Ep. 31: Alibaba and The Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu): Powering Ecommerce with Content

26 min read 

In episode 31 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma talk about Xiaohongshu, also known as RED, which had received a $300 million investment from Alibaba. Though the money was injected in June, the two companies have recently announced an additional cooperation that links them at the product level– an integration with Alibaba’s Taobao. What is the significance of these developments, and what is the story of Xiaohongshu? Listeners also hear from Elijah Whaley, CMO of the Chinese influencer marketing platform ParkLU, which counts RED as a client.

Rui and Ying-Ying share that Xiaohongshu’s tagline is “world’s best lifestyle at your fingertips,” and people often refer to the site as “Instagram and Pinterest sprinkled with a dose of Taobao.” The site’s founders, Charlwin Mao and Miranda Qu, are only 33 this year. They first met a decade ago in a US mall, though Xiaohongshu did not exist until Charlwin attended a Tencent-sponsored entrepreneurship camp in his first summer of business school. From the beginning, the co-founders set their sights on the cross-border market, with Xiaohongshu positioned as a community, complete with useful guides and reviews as well as real posts. The initial slogan was “find good things abroad.” This then became “discover good things in the world” and later “good life in the world,” before today’s inclusive “taking notes of my life.”

Rui and Ying-Ying delve into the product features and positioning that distinguish Xiaohongshu. Even though it is a content platform, the app makes money not from ads, but via traditional ecommerce; as of 2017, it sold 50 percent third-party goods and 50 percent self-operated. Though counterintuitive, their strategy has worked: the company is now at 120 million users and 30 million MAU, with a rumored close to $1 billion in revenue last year and double that this year. How has the platform evolved? What differentiates Xiaohongshu’s users from the rest of China ecommerce? What about distinctions in the type of content its users publish? Why is this a smart alliance for Alibaba, and how does the app reflect consumption trends in China?

As always, you can find these stories and more at pandaily.com. Let us know what you think of the show by leaving us an iTunes review, liking our Facebook page, and tweeting at us at @techbuzzchina to win some swag! Finally, a huge shoutout to our listeners over at partner dealstreetasia.com.

Finally, San Francisco Bay Area-based listeners who would like free tickets to view Hao Wu’s film on live streaming and its impact in China, People’s Republic of Desire, should email [email protected] by Friday, December 7. Here is the event link: https://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/peoples-republic-of-desire-2/.


(Y: Ying-Ying Lu; R: Rui Ma; E: Elijah Whaley)

[00:00] R: This has been a pretty slow news week for China tech.
Y: We sifted through a lot of headlines, but only one really stood out, and it’s really not that big of a deal. Actually, it’s just a small product cooperation, and it’s not even launched yet. It’s in beta.

[00:16]R: But we think it’s interesting to talk about because of its place in the continuing evolution of Chinese ecommerce.
Y: Which, in case you were not aware, is by far the largest in the world. By 2016, China already accounted for 42% of global ecommerce transaction volume, with the US a distant second at just over half of that.

R: Yes, and last year, that volume exceeded $1.1trn dollars.
Y: Which is why, again, trends in this market are so interesting, and potentially applicable, to markets outside of China.

[00:51] R: Today’s story is on Xiaohongshu, also known as simply RED. The catalyst for the story is the news that Alibaba will be displaying Xiaohongshu content on Taobao, but the real story here is the success of the company, and how it’s made a name for itself in the intersection of content and commerce, But we also want to talk about the continuing debate on how these two business models can work together profitably, if at all.
Y: Yes, I really think we have just started to scratch the surface of the ecommerce industry in China. Unlike Episode 17 on Pinduoduo, though, which was about the rural consumer and consumption trickle-down, Xiaohongshu is a story of consumption upgrade or 消费升级.

[01:33] R: What is Xiaohongshu? How did it get started? What makes it successful? What does it tell us about Chinese consumers? And why should you, Techbuzzers, care about this company?

[02:07] Y: Hi everyone! Welcome back to TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network!

R: We are a weekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China.
Y: We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. So you can be smarter about the world of China tech.

R: TechBuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” I’m one of your two co-hosts, Rui Ma.
Y: And I’m your other co-host, Ying-Ying Lu. We’d like to give a shoutout to our partners DealStreetAsia and SupChina, creator of the Sinica Podcast Network! In addition to Techbuzz, you can also find the Sinica podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs on China.
R: You can also find NuVoices, a podcast on women, as well as the new business-oriented ChinaEconTalk, and of course the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief from China’s leading business magazine. Be sure to check these out! And oh yeah, if you enjoy listening to us, please take the time to leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Facebook or wherever you get your podcast!

[03:17] Y: Now before we get started, we have a special announcement for you guys. To our long time listeners, remember our TechBuzz Episode 7 on live streaming? The one that relied heavily on research done by filmmaker Hao Wu’s, about live streaming and its impact in China.
R: Ying-Ying and I both got to see Hao’s film, “People’s Republic of Desire,” earlier this year and we thought it was really well made, informative and insightful. This weekend, our friend Elliott Ng is offering up free tickets for TechBuzz listeners who would like to attend the film’s screening in San Francisco. It’s this Saturday, December 8 at Roxie Theater, and the viewing will be follow ed by a live Q&A with Hao.
Y: This is a great documentary. You can find more information, including a preview, about the movie on Roxie Theater’s website. Again, to join us with free tickets, email us at [email protected] by noon this Friday, December 7.

[04:24] Y: So, Rui, what is Xiaohongshu?
R: Xiaohongshu, spelled Xiaohongshu, literally means Little Red Book, although the company’s English name is simply “RED”. Now, let’s clear up a misconception. When I first heard about the company, I thought it was a reference to the book “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” originally published in 1964 and which pretty much everyone in China at the time owned a copy of. It was called Little Red Book because of course, it’s got a red cover and it’s little.
Y: But the founders insist that that’s not it. I mean, it would be kind of blasphemous, given the political significance of the book. According to co-founder Miranda Qu, 瞿芳, it was just because they wanted to use “books” to denote a path of learning, to discover the unknown, and that red was a memorable color.

[05:18] R: I don’t know, it sounds pretty contrived, I still think the real story is that they were playing an inside joke. Co-founder and CEO Charlwin’s last name is also Mao, after all, which is a relatively rare surname.
Y: OK, OK, but even if he wanted to be the second Mao with his own Little Red Book, the two are quite different. Because you see, Xiaohongshu is a user-generated content platform for discovering new lifestyle products.

R: Yeah, if you go to its website, its tagline is literally: “world’s best lifestyle at your fingertips.” And if you ask people to describe it, well, I think it’s accurately referred to as “Instagram and Pinterest sprinkled with a dose of Taobao.”
Y: Instagram because of the layout and the influencers, Pinterest because of the focus on goods and services, and Taobao because well, you can actually buy things on there.

[06:15] R: But as always, before we get too deep into the product, we are going to start off with Xiaohongshu’s founding story. Because here at Techbuzz, we have always believed that a company’s founders and the first few years of its development, can tell us a lot about the company’s long-term strategy and vision.
Y: So Xiaohongshu has two founders. Charlwin Mao, and Miranda Qu.

R: You’re probably thinking, what’s Charlwin? Well, it’s basically a combination of Charles and “win.” Charlwin, who is only 33 this year, went to Shanghai Jiaotong university, a top school in China, and majored in Engineering. He then worked for Bain Consulting after graduation, and in private equity, before attending Stanford for his MBA.
Y: Miranda, on the other hand, studied Journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She worked for Bertelsmann after college. She is the same age as Charlwin and is also just 33 this year.

[07:11] R: You’re probably thinking, yeah, we get it, they both went to pretty good schools, that’s nice, and one is an engineer and the other had a humanities / content background, so what? Well, while the education pedigree is interesting, what’s also important to note is that both worked for foreign firms, or 外企, after graduation.
Y: It’s not that easy to work for a foreign firm in China, because most require you to be fairly bilingual. The salaries also tend to be very healthy, but beyond that, there is usually more opportunity to travel abroad, and to meet a very diverse group of people.

R: And that’s important because Xiaohongshu really began as a cross-border business for Chinese people to figure out how to buy foreign goods.
Y: Right, so stepping back a few years, Miranda and Charlwin apparently met a decade ago in a US mall, when both were visiting Boston for a conference at Harvard. They were both from Wuhan, Hubei, which if you’ll remember is also the same province where Joe Chen of Renren, Lei Jun of Xiaomi, and Zhou Hongyi of Qihoo are from.

[08:19] R: Hometown affiliations are important, remember, as we’ve been emphasizing here on Techbuzz. People in China really trust people from their same hometown. And in the case of Miranda and Charlwin, their same hometown meant that they spoke the same dialect, which led them to identify each other as 老乡, or from the same place, even though they were thousands of miles away from home in a Boston mall.
Y: While they met all those years ago, it wasn’t until Charlwin went to Stanford for business school, and by luck, he went to a Tencent sponsored entrepreneurship camp his first summer, that Xiaohongshu started to take shape. One of his first investors was Bob Xu from Zhen Fund, who, fresh off of the success of investing in Jumei, another ecommerce success founded by a Stanford GSB Chinese entrepreneur, was looking to deepen his thesis of investing in overseas-educated returnees.

[09:15] R: From the first, Charlwin and Miranda set their sights on the cross-border market. By 2012, Chinese tourists were already spending billions of dollars when traveling overseas. They were buying the usual luxury names, but they were also discovering foreign brands that were still unavailable in China and having their friends bring it back for them from abroad.
Y: Now, a lot of the time these lesser known brands didn’t have an official presence in China. But the bigger brands did. There was usually just either a price differential or may a different selection of goods within China. Guess what was one of Xiaohongshu’s first reviewed “products”? It was the iPhone 5S. Like most Apple products sold in China, until recently that is, demand outstripped supply.

[10:03] R: You see, it turns out that Charlwin himself decided to document the process of helping his friends get iPhone 5Ss on a trip to Hong Kong in December 2013. Back then, helping friends buy things while overseas was a common thing.
Y: For those of you TechBuzzers with US or Commonwealth passports, it’s easy to forget how difficult it is for citizens of other countries, for example China, to travel. Although it’s become easier in recent years, certainly, it’s still nontrivial.

[10:33] R: In fact, bringing goods from overseas to China, or 代购, was a huge business until recently. That’s because for many items, the overseas price is often at least 30% cheaper than in China. That’s a big difference if you are buying luxury items, which accounted for the bulk of these daigou schemes. In 2014, it was estimated that in luxury goods alone, this was a $12Bn market in China.
Y: The Chinese government, by the way, has come down hard on this industry in a big way, because most of these transactions were done illicitly and evaded import taxes. Since earlier this year, major airports have had consistent crackdowns on professional daigou smugglers, who stuff their bags full of duty-free items. A new set of laws, which are already announced, will come into effect in January 2019, and it is expected that at least the person-to-person daigou prevalent in the past decade will be impacted in a big way.

[11:31] R: As you can imagine, it used to be this big mess because everything was done so illicitly and peer-to-peer. So there was a lot of fraud and counterfeit items. Obviously. But Xiaohongshu and other platforms saw the opportunity to make the process more transparent.
Y: Transparency and trust are key. Xiaohongshu’s success, at least in the beginning, was all about word of mouth. It was first and foremost a community. The shopping guides and reviews had to be useful, but more importantly, they had to be real, and not paid posts such as the ones we saw in China’s TripAdvisor, Mafengwo, which we covered in Episode 27.

R: But that’s also why Xiaohongshu resolutely refused to use advertising as a business model. Even though it’s a content platform, it makes money via traditional ecommerce. As of 2017, the app sells 50% third-party goods and 50% self-operated, with its own warehouses and all that jazz.
Y: In hindsight, this looks to have been a good business model, although much more capital intensive than just running a pure marketplace. But honestly, I don’t think they had any choice. As Miranda herself admits, when the company was just getting started, buying from overseas was such an opaque process the only way to really ensure that all the transactions were legit was to operate it themselves.

[12:58] R: And those are really the two things about Xiaohongshu that makes it different from so many of the other social media and ecommerce platforms globally. It’s a content community, but it makes money from ecommerce, instead of advertising, which is what powers say an Instagram or a Pinterest. Kind of unintuitive, and probably not what your business school strategy class would recommend.
Y: So here, there is two major objections most people would have. The first is that by running your own ecommerce operations, there is inventory risk. The second is that OK, you have a really sticky content community, but by not having advertising, most of the content is not directly monetizable. That is, if people are posting about goods and services on your platform and getting excited about them, but you don’t carry it, then they have basically used you as research but actually complete the transaction elsewhere. And you got nothing from it!

[14:00] R: All really valid objections, but based on relative immaturity of cross-border ecommerce at the time, also very reasonable decisions on the part of Xiaohongshu. And let’s see how that strategy has worked out for them. Xiaohongshu is now at 120mm users and 30mm monthly actives. Last year, it was rumored to have nearly $1Bn in revenue, with the hope to almost double it this year.
Y: That’s not too bad for a company that’s valued at $3Bn. Yes, that’s right. Alibaba led an investment of $300mm into Xiaohongshu earlier this year. That’s after Tencent led a $100mm investment the previous round. Not surprising on Tencent, since if you’ll remember, it was the Tencent entrepreneur summer camp that inspired Charlwin to start the company in the first place.

[14:58] R: But now Xiaohongshu has both as investors, and it’s the latest development with Alibaba that makes it interesting. Because leaked screenshots show that Taobao is planning to directly load Xiaohongshu’s influencer posts into reviews of relevant merchandise.
Y: Sellers won’t be able to pick and choose good reviews only. Xiaohongshu will use its algorithm to serve up relevant results, which may include bad reviews, so as to maintain objectivity. Alibaba is pushing hard into content-driven ecommerce, as both it and Tencent watch users’ minutes spent online be sucked away by short-video apps such as Tik Tok. But will this work?

[14:39] R: Well, Xiaohongshu has never strayed far from its original mission of discovering and buying new lifestyle products and services. Even though in 2014, its slogan was much more narrow than that. It was 找到国外的好东西, or “find good things abroad.” But in 2015 though, Xiaohongshu expanded its motto to “discover good things in the world.”
Y: And then the next year, it simply became “good life in the world,” not just limited to discussion of physical goods. Maybe the fitness crazy that took off had something to do with it. Today, the app simply says 标记我的生活, or “taking notes of my life.” So, even more inclusive.

[16:24] R: The use case has broadened, yes, but the demographic remains narrow. In 2015, Charlwin claimed that 90% of the users are female. It seems that probably is still the case. 50% are from first tier cities, and 50% are younger than 25. In terms of gender at least, it looks awfully like Pinterest.
Y: But what differentiates Xiaohongshu’s users from the rest of China ecommerce is that they are considered sophisticated, with high earning potential. Remember, first tier cities in China have a total population of something like 100mm people, depending on how strictly you define it. To have half of your users be from first tier cities basically means that you have incredible penetration with this demographic.

[17:11] R: It’s also the opposite of what has driven the growth of recent IPOs discount retailer Pinduoduo, which we covered back in Episode 17, and social or content apps like Qutoutiao, and most of livestreaming, the topic of episode 7. This is much more on the side of consumption upgrade, or 消费升级, the megatrend and phrase coined a few years back when everyone was convinced that the Chinese consumer was going to be as hip as they come, on par with the millennials of a New York, Paris or maybe London.
Y: And that is not untrue. I think anyone who’s been to downtown Beijing or Shanghai can see for themselves, that is indeed the case for a subset of the population. But this subset is significantly smaller in population than the much larger and poorer Chinese rural and working class.

[18:02] R: Which explains why even Xiaohongshu could not survive on just foreign luxury and premium brands alone, but has now become a platform for all lifestyle products, including plenty of local players.
Y: But because they started at the high end, with some of the most discerning and savvy customers in China, trickling downwards from premium to good-value is probably easier than starting off with flea market goods, as Taobao did, and trying to climb up to Gucci.

[18:30] R: Anyway, neither of us are big shoppers, as you know by now, but we downloaded and tried the app for ourselves, and actually, it does seem to adhere pretty closely to what it claims to do, which is very commerce centric, no real direct advertising, and truthful reviews. Sort of, anyway. For example, on my Xiaohongshu, I am following GEM 邓紫棋, one of the most popular female singers right now. She’s new to the platform, and her first post is from September 16. I say that because it’s only fairly recently that real celebrities started to have Xiaohongshu accounts.
Y: Of course they are being paid to do so, but still, it’s interesting how they use Xiaohongshu differently from other social media. The emphasis is truly on “things,” and not “people.” So even though GEM would probably get a ton of engagement by posting about her life as a star, she does not.

[19:26] R: Yeah, all 11 of her posts so far are about her diet, fitness routine, or by far the most popular, skincare. Almost all of them are short videos paired with a long post. The users eat it up because most of the videos begin with the celebrity in their hotel room or in a car, talking into the camera like they’re FaceTiming with you about their favorite life hacks.
Y: The comments below are less “I love you GEM” and more focused on the merchandise. Which, really does reinforce Xiaohongshu’s reputation as a community for buying things. If the product is available through Xiaohongshu, you can click and purchase directly.

[20:06] R: If not, though, and Xiaohongshu’s SKUs, although often bestsellers, are quite limited, you’ll have to buy it on another platform. But because Xiaohongshu forbids URLs and any sort of advertising, so most posts ask you to friend them and message for more information. Often, they don’t even tell you the name of the brand in the post until you do that.
Y: As you would expect, these posts are sponsored. Sure, GEM’s few tips so far seem to be unbranded, because she’s probably got more important endorsements down the line, but most non-celebrity influencer posts are hyping some kind of product.

[20:42] R: One influencer who has 110,000 fans says he charges about $2000 for a single ad on Xiaohongshu, which might be an unboxing video or just a photo. By the way, that’s on par with what Instagram influencers get paid, which is somewhere around $1,000 per 100K fans, although that can obviously go a lot higher if you’re Kim Kardashian.
Y: So Xiaohongshu doesn’t directly allow advertising, but the influencer economy that exists on Instagram is alive and well in China as well. And it’s increasingly letting brands come onto its platform. So could you really say that Xiaohongshu is as authentic as it claims?

[21:17] R: Sure, it can use machine learning to try to minimize some of these things, as it claims, but given that it has been so difficult to scale up the ecommerce side of things, can it really stay away from advertising entirely? Earlier this year, there were rumors of significant layoffs in the ecommerce unit at Xiaohongshu, although the company has denied them. But it still made waves because despite being early in cross-border ecommerce, Xiaohongshu only had a 4% market share according to market reports, even lower than Amazon.
Y: Maybe the integration with Taobao is actually because they are giving up on ecommerce and refocusing on community? What first seemed to be a big win for Taobao, to be able to use content from one of the more high-end, trusted brands on the internet, is maybe actually a bigger win for Xiaohongshu, who can’t seem to scale up ecommerce operations fast or efficiently enough to really monetize off of its dedicated users.

[22:23] R: We asked Elijah, who’s an expert in China digital marketing, what he thought. Elijah, can you introduce yourself?

E: My name is Elijah Whaley. I’m the CMO of the Chinese influencer marketing platform ParkLU. ParkLU tracks over 40,000 influencers across 12 native Chinese social media platforms.

R: Wow, that’s a lot of platforms. So what do you think of Xiaohongshu as a product?
E: I think Xiaohongshu is a fabulous product. I think it’s only started to really gain popularity, I think it’s going to be a killer platform in 2019, and what’s interesting about it right now is that most people think of Xiaohongshu as some sort of ecommerce social media hybrid, but I don’t think that’s actually what’s taking place. I believe Xiaohongshu is the next generation search engine based on like what most web content was based on — blog posts. And these are short-form blog posts that consist of obviously images, or they can be short video, but right now what we are seeing is that the user behavior for Xiaohongshu is obviously it’s a very strongly skewed demographic towards young females — but they go on there for a primary source of research looking for products, getting social validation, for whether or not these are things they want to buy in the future. Really what it comes down to though is that the mechanics of the platform are very similar to search engines.

R: That’s actually the same tagline these days for Pinterest, by the way, a sort of visual search engine. But again, Xiaohongshu doesn’t make its money that way yet, although it could. Anyway, back to this integration with Taobao, what are your thoughts?
E: Alibaba’s investment in Xiaohongshu is obviously a sign of strength for the platform, and the recent integration of Xiaohongshu content into Taobao I do not believe is a sign of weakness for Xiaohongshu but a sign of strength for the quality of the content that’s being produced, and it’s actually quite a bit better than the Weitao system that’s currently used in Taobao for social content, and just showing there’s a lot of quality and action and heat that’s taking place on the platform that Alibaba would like to leverage across its other ecommerce platforms.

R: A lot has been made about the quality of the content on Xiaohongshu, could you speak to that? How are they managing to keep the quality high?
E: Besides that, We’ve seen really great growth with celebrities adopting the platform, local and international. KOLs are coming to the platform in droves. But one of the most unique things about the platform is how really really the cheesy term authenticity really means a lot on this platform. We really see that very authentic very engaging very real content perform very well on this platform. Anything that’s commercial, anything that’s over-produced, seems to not to perform as well, and that’s actually a part of the design and that seems to be something that Xiaohongshu itself is trying to promote and trying to keep active on the platform and keeping things in that direction. As we see KOLs get larger, we see their engagement rates drop dramatically and that’s likely because they’re getting organic visibility restrictions because of the platform, so they really want to give a chance to those grass roots, long tail micro KOLs who are commonly more authentic in some ways and less likely to have a lot of paid and sponsored posts.

[26:20] R: That’s really helpful, thanks to Elijah for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk to us. We know you’re actually running an event with Xiaohongshu as we speak.

Y: OK, I think we’ve covered most of the major points. Why don’t we summarize for our listeners what we think the key takeaways are from today. You wanna go first, Rui?
R: Well first, we learned that Xiaohongshu does two things differently from many of its ecommerce competitors. It targets the higher-end of Chinese consumers, and provides these picky buyers with a great experience, it doesn’t allow for advertising in its content-driven community and instead makes money from ecommerce operations.
Y: We also learned that even though it began by targeting the niche of Chinese users interested in foreign goods, it’s now a broad lifestyle-focused platform, as user habits and tastes have evolved to become ever more sophisticated.
R: Thirdly, in China, video is being used as one of the primary ways to drive commerce, just like in the US. It fits better with the theme of discovery and shopping as entertainment, as more and more of that moves online.

[27:30] Y: Shoppers worldwide are browsing and researching and learning long before they buy something. It’s no longer about finding how to get to the big brands, but discovering and learning new ones. That’s why Miranda calls Xiaohongshu a Disneyland.
R: Yeah, Disneyland again. Remember what other company did the same? Pinduoduo, which literally put that into its prospectus. The difference though, is that online, you get to use algorithms to curate a different “Disneyland” for every shopper.
Y: But there’s still a significant gap between the capabilities of someone like Xiaohongshu, who is providing the content, and someone like Taobao, who can fulfill the purchase of the final goods. Which probably explains why Xiaohongshu has been more and more focused on marketing itself as content for the style-obsessed instead of as a commerce platform.
R: If I have to guess, the latter is still going to be more dominant in the foreseeable future. But meanwhile, going deep into content is still a good strategy, and it’s still a unicorn opportunity, if you do it right, just not a hundred-billion dollar one.
Y: The similarities to US companies are interesting though. Imagine if Amazon included reviews and posts from Pinterest or Instagram. All that content, but siloed on different platforms. Alibaba is very smart, and trying to suck it all in.
R: Either way, it would seem that the consumer wins.

[29:11] Y: OK, that’s all for this week folks! Thanks for listening. We really enjoyed putting this together, and we are always open to any comments or suggestions. You can find us on twitter at thepandaily, at techbuzzchina, and my personal Twitter account is GINYGINY.
R: And my Twitter is spelled RUIMA. By the way, as an addendum to today’s episode, you can listen to the GGV 996 podcast for a detailed interview with Miranda. Check our transcript for the link! TechBuzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network. Pandaily.com is an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” Our producers are Shaw Wan and Kaiser Kuo. Our intern is Wang Menglu.

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