China’s Online Creative Community – Part 2: Interview

November 30, 2007 at 4:59 am 3 comments

Ju (MindShare, Regional Insights) writes:

A couple of months back I had the chance to meet with Sean Leow in a small café in Shanghai, one of the co-founders of the social networking site ‘Neocha’, which Pew Internet dubbed as China’s MySpace for the creative-types, as mentioned in the previous introductory post. I was first introduced to Neocha.com through our trend scout in Shanghai through her article on ‘Online Home for Indie Culture in China‘ on our Asia Scout Network blog.

Sean is a half-Chinese, half-American who has been living and working in China for the past four years. After growing up in San Francisco’s Bay Area and graduating from Duke University, Sean moved to China, studying and working in four Chinese cities along the way.

Chatting casually over coffee, Sean talks about his exposure to Japanese-influenced youth subcultures in China and the one-day Neocha launch event which attracted 8,000 to 10,000 young people through digital means and word-of-mouth while taking us through Neocha’s webzine <Blow-Up>. He contends that the best way to connect with young people is through brand engagement.

This edited video clip is a short collection of the highlights of the interview.

Read on for the full version:

1. What do you find interesting about China’s digital media landscape?
One thing that I find interesting is digital webzines. That’s something that some people say is a failure in other countries – releasing webzines with flash online. In China though, it has been pretty successful coz it’s so hard to get a publishing license here, that if you can release it online for free, people are demanding that kind of content – new content that speaks to them so much more than the stuff that is shown on state-run media.

We actually have one of our own – it’s called <Blow Up>. I’m pretty proud of ours because it’s the only one I know that’s 100% original content. A lot of these webzines they take articles or videos that they find on the internet and they’ll piece together some interesting stuff. There are some good ones, but one thing that we tried to really do is create a fully original one including all the music. All the music is by bands and musicians that we know in China. (View Neocha’s most recent issue of <Blow Up> here – definitely worth a look!)

2. Why create another online community platform in China?
The simple reason was that there was none targeted specifically at the creative communities in China. I’ve spent a lot of time going all over China. I’ve been here for four and a half years and I see really interesting content being created whether it’s music or photography or design. And when I go somewhere like Beijing, I’ll meet someone like “oh, I know someone who’s doing something similar in Shanghai” and I kept running into those situations until I’m thinking where is the aggregation point in this. Is this being done online or offline? What I found was that it wasn’t really existing, it was very scattered groups and I thought there was an opportunity to bring them together. So I went to some of my Chinese friends who are even more knowledgeable on this demographic – guys who are musicians, those who actually live the life. They’re like no, there isn’t a website that caters to us, that speak the same language.

So, on the one hand we saw that there was a need for an aggregator. On the other hand, I grew up in Silicon Valley so all my friends and family were always involved with the internet. Now I think the tools do exist that we can allow these people to both promote themselves, and at the same time collaborate with other people who are interested in this content.

One thing that we do that’s a bit different from other online communities is that we do have a big focus on offline events like that big event I showed. Our communities are already set up like that. To do a concert with them is not difficult because they’re already doing concerts. To do a photography exhibit with our photographers is not difficult because they’re already doing exhibits. And I also believe any successful community has an element where people can meet and talk, to reinforce the friends and the connections that you make online and offline. We’ve already done four or five offline events. We’re thinking of doing something on a monthly basis, on a smaller scale. This (launch event) is like once a year type of thing. Right now we only have the resources to handle Shanghai, but we’d also like to be in Beijing, Hangzhou, and to a lesser extent the other cities.

3. So how did you “get the ball rolling” and start attracting young people to the site and to the event?
In China, young people don’t use email that much. You think of viral campaigns that you do in the US, a lot of that’s through email. In China, you can definitely use email as a tool, but it’s definitely not used as widely as the US, except among white collar workers who use it for work. I find with the young generation it’s almost all IM, in the big cities it would MSN or otherwise QQ, and through cell phone. We also send out emails. I mean you send out 3,000 emails you’re bound to get somebody that’s going to respond to it and not think it’s spam. The other way that we did it was just contacting everybody that we knew that we considered, we’d call them ‘mavens’, guess you could say that, people who we think are influential, who have fans, networks that they can reach out to. You get those people on it and you get them to bring the people that they know. And then on top of that was the big event that we did. I find the best way to market online is actually through BBS’s, BBS forums. That’s traditionally how these online communities have been structured and in China it’s still and extremely popular form of communication. I think that’s moving more to the blog/space type of set up that we have. I guess that’s why we didn’t create a BBS for creative communities. But BBS is still very powerful for spreading your message.

4. Do you think there’s any social or cultural link between these creative communities and the non-creative types of people? Or are they completely separate from each other?
I’m not going to say that [the creative community] is huge because I don’t think it is yet. But it’s different from other niche subcultures that you see, because I think these people are having more and more influence over mainstream culture, and I think in 3-5 years they will be tremendously influential. That’s the hypothesis behind what we’re doing. We think they’re going to be extremely influential – these people are about 17 to about 30 years-old and they really represent the new generation of Chinese kids which is they’re very proud of being Chinese, and at the same time they’re part of the world community and that they have innovative, interesting content. They’re not just the China of old, made-in-China products, they want to turn that around and say ‘look we’ve got some interesting stuff too’. And it’s also the same as the motive by the government because for so long, China’s at a cultural deficit, they’ve been importing movies, music, art, and they haven’t been exporting anything. So they want to reverse that cultural deficit and start creating their own stuff that they can start using as ‘soft power’ to export to the rest of the world, like music. So I think it’s a perfect storm between these people coming of age, having the means to do it because they don’t have to worry about day-to-day existence, and basically being supported by the government and other people, not just their parents, but other people that they know.

5. How have the young people influenced the mainstream? Have you any examples?
Part of it you can just see by walking in this area (Xinle Lu). This is kind of like the hip area of Shanghai. You go into the boutique shops here and you see the clothes and, the T-shirt revolution that’s going in China as everywhere else in the world. There’s a lot of these designers like ‘The Thing’. You see their influences and their designs on everyday people who are walking the streets.

6. What’s the general attitude of the young Chinese people that you meet?

They’re sick of old media. They’re also sick of the canto-pop star. It’s difficult to put a label on them. They’re interested in finding ways to take independent culture and making it more influential on the mainstream. They’re not rebellious in the way that you would think of Americans or Europeans are rebellious, like try to run away from home. They still have that kind of filial piety to their parents. Some people’s parents are more accepting of what they’re trying to do and some people aren’t. They’re not interested in politics. We have over a hundred blogs which I read half of everyday and no one’s ever really talked about politics.

They’re talking about a new CD, posting an illustration that they did. There are different stratums of users. Our strategy is we are going after people who are already creating content. But they don’t have a good place to post it. In that way they already have the content – the pictures, the stories, the music. We think that’s the best way to grow the website fast because people have stuff to look at and interact with. And then at the same time, we’re trying to work on strategies to bring in more regular people who are interested in these creative communities, but isn’t necessarily the members who are making this stuff. They’re more interested in maybe reading about it or maybe commenting on it.

7. What’s the best way to connect with young people?

I really think digital is the best way to connect to young people. Not only are they spending time there and you can target them demographically, but also you can engage them so much more than you can with just an advertisement on TV. You can get them to in there and write a comment. You can get them to go in there and to vote for someone. You can get in there and download a template for a t-shirt and design the next version of the Adidas t-shirt. They engage with your brand that way – It’s not just I saw it and that’s great. They’re actually engaging with it….The cost isn’t that much to sponsor, but the return they get is that get all of these influential people all engaged with their brands for a certain amount of time. Maybe it’s a buzzword, but I think that brand engagement is a pretty important part of the digital strategy.

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Entry filed under: china, digital, media general, social media, trends.

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  • 2. Deric Loh  |  February 7, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Nice post Ju, how about having posts on other countries as well ?

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