I’ve always thought the Thomas Friedman line should read, “The world is flat … except in China.”
Many U.S. Internet and media companies have entered the China market with dreamy aspirations only to find Kafka-esque obstacles at every turn.
Watching the latest social media company take the leap, LinkedIn, should make for good TV in the coming months.
I spoke with Natalie Lowe, our Asia Pacific managing director and China veteran, about LinkedIn jumping into the fray:
She raised three points that haven’t received much play in the general media coverage:
- Three Chinese LinkedIn wannabes already exist with sizable user bases: Tianji.com (18 million), Renmai.com (10 million) and Dajie.com (15 million). Which will happen faster, the internationalizing of a Chinese professional network or the Chinese-izing of LinkedIn? The answer to this question will play out over the next 24 months or so.
- The English version of LinkedIn enjoys a favorable position in China, perceived as a premium platform that attracts both quality talent and jobs from multinationals. Ironically, a push too far on the local side has the potential to erode LinkedIn’s high-end position.
- As with the English version, speed will be an issue with the Chinese version of LinkedIn. Keep in mind that companies who want to operate a server in China need to obtain an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license. Navigating these waters is not for the squeamish. Yet, until LinkedIn addresses this issue, local competitors have the advantage of a snappier user experience according to our China PR team. I did contact Derek Shen, the China president for LinkedIn, for additional perspective, but didn’t hear back from him.
Here’s the interview with Natalie.
Lou: Are there any American Internet companies that have done a good job in China?
Natalie: No question, most American Internet companies have done poorly or failed all together in China. One company that does come to mind as doing a good job is Amazon. It came into the market first acquiring the Chinese e-commerce startup called Joyo and operated several years under the Joyo umbrella before changing to the Amazon brand. While making the transition, Amazon took the time to understand the behaviors of Chinese consumers.
Lou: Did Amazon localize its product over time?
Natalie: Absolutely. For example the word Amazon is quite difficult to remember, so consumers can now key in z.cn, which takes them to Amazon’s China site.
Lou: Is there a Chinese company that already offers what amounts to a Chinese version of LinkedIn?
Natalie: There are three: Tianji, Renmai and Daijie. Here’s where things get interesting. In talking with our staff in Shanghai and Beijing, they don’t use any of these social media platforms. They assume the interactions and jobs on these sites would only be from local companies.
LinkedIn on the other hand is seen as much more of a high-end platform that attracts the best jobs – especially MNCs. Additionally, if you have a profile on the English version of LinkedIn, you’re considered a high caliber candidate. Even though English might not be the Chinese professionals’ first language, they think it’s relatively beneficial to have a presence on the English version of LinkedIn, and their friends feel the same as well.
Lou: Within your circles of Mainland Chinese professionals, do you think a Chinese language version of LinkedIn will be the trigger to get them to join? Or were they already on the English version?
Natalie: It’s great for LinkedIn to have a local Chinese site; however they should be careful not to localize too much so they lose their point of differentiation. Users enjoy their simple and clean user interface, and the fact that candidates might be considered of higher caliber is also LinkedIn’s USP. It’ll be interesting to see how the Chinese version plays out – what type of members they will attract, and how this will impact the overall user experience.
Lou: Will government compliance from LinkedIn bother professionals in China? How does it impact the LinkedIn brand in China?
Natalie: I don’t think so. You rarely find sensitive news posted on LinkedIn, unlike Twitter and Google; therefore, the compliance issue shouldn’t have much of an impact within China.
Having said that, LinkedIn will integrate its services with WeChat and other local social media platforms such as QQ, weibo, etc., thus, raising their profile and brand awareness in China. Chinese consumers are always on their smart phones – it’s all about ease of access to information and sites here, so I think we’re going to see a lot more of mobile apps and different ways of doing things between LinkedIn China vs. other markets to capture the local audience.
Lou: Right now, is there anything unique about the functionality of the Chinese language version?
Natalie: Not really. As I mentioned earlier, you can add contacts from local Chinese social media platforms (see above), but this is similar to the English version where you can add contacts through Facebook, etc.
Because the Chinese government blocks social platforms from the West such as Facebook and Twitter, these players can’t compete for the “Facebook of China” or the “Twitter of China” mantle.
In contrast, LinkedIn navigated the government waters in a way that gives it a fighting a chance to become the “LinkedIn of China.”