News Buzz to Biz IV: What Chinese Women Want From Web Content

2016-10-05 01:42:45

This is the third interview in a series of articles about China’s WeMedia content creators. You can find interviews one, two, four, and five here.

In 2014, Yu Ping reflected back on her 13 years of reporting on lifestyle and fashion. The then-deputy editor of culture of The New York Times’ Chinese website was wondering about whether professional journalists were the right people to be writing movie, book, and restaurant reviews.

It’s not that Yu, who has written for Sanlian Life Week, a prominent magazine for China’s elite, and for GQ’s Chinese edition, had begun to question how news was produced in traditional media. Rather, Yu — who is known professionally by her pen name, Yu Kunkun — realized that while in-depth financial stories and investigative reports remained the bread and butter of well-trained journalists, lifestyle and fashion could be done just as well by non-professionals, even with greater efficiency and at lower cost.

“During my final days at The New York Times around the end of 2014, I increasingly felt that what I was doing was different from the work of political writers and investigative reporters,” Yu told Sixth Tone. “The gap was only growing wider. This is what gave me an idea for a new media product.”

Yu’s contemplation led to her founding a platform for dialogue among women later the same year. Boasting a website, a mobile app, and a public WeChat account, the platform, called “Ling Long,” gives some 100 million female users an open, online forum in which discussions and debates can take place. Subjects range from breaking-the-glass-ceiling in the workplace to the fine art of raising children.

The name Ling Long is a homage to a women’s magazine of the same name from the 1930s, which was particularly popular with upper-class ladies in Shanghai. Yu found that the subjects women cared about then are the same as they care about today. The original Ling Long also cultivated some of China’s first feminists.

Yu’s target audience is middle-class women, a group that has emerged in recent years in tandem with China’s rapid economic development and its embrace of urbanization. This group has picked up an understanding of middle-class lifestyles from the internet, Yu said. More than 80 percent of Ling Long’s users are city-dwelling, college-educated women aged 22 to 32. According to Yu, online and offline interviews of about 300 of the site’s users indicate that their monthly incomes range from around 10,000 to 30,000 yuan ($1,500 to $4,500) — well above the national average.

Ling Long’s website is divided into three main parts: a culture and entertainment section where users review films, books, and all kinds of shows and performances; a lifestyle section where they share their experiences in travel, dining, and fashion; and a discussion board where they can share their general thoughts and opinions easily with one another.

A screenshot of Ling Long’s website of shows an array of trending topics.

A screenshot of Ling Long’s website of shows an array of trending topics.

At the moment, Yu has no timetable for turning a profit, but she is experimenting with various business models this year by introducing products and features that match closely with users’ tastes and interests. For example, on the website a scarf designer teaches a hundred ways to wear a scarf, with pictures of the scarves she designs and a link to her online shop. Discussion among users can also promote word-of-mouth referrals, further boosting sales. Yu is hoping Ling Long will emerge as a “social shopping” force in China.

In Yu’s view, it is the website’s third section — called sanguan, or “three views” — that sets it apart from other online communities for women. Discussions on social issues there tend to cover a wide range of topics, from the LGBT community, to gender equality, to feminism, and these account for one-third of all postings on the website. But Ling Long’s users appear not to care much for politics. For example, when Tsai Ing-wen was elected the leader of Taiwan in January, users preferred to talk about the rise of women’s power rather than the more politically sensitive topic of cross-Straits relations. 

But Yu said this was not unexpected: “When women get together, they don’t tend to talk about politics.” She added that sanguan was essential to the website’s core appeal, although she has no plans to commercialize this section. Yu said that the middle class is not just about shopping and consumption; instead, there is also interest in social affairs. So without sanguan, Ling Long would be missing a vital element needed to engage this audience.

Ling Long appears to represent a commercial proposition that appeals to investors. It has raised tens of millions of yuan in two rounds of fundraising in 2014 and 2015. Its investors include venture capital firms IDG Capital Partners and China Growth Capital, whom Yu said were drawn by the potential buying power of China’s middle class. They were also confident about Ling Long’s user content — namely, the discussions and debates it encouraged — as an entry point for introducing business.

Sixth Tone: What are the most popular products on Ling Long?

Yu Ping: The most popular are high-quality goods — not luxury goods, not basic necessities, but rather something in between. These products are not mass-produced commodities; instead, they show the consumers’ attitudes toward life, or allow them to connect emotionally. Price is not the most important factor our users consider when making purchases. They care more about the quality of the goods and the attitude they express in buying them. 

Sixth Tone: What inspired you to create the sanguan space for Ling Long?

Yu: It was to distinguish Ling Long from other female-focused online communities, which, in my experience, mainly revolve around two things: shopping and relationships — for example, how to drive away a mistress. But being a middle-class woman is not all about the emotional and the material. It’s also about social issues. So if I don’t create a sanguan section, then Ling Long won’t address middle-class needs.

Sixth Tone: What have you found are the hottest topics in sanguan?

Yu: The hottest topics are those related to self-improvement, for example, whether it’s normal to have a first mid-life crisis at the age of 25. Personally, I like topics that make people think and debate, like why consumerism has become so integral to the Chinese identity, or whether feminists have an obligation to support Hillary Clinton.

Sixth Tone: From your perspective, has user interest in social issues changed over the years?

Yu: As our user base has grown, the social discussions on Ling Long have become less critical but more personal. This is in accordance with the characteristics of Chinese social media in general: People care more about their personal lives, but they pay less attention to public issues.

Sixth Tone: With regard to the spiritual pursuits and social issues users care about, are there any differences between Chinese middle-class women and their Western counterparts?

Yu: I can’t answer this question objectively because I am not a middle-class woman living in the West. But if we take the op-eds of The New York Times as an indicator, the number of articles on political issues in the West is quite large, whereas in China, we barely have this kind of social media environment anymore.

Sixth Tone: Do you foresee any problems for Ling Long stemming from censorship?

Yu: In China, any work related to communications will face this problem. I have always known it exists, and perhaps I even know it better than most entrepreneurs. Ling Long’s user agreement stipulates that users cannot post any information that is against the law, or anything that is insulting, pornographic, or in violation of personal privacy. Users must agree to this in order to weigh in on the discussion. When people violate this agreement, we ban them from the website or block their accounts.

Additional reporting by Colum Murphy. With contributions from Fu Danni.

(Header image: Yu Ping poses for a photo. Courtesy of Yu Ping)