renminbi subscription fee is a series of 100 lectures by Taiwanese author Yang Zhao on Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), a monumental history of ancient China. Wedged between Yang Zhao and Pai Hsien-yung on the fee-based Douban site is Chinese poet Bei Dao with Waking up - a Poetry Class with Bei Dao and Friends.
Aside from writers, Taiwanese celebrities are also popular enough to draw subscribers.
In April, Taiwanese actress Ariel Lin went online on the questions and answers app Zhihu Live with her live account of how she went from being a television “idol drama” celebrity to a serious suspense thriller movie actress. So far more than 2,300 people have been willing to pay 9.9 renminbi to hear Lin’s account.
Using digital media to sell knowledge has become a new industry wave in a China that is moving on from being the world’s factory to becoming a digital empire.
Meeting Young People’s Aspirations
At the World Economic Forum in Tianjin last year, “China’s Millennials,” the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s who grew up with the Internet, were high on the agenda. Finance and business writer Wu Xiaobo pointed out that China’s digital natives differ from previous generations in that they are ready to pay for knowledge and virtual products.
Zhou Yuan, the founder of questions and answers website Zhihu, also observed that “This generation firmly believes that as long as you work hard you will have a better future. They have a future-oriented worldview,” Zhou says, and it matters more to them if they can consume now and if they gain satisfaction now.
Faced with the current information overload on mobile devices, content providers seek ways to create valuable, personalized services. This new wave of knowledge trading startups are also time traders as they help their users save precious time.
In analyzing this new consumption wave, Xue Zhaofeng, a professor at the National School of Development of Peking University, points out that the economic miracle that China has seen over the past three decades is owed to the relaxation of price controls, land controls, and trade restrictions and the fact that the private sector was permitted to compete with state-owned enterprises.
“If you want to pursue further economic growth now, you need to rely on updating and substituting past knowledge,” explains Xue.
Xue, whose Peking University economics classes can be bought on Dedao, observes that a new community has emerged in China whose members pay close attention to what they can achieve with things at hand. They are knowledge-hungry, and hope to gain new ideas, to increase their skills and improve their lives every day.
“Aside from that, it’s the convenience that comes with mobile communication since the basic infrastructure for conveying our entire knowledge is already complete,” Xue contends.
Xue records an 8-minute webcast every day for his Dedao course. “I had two immense realizations. One is that in the past an author who wrote and then sold a book had no way of knowing whether those who bought the book actually understood what they read,” Xue explains. Thanks to the new technologies, Xue can now monitor how many people accessed his course, how many listened to the entire segment and how his subscribership grows, which in return helps him understand whether the content that he provides truly meets the needs of his audience.
The Rise of Knowledge Trading on the Internet
“Many people consider 10 minutes of learning per day as fragmented learning,” Xue tells CommonWealth Magazine. He believes that if people listen to interconnected content every day, they are learning more systematically than people who buy a book on economics but only actually read it when they feel like it.
This group of knowledge-hungry young consumers, which is keen to acquire more skills, realize its own potential and grow its wealth, stands for an emerging new battleground in the e-commerce market. Given that Chinese consumers are getting used to paying for content and that mobile payment systems are convenient and increasingly common, selling sought-after knowledge through content monetization portals and apps is the next big thing.
Ji Xiaohua, founder of the knowledge-sharing platform Zaihang and Q&A website Fenda, previously established the non-profit science news website guocr.com, which resembles Taiwan’s PanSci website. Ji, whose background is in neurobiology and who is also known under his internet pseudonym Ji Shisan, originally wanted to impart scientific knowledge to a general audience.
He thinks that this wave of ‘knowledge for a fee’ constitutes an integration of the education, publishing and media industries.
“Formerly [content produced by] the education industry was too heavy for ordinary people, not easy to digest. The pace of the publishing industry was not fast enough and those in the media field didn’t care at all what the customer eventually got out of it. Paid knowledge sharing applications that combine the three resemble education but are also convenient and light, and easy to broadcast,” Ji remarks.
The app Zaihang brings together experts and users for one-hour long one-on-one consulting sessions in an offline environment such as a coffee shop. Following the successful launch of Zaihang, Ji went on to try something different, creating Q&A platform Fenda, where users ask questions that are answered by opinion leaders in one-minute voice messages.
Ji’s team of more than 70 people continues to try out new approaches and ideas. "Different duration and different forms of exchange will create a completely different experience,” Ji believes. Their newest project focuses on "small lectures” that last half an hour.
“In principle, what we do is e-commerce selling time,” Ji says. The approach seems to work since for modern urbanites time is just too precious.
Time is without doubt limited. Startups that are not moving fast enough run the risk of being run over by chasing competitors who only wait to “massively replicate” original ideas and business models.
Competing on Creativity, Speed and Optimization
As Ji puts it, Beijing is an extremely innovation-intensive place that also comes with a lot of pressure. People in every corner of Beijing are talking about innovation and keep discussing it using different models and aspects.
“Often one team creates A, then another team not only replicates it but also need to add something to it. Creativity is substituted very quickly,” Ji explains.
He observes that a common perception in the past was that establishing a new business model takes one year or longer. But on the Internet the [business] cycle is probably one month. Team A creates product A, which is copied by B and innovated. Then A must again make changes. This cycle will repeat itself every one or two months so that a product might change three to four times a year.
It could well be said that the innovation, replication, and repeated innovation of Chinese Internet applications is beyond imagination.
Ji cites Fenda as an example. It took only about two weeks and a team of 10 people to take this product from the creative concept stage to going online. Since the whole project was more of an experiment, everyone discussed and worked on it after regular business hours. When the team discovered three days after Fenda had gone online that the number of users was growing much faster than expected, “I called 70 people over here and declared that from now on they had to drop everything and fully delve into the optimization of Fenda instead,” reveals Ji.
The Internet is all about numbers, but paid knowledge-sharing is all about quality. Be it celebrity economics or insider expertise, there is little doubt that the rise of the knowledge monetization industry in China will spawn many more dazzling applications.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz