thought leader in China

Podcast transcript #28: Being a thought leader in China and using Chinese social media to accelerate your business

Find here the full transcript of China paradigm episode 28. Learn more about Ashley Galina Dudarenok’s story as a thought leader in China in China and find all the details and additional links below.

Full transcript below:

Matthieu David:  Hello, everyone. I’m Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue Consulting, and this China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. Today I’m with someone who is very famous among people who have followed China topics, well followed on LinkedIn, on YouTube, it’s Ashley Galina Dudarenok. I pronounced correctly, hopefully.

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  That’s fabulous, Matt. It’s phenomenal to be on your podcast.

Matthieu David:  Thank you very much. You’re the founder of Alarice since 2011 and ChoZan. I knew you more from ChoZan, which is much more about training, masterclasses, content strategy for thought leadership in China. Actually, Alarice is much more about executing, as I understand. So, you began after you have worked from the training. You’re also very active online, so you have your own presence online on YouTube with Ashley Talks, and you are also a best-selling author on Amazon. I think what our audience will be very interested to understand it, how do you become a thought leader in China? What have you done? What’s the secret of being so present online and be able to sustain the energy? I hope we can go in-depth into it.

Thank you very much, Ashley, for being with us. Could you tell us more about your journey of being a thought leader in China? If you can share some metrics about – it could campaign you have managed, it could be the number of clients you have managed, it could be about the history of the company would give a sense to the audience about where you are in terms of your development and what you are doing.

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely, Matt. Thank you so much again for such an in-depth introduction. Indeed, back in 2011, I started my first company, Alarice. I’m based in Hong Kong. Back in 2011, I already moved from mainland China. I used to live in mainland China before in the city called Chong Qing. In 2010 I relocated to Hong Kong. I had a full-time job by then, which was PR Manager in a local firm called DT Digital.

In 2011 I actually started the company, and it was because everybody was registering a company in Hong Kong. I don’t know. But literally, it’s so easy. It takes a couple of days. And a friend of mine was saying, “You know what, now is a good time to register,” because apparently it was a very simple procedure and they said they’re going to complicate it going forward. So basically, he told me, “If you want a company at any point in time, now is a good time to register it.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.”

So, I started the company in 2011, and it was more of a sidekick, something on the side. I had a full-time job, but this was like a consulting branch. Yes, slowly and gradually within two years, it grew. Within two years in 2013, actually in April – so we are almost at our birthday – I quit my full-time job, and I started doing it full time. So, it was really, “Why did I do that?” It was more of a personal journey I guess because you get really bored working for somebody else if it’s not a dynamic kind of working environment if you don’t feel that you’re contributing to it 100%.

From there onwards, the company was pretty much related to China, so we were not defined as a marketing agency. It was more of a consulting, China marketing plus any kind of business support really at that point. We were still figuring it out. I really did not want to go to marketing. After years in PR, I felt that, okay, the margins are super thin and slim, and I don’t really want to go to marketing. Maybe consulting is a sexier thing.

Slowly and gradually, really, like in any small business and startup business, you react to what the clients actually want, and you start realizing why the clients are coming to you. So, very quickly, from this kind of general China thing, it turned into marketing in China. So we did everything – marketing to China as an event, etc. – and then it moved into social media marketing, and that’s where we found our niche.

In terms of the agency right now, we do focus on executing. So, basically, there are three major things. Number one is the content strategy for thought leadership in China, especially for big brands that are already in that market and they want to revamp what they are doing in the market, or they’re again big brands and they lost a bit of their opportunity to enter China a couple of years back and right now they’re just setting up.

Secondly is actually executing it, managing their campaigns, creating their content, etc. Then about 2016, I thought that “Okay, the agency is a great business, but at the same time I would like to have a product. I would like to have a product that I could actually scale.” My original idea – and I think this is a dream of many entrepreneurs, you would like to create a product, and you would basically like to leverage it and sell to a lot of customers.

So we created a platform which was called Chao Zan. In Chinese, chao zan means “awesome.” In English, that’s ChoZan. It was a subscription platform where you subscribe to basically very in-depth navigators, very in-depth guides about marketing in China. For a year it was running, it was an interesting endeavor definitely, but we realized that in order to promote it to people that are interested in this very specific service, you need to spend a lot of money and gift it to Google and Facebook and it would basically take $300 to $400 USD to get leads in and then the product cost $1,300, which doesn’t make a lot of business sense.

From there onwards, actually, we realized that people didn’t want to navigate. People didn’t want somebody to tell them what to do in China. People wanted to come and literally walk them by the hand and be there with them, take their team essentially on a journey. So that’s how a new face of ChoZan was born with training. Right now we do trainings for in-house teams, we train agencies that are working in Chinese social media landscape, we train top management, we train marketers, and as a spinoff of that, I became a keynote speaker in China. I go to conferences and basically perform in front of a lot of people. That happened together with writing books and becoming a thought leader in China on LinkedIn and marketing.

So, bottom line you asked about becoming an Amazon bestseller, it’s actually a journey and why I spoke for five minutes talking about how I got here is essentially to explain that. It is a journey. It’s all around thought leadership in China. So if you plan to stay in business long term, you need to start doing thought leadership in China.

A phenomenal way to do B2B business is also to write a book about your subject. You just need to make sure that you have the right team in place. For me, for instance, I hired a coach, a phenomenal person who published eight books by himself, and he actually coached me on how do you put together an Amazon bestselling book. How do you launch it? How do you launch ads? How do you place it?

His name is Akash Karia, guys. If you are connecting with me on LinkedIn, he’s also in my LinkedIn. He’s an amazing, amazing person. You hire a coach and then, of course, you need to know your topic. For me, the first book came from the first 100 presentations that I did. I had all this data; I had all those presentations. You summarize it.

Then I,, of course, hired a professional copywriter, professional editor. A person on my team, she actually for 20 years worked in book publishing, and she is able not only to help our phenomenal English content but she’s able to actually be the editor, be the publisher of the books because she knows how to take my blurb and turn it into something readable and hopefully enjoyable.

Matthieu David:  I see. How did you find someone to help you to coach you on creating Amazon bestseller?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Well, it’s the right place, the right time, but basically as I mentioned, my friend Akash, he had consulted at that point. Right now he does a lot of public speaking, and he still has his Publish and Accelerate the Cost, which is an online course. But back then, a couple of years back, he was still willing to do a one-on-one kind of coaching, so that’s how we met. I believe it was through introductions through a personal friend of ours.

Just five or six sessions with Akash, it was like a revelation. I brought him in, he spoke with my editor, and he spoke with the team. It was an incredible, incredible push and boosted to our book. The thing is I brought the professional when the book was 90% complete, and that is probably one of the mistakes. You bring the professional before you start writing a book to make sure that it’s the most effective and efficient, and you’re reaching your results. But, yeah, anybody who is interested in publishing a book I would definitely recommend going with a professional. Instead of trying to figure out all by yourself – because it would’ve taken me years – you pay for somebody, and he just takes you on this journey much faster.

Matthieu David:  How much did it cost – if someone wants to do the same thing as you did – to hire a coach?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  I think for Akash in particular, I don’t know, there might be some other coaches, but I really trust this person. He’s absolutely phenomenal. He’s got an online course that I believe costs around $1,000 or USD 1,500 to join. It’s a six-week course, but it’s online, so you basically join a a group. There are about 20-30 people joining as a group. Over the six or eight weeks – I don’t remember – you actually walk through this journey together. So, by the end, if you do everything he tells you to do, 70% of the people have their book ready.

But what I did with Akash, again just because I’d like to move with my own pace, I actually did personal coaching. That costs, depending on the coach, probably from $500 to USD 1,500 per session, so it really depends what’s more convenient. But essentially, anybody in business, if you plan to be long term in business, you need to start thought leadership in China. Yes, on social media. Yes, you need videos. But essentially you also need to have a book, and there’s no excuse in 2019 not to have a book.

Matthieu David:  Very interesting. Every time I go to Hong Kong, I’m surprised how people in Hong Kong know little about thought leadership in China, know little about e-commerce in China, know little about let’s say of mainland China. Actually, I found out that you have lived in Chong Qing in mainland China, in the center of China, Chong Qing for some time. You studied there. Did you study in Chinese? Could you tell us more about what you did in during your studies, how you came up to study in China? I don’t know where you’re from, by the way. Could you give us a bit of background?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely. We’re recording some videos, and we are recording audio separately, but if you see me right now, I’m smiling at you, and I have this long blond, grayed hanging on the side, so I don’t look Asian really, but actually, I was born in Asia. In the Russian Far East, I was born in the city called Vladivostok, which borders on Japan, North Korea, and China. Since my early childhood, I was basically traveling to Asia as Europeans would go to France or Italy. I would be going to Asia to places like Korea, Japan, and mainland China. So, essentially, that’s how the story started.

When I was 17 years old; indeed, I relocated to mainland China, and a lot of people ask me why I would make such a choice? I always tell them that there’d be only two reasons to move across the globe. One is money; the second one is love. For me, at 17, that was love. A boyfriend of mine at that time he was studying Chinese at the university, and we decide to go there together. I felt it was a phenomenal opportunity to move to China to study. I studied business and economics. Yeah, we relocated, and the only Chinese person that we both knew was from Chong Qing. She was his professor then and she was another fantastic, fantastic person, a close friend up until right now, 13 years later.

We decided, “Okay, why not Chong Qing?” because I didn’t speak Chinese. The first year, I couldn’t really study at university. I had to learn the language. I relocated to China – okay, a couple of months before moving to China, I took a private course with a teacher. But pretty much, my level was ni hao, and then a couple of “Okay, I want to go to the bathroom,” a couple of phrases here and there. Yes, moving to Chon Qing, I thought that it’s going to be just one year and then I’m going to move to places like Beijing to Shanghai, but it was fascinating. It was an exciting city.

I passed my HSK, which is for people that don’t know it’s like TOEFL or IELTS. It’s your language proficiency test in Chinese. In half a year, I passed the HSK 6. The next thing I know I’m studying economics and business in Chinese university together with Chinese students in the Chinese language. So it was really funny how you take notes, and everybody is really fast, and you are really struggling in the first year, but then you get better and better. I actually studied linear algebra in Mandarin and Chinese.

Yeah, that was my time in Chong Qing. As you said, it’s a fascinating city in the heart of China. There are 32-34 million people in that city, and when I arrived, I was foreigner #50. That’s literally 5-0 because they used to give you those residence permits when you land in China on long term-program like bachelor’s degree or some people come for work, so they give you a residence permit, not just a visa. My resident permit was #50. That was quite incredible, quite fun.

Slowly and gradually, I believe Chong Qing right now is extremely multicultural. There are thousands and thousands of international students. Every time I read the Economist, every time I read the New York Times, there are at least one or two mentions about this phenomenal city because it is growing and developing very fast.

Matthieu DavidChongqing is one of the biggest cities in China, and it’s high in the mountains. I don’t know, I have never been there. It’s said to be the center of West China in the future with I think two or three airports, very well deserved by transportation and airlines. First studying Chinese, starting a business in Chinese in China, and then you moved to Hong Kong. What made you move to Hong Kong?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Yeah. A lot of people ask that question. For me, personally, it was a lifestyle choice. And don’t get me wrong. I love China. I learned so much in China, and I go to China right now every week, every two weeks, and my whole business and career arebeing linked to that beautiful mainland part of the country.

But for Hong Kong, you cannot fight it. It’s more comfortable in many ways for foreigners to reside here. It’s a different community. For example, in Hong Kong, we’ve got 200 kilometers of hiking trails. We have beautiful beaches. We’ve got just a slightly different lifestyle.

Back in China, in Chongqing in particular, back in the day we didn’t have Western food. My refuge from Chinese food was McDonald’s, and Hong Kong was just the striking difference because we had all the phenomenal Italian, French, German – you name it – cuisines. So, for me, it was purely a lifestyle choice that I made in 2010, and I’m very happy with that choice. It’s very close to China, but you have options to live like in China, like in Europe, like in the U.S. and I personally enjoy that flexibility.

Matthieu David:  Got it. Talking about yourself, you have been publishing a lot, and I’m doing it with a podcast as well, and I feel one of the difficulties to actually create your own content as a thought leader in China, pushing your own personality, your own person online – how do you feel about it? It’s all about being a social influencer in China. Everyone has to do it now – one who is a business leader, one who has a company, but he needs confidence, he needs to have something to say. It needs to have content. It requires to understand the technology and everything. How did you begin, and how did you feel about it?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Matthieu, you’re absolutely right. Everybody needs to do it, so it’s not optional anymore. If you don’t do it, somebody else will, and you’re going to lose a little bit of your spot, your edge. But at the same time, nobody is born with that ability to be phenomenal – let’s say – thought leader in China. It is learned, and the confidence doesn’t come naturally.

For me, for instance, when I just started putting videos online, which was two years ago, I absolutely hated myself on videos. The way I sounded, the way I looked – you know that you’ve got this inner voice, right? You can hear your voice very differently compared to how other people hear you. So, when I got to hear myself, I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not how I speak. That’s not me.” And it’s uncomfortable. What I always do if something I know needs to be done, but it’s uncomfortable, I just make a public commitment, and I give it four to five months.

That’s what happened two years back. I made a public commitment to my social media. I said, “Guys, you’re going to see a lot of videos of Ashley. I’m sorry those that don’t like it, basically just ignore, just block my content.” But I’m going to be publishing those videos, and I made a public commitment, and I said I’m going to do it for four months.

For four months nobody was watching my videos, and it was, to be honest, very frustrating because every Saturday I would spend four or five hours recording those five videos for the coming week and nobody was watching it. It’s very hard in the ego as well and also your confidence.

After four months there was one video about WeChat and suddenly – I won’t say that it went viral, I can’t say that – but suddenly there were like 1,000 or 2,000 views and I was so encouraged then there were like 20 or 30 comments. I said, “Oh my God! That’s what people want.”

Like you mentioned earlier, it’s not about pushing yourself to publish. As a thought leader in China, what you need to do is you need to make a public commitment, and you need to commit to yourself that, “Yes, I’m going to do that.” You need to understand that there is an edge; there’s something you can show. You’ve got the gift that you need to share out because essentially, I believe that information comes onto you, you digest it, and then you need to pass it on. If you don’t pass it on, you’re basically killing that universal flow of energy and information. So, you need to pass it on, and this is just the discipline.

At the same time, you will never know what to share. Like you said, what kind of content can you create? Like for me, I had no idea that it’s the video about WeChat will be such a hit. I didn’t know before for four months I was recording useless videos, nobody cared about.

The same with my LinkedIn content. About a year and a half ago, I started publishing content on LinkedIn, and there were people interested here and there, 10-20 likes, and somebody reacted. But then I published a report about – I don’t remember what it was. Maybe WeChat or mini-programs or it was about e-commerce in China. Suddenly – I’m telling you, I was in the U.S. then attending a seminar, business seminar – I wake up in the morning and I see that there are 400 likes and there are 50,000 views. I was completely shocked. I thought there was a glitch in the system. So I called my office, and I said, “Natasha, can you check my LinkedIn?” Then she checked, and she said, “Yeah, yeah. There are all these people; they want this report.”

That’s how I discovered people really want somebody not to curate that content for them. I don’t have time to write down, sit, and create 20 reports a month. But people are looking for thought leaders they trust, not just for random others but somebody they trust to actually curate that content. So I go out, I look for all these new reports, and ones that I find are interesting, I digest them. I share them out, the main takeaways, and if people are interested in that, they will ask me for this report.

I did not create the report. I always say the report is created by KPMG; the report is created by Daxue Consulting. But people trust that whatever Ashley shares areare valuable, and that is why right now, for instance, a year later, so many report producers, people that actually go and research and put it together, they send it over to me, and I have very often multiple times of their engagement and reach just because I build it up over time. 

Matthieu David:  I see. I looked at your LinkedIn profile; I looked at what you were posting. There was a tactic that I saw used by some agencies, which is there’ll be the picture of the report and then to say, “If you want the report, write down the e-mail and the comment, or send us a message.” Is it the way you do it?” 

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Yes. For me, that was my first post a year and a half ago. That was basically, to my understanding, rather successful. People wanted to get a copy of it. Right now also if people want the report, I say basically, “If you’re my first-degree connection, just put a plus below. You don’t need to send anything. If you’re a second-degree connection, give an e-mail or send basically a DM in the invitation.”

Why is it done? Because when people comment under the post, it becomes even more successful, so basically more people see it. That’s why we’re doing it. If you’re just publishing a report out there, maybe you’re going to have 20-, 30-, 40-, 50,000 views but if there is engagement, it boosts it out, and it becomes even more successful.

I think the most successful report I had reached around 460,000 views. It’s LinkedIn; it’s not Instagram that we’re talking about. It’s a different quality of people that is on LinkedIn. I believe it’s a fair game if you’re giving value and you want to become a thought leader in China. I believe this is acceptable.

At the same time, people really enjoy videos from China because a lot of guys are actually located outside of China and work with that market. So they see the new technology, they see the lifestyle, they see some really interesting snapshots from platforms like Douyin. In the West, even through TikTok, you do not have access to that content. So basically, once in a while, I’ll check a couple of new things, some hot topics, some cool videos, and you put it up there. You still need to talk about something related to what people care about, and usually, those videos are also extremely successful.  

Matthieu David:  You did that yourself?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  All the posts I write to myself. In terms of looking for videos, I don’t look for videos anymore, and I don’t look for reports. So what happens, my team right now looks for reports. It’s how they send it over to me, and then I say, “Okay, this, this, and this,” and I write the post myself. Also, in my LinkedIn messages, I used to answer them myself but right now with the inflow of inbox messages, I probably only answer … I got a personal assistant who goes through all the messages, and she gives me the digest, the most important ones where she cannot answer or direct people. So I also look after just a part of my mailbox. But all the posts on my LinkedIn, yes, are originally by Ashley. That’s why you sometimes see spelling mistakes because it’s done on the go on the mobile phone.

Matthieu David:  So which platform is the most powerful for you for thought leaders in China? Is it LinkedIn? Is it YouTube? I see you’re very active on YouTube as well. Are you using other platforms? Are we talking about the West now? We will move on to topics about China, more specifically. But which platform do you see with more traction?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  LinkedIn, absolutely. It’s just hands down LinkedIn. When I just started as a thought leader in China, I actually tested all platforms, including Medium, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. LinkedIn in my world is definitely the platform that provides you opportunities for direct and free reach. That’s what nobody else does. You need to pay for any traffic. You need to pay for any reach. It doesn’t matter what is the quality of your content. On Facebook, you cannot go popular. You cannot be trending if you don’t pay money. Same with Instagram.

Also, it’s the quality of people. In my world, I’m not trying to reach the general demographics. I’m trying to reach that specific audience that is interested in let’s say, marketing, business in China, etc. LinkedIn is the right platform to do that.

In terms of YouTube, I republished all my videos on YouTube. Previously I used to create videos for YouTube. Right now, I publish a lot of videos on LinkedIn, and in order to keep all the videos in one place, I also republish them on YouTube. To be honest, I’ve had my YouTube channel – I opened it with my Gmail account many, many years ago but I started openly and taking care of my YouTube channel probably about a year, a year and a half ago. Right now, I have 4,000+ followers.

So, you just think about it. It’s nothing. It’s all so, so little. Why? First of all, on YouTube, people are not looking for this kind of content. People are looking for more entertainment, engagement. Even if it’s a business vlog, it’s more like following somebody’s life or somebody cool went to meet Jay-Z, and then this is sexy, and people want to watch it. But people are not looking for this kind of content that much. Even if they found that content, they don’t subscribe. How many YouTube channels are you subscribed? So, it’s just a different platform. On LinkedIn, it’s more of a professional building network.

So if they think that you’re actually providing value and you need always to put that first, you need to figure out some testing, what do your people want? Do they want videos? Do they want reports? Do they want long articles? What do they want? Then give it to them. When you provide them not what you want to give but what they want to get, that’s when they feel that, “Wow, this is amazing. I would like to follow this thought leader on Linkedin.”

On LinkedIn, it’s not about following, it’s really about building a connection. That’s why you need to speak with people; you need to engage with them, you need to create LinkedIn local events when you go and meet each other in person. Every time I’m flying to Shanghai, it’s quite amazing because LinkedIn is so powerful. I’m flying to Shanghai, or I’m even in Germany in Bavaria. I publish something, and people are like, “Oh my God. There are 20 people that want to meet in Bavaria.” Or I’m in the airport, and somebody comes up and says, “Are you, Ashley?” “Oh, my God. What’s going on?” Because this is the right demographics in a small world.   

Matthieu David:  I see. The question I have for myself, by publishing offered on LinkedIn. I’m using LinkedIn as well as a tool to become a thought leader in China and to talk about what we do, including what we are currently doing. The podcast is a vlog. Sometimes I think myself, “Am I doing too much? Am I too active?” As you said previously, you told your friend, “If I publish too much, they don’t follow me anymore.” How do you react to the overdose, if it’s too much? Do you limit yourself? Do you edit? Do you have planning? How do you work out with too much content?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Right. This is a phenomenal question. I believe that there is such thing as too much, yes, but at the same time, it depends what you publish. So if everything you give is value, value, value, I think it’s fine. But if it’s a value, fail, fail, fail, fail, value, people are going to get annoyed. I know a lot of people that we are connected with, first degree connections, and what they tell me is, “Every time I open LinkedIn, I see only your posts. Basically, it’s like Ashley’s posts to men or somebody commented under Ashley’s post.” What I tell them very honestly and I’m absolutely not joking, “If that’s the case, just block my content. It’s fine.” If something becomes annoying or uncomfortable, just hide it. I don’t believe that you need to add it to yourself and plan it very strictly. You need to have a general plan.

For example, I think that at least I need to publish once on LinkedIn every day as a thought leader on Linkedin. Sometimes we can say, “Don’t do it.” But also sometimes I already have a plan, for example, for reports. I know that I need to publish two reports a week, so that’s my plan. And sometimes something new comes out, and I really wanted to talk about it.

I also have these 100 daily videos. I had a challenge with a friend of mine. Basically, there was a daily video, there was a report, and then there was something interesting that came out. So then there were three or four posts today that become a bit too much. So then you need to just use your common sense to determine.

So, to answer your question, I do have a plan for a major content, and I just keep the rest flexible. If you feel that you are publishing too much, you’re probably publishing too much. But if you’re delivering value, then I think you can just let it be. Also just announce publicly and tell your people that if your content is annoying, they can give you feedback that you’re very open to receiving people’s feedback. If it’s really annoying then it’s absolutely fine to hide your content, that you will not be offended. I think this is absolutely fine as well.  

Matthieu David:  We’re halfway of the podcast for today. Now I’d like to switch on your business. I’d like to understand better about Alarice. You are mentioning WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, which are huge demographics in terms of clients, one is Western, one is Chinese – at least for the China market and one is for the Western market. Could you tell us more about who your clients are? Are Chinese companies going overseas? Are foreign companies/Western companies entering or developing within the  the social media landscape in China?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely. The companies started with a focus on China, so international brands going into China. That’s how it was for the past seven years. In the past year or let’s say a year and a half, we got a very big client. Actually, one of our biggest clients right now is a big Chinese brand, and that’s where the Western social media came into play. Still, 90% of all business comes from international companies going into the China market and we handle their Chinese social media accounts. We create their content, we run the campaigns, we manage their community, we work with the bloggers, etc. Because again in China, especially when we talk about big brands, it’s all about trust, it’s all about this brand needs to trust you – the founder – needs to trust you to handle Western social media well, and they want to know that you understand their environment. They want to know that you understand what’s happening in the social media market in China. You are able to translate that well for the West. That’s how we got our project and that’s how we started working with West from social media.

Matthieu David:  I see. I’m really surprised that agencies could talk on behalf of the clients and managing the Chinese social media. It’s like someone telling me how to dress every day. So, it’s talking about yourself. How do you manage the content of your client on Chinese social media? Do you have a process? Do you have an organization which is making it compliant with clients, meeting every week, meeting every month? How do you work on this?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely. You’re right that social media marketing in China is your identity here. Do you know what we say in mainland China? Basically, you are what you publish. If you publish something good, you’re good. If you publish something bad, you’re bad. And if you publish nothing, you are nothing. It’s really that urgency that people need to have when they approach their social media content. Especially when we talk about international brands, there is a huge mismatch and misunderstanding with Chinese social media. It’s not Facebook; it’s not Instagram, it’s not your Chichicat picture, blog, and place to stalk your friends. It is essentially a CRM. In China, that’s your biggest, most powerful CRM tool. It is yet a marketing platform.

Social media in China is also life services platform. Life services – it means you access all your digital lifestyle and offline lifestyles through it. And besides that, it is an e-commerce platform. It’s basically like Amazon meets Taobao, all the social commerce. That’s what social media in China is.

When we work with international brands, it depends on when the brand is familiar with China or not. Most of them are. We translate. First of all, we learn about the brand. If it is a big one, for example, like Jack Daniel’s, then there is a very comprehensive system where you go in, and for several weeks you’re being trained how to understand the brand – what is appropriate, what is not appropriate? Then you work with the Compliance Team that tells you, “Okay, that’s what we can’t publish. That’s what we can’t publish, and here’s why.” So, first, it’s always training.

If it is a smaller brand and they don’t have the systems in place, then you need to create one for them, agree on certain, I would say, boundaries on social media in China. Then within those boundaries, you need to reinvent the brand for Chinese social media because you cannot translate it, you cannot bring it from the U.S. or from Europe and just interpret it into Chinese and think it’s fine.

That’s how it is. We essentially become their social media marketing team in China, and we run this communication on their behalf. It always works well when you’re well prepared, well trained, and you have established boundaries, established playground where you can run around and do your thing, but know what gates you cannot cross. 

Matthieu David:  I see. You said CRM marketing platforms and e-commerce platforms in just one CRM. What CRMs do you use and what do you look at when you choose a CRM or when you have to evaluate a CRM?

Ashley:  In terms of CRM, I mean the function of social media in China is CRM. So it doesn’t matter what provider you use. For example, on WeChat, you can build your own mini program that essentially becomes your CRM. Or you can just have a shop on Xiaohongshu and then becomes your CRM because you’re collecting people’s information and their profile.

What I mean by that is that in the West, we are always trying to capture people’s e-mail and phone number. So as marketers, that’s what you’re hunting for pretty much. Why? Why are you hunting for it? It’s because when you capture their e-mail, for instance, you can spam them nonstop. So, when the person says, “Yes, I would like to receive,” that’s it. Hallelujah. You’re basically running around and sending them content. The cost per content becomes very, very low.

In China, that doesn’t work. First of all, on e-mail, people are not on e-mail. People don’t use e-mails. If you live in China, you know what this is. People are on WeChat; people are on QQ, people are on other social media platforms. If they work for international companies, yes, they might use e-mail but very, very rarely.

Secondly, if you start calling them – if you capture their mobile phone number, they will actually report you because very few people know that in Chinese culture, it’s all about not losing face. Let’s say, for example, you’re sitting there in an office packed with other callings, and suddenly somebody gives you a call and then you need to be there sitting and whispering into the phone. That’s embarrassing. So, in China, people do not prefer to receive calls. They prefer to record voice messages, text messages, and basically keep the channel communication outside of the public view. So do not call them because they’re going to be so annoyed they’re going to report you.

So, as a brand, what can you capture? How can you make sure that you’re building a meaningful database? This is possible through CRM on Chinese social media. So basically, your WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, etc. become your guide into the world of your customer and you ask, “What kind of CRMs are you using on Chinese social media?” Each of these social media in China has different providers, different options. There is an internal CRM, something that’s built-in already if you’re selling or if you’re marketing on that platform, you will have access to their backend. Or you can build on top. You can use some tools; you can build your own program to capture it. Essentially, with many brands, it’s important not just to capture that information but also be able to plug it into their central system because they, as a global brand, very often they have a global system. I think that’s where a lot of brands are not doing it successfully because, in order to plug it into the main system, they still try to capture phone number and then an e-mail address, and then put the Chinese person’s name there. And again, their e-mail and their phone number too, they’re useless I would say contact details for China.   

Matthieu David:  We’ve seen that this disconnection between the information update from the shoppers in the shop and online. And you are mentioning that the first challenge to reconnect who shop online and who shop offline. But the challenge you are mentioning as well, you can tell me if it’s offended or not, is that when your client or your follower is engaged on Weibo than on Xiaohongshu than on Douyin, how do you connect everything that you know is the same person? Have you found out an easy solution or at least something workable?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely not. Basically, it’s the biggest mystery in China right now how to resolve that thing. There are solutions that we’re trying to basically give your customer some sort of digital token and then it doesn’t matter which social media account they’re using. This little token is actually following them so you can somehow think or determine this is the same person. Some social media in China are working together better. Other platforms like, for example, WeChat and Weibo, they totally hate each other. There’s no integration whatsoever. You cannot transfer people’s content from one to the other.

So, it is a challenge. I believe that going forward as Chinese social media becomes even more digital, I believe that there will be some solutions, but I don’t think it will come from platforms themselves. They don’t want to integrate and share their data. I believe it will come from e-commerce and new retail providers such as plus, Tencent, or Alibaba that actually need that information in order to serve new retail customers better in all offline spaces and online spaces.

Matthieu David:  You mentioned doing your profile describing Alarice. It took you less than 18 months, maybe two years maximum. Have you made some campaign on Douyin? I see a lot of our own clients and people around us, but is it really worth doing? Can you sell through Douyin? Can you create a community through Douyin? People consume on Douyin. People on Douyin, they watch videos. But can you leverage it for a brand? How do you leverage it for a brand? Would you have some cases to share?

thought leader in China

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Douyin indeed is a rather new platform. It’s about two years old. In terms of consumption on Douyin, they recently introduced their purchasing and shopping cart. I believe it’s still a powerful social media in China but for a very specific product group.

For example, I remember this phenomenal campaign when there was a special toothpaste that reduces your gum inflammation. They had a very popular, let’s say, young people idol to advertise it. The power of that advertising was in their format. Because the format was you start your Douyin and suddenly this guy who is like Leonardo DiCaprio to my generation and then to Chinese generation right now, he’s a super, super cool dude, he starts brushing his teeth in your face. He’s literally standing there, brushing his teeth, and he’s talking about gum inflammation and how you need to really prevent it by the specific brand of toothpaste. People clicked, people bought, and it was very, very successful.

Some brands, for example, Haval, it’s like a Chinese brand of SUV cars. They are extremely successful. I think they’ve got more than two billion views for their latest campaigns. Also, F5 is one of their models. They created a very fun campaign where they created this filter, which is like augmented reality video. So if you put yourself in the camera frame, suddenly a little SUV car will drop down next to you. Slowly this car will turn into a Transformer, and he’ll start dancing together with you. Then he will show you F5. More than 100,000 people recorded that video shared that video, became a part of that movement. I believe that the sales also went up quite significantly after that campaign again because it was something very, very cool.

A lot of people in the West, when they listen to this, they think, “Oh my goodness. Isn’t Douyin TikTok? TikTok is a platform for teenagers, for 13-year-olds, for 14-year-olds. How is it possible? How can you sell cars on a platform like that?” But in China, you’d be surprised. Douyin, for instance, is the biggest social media in China for car brands, including luxury car brands such as BMW, Mercedes Benz, etc. There are sales, and it does happen. So if you want to sell something cool, unusual, or you have a really thought through the visual campaign, you will be able to do that.

The same thing with Luckin Coffee or this Answer Tea, you definitely heard this story. Like this Answer, Tea in China basically blew up because of social media in China, especially Douyin, just because of that one platform. For those people that do not know what Answer Tea is, it’s basically a bubble tea brand, and on the lid, they print the answer to your questions. So when you’re placing an order like in Starbucks, they ask you, “What’s your name?” But here, they ask you, “What’s your question?” and your question can be, “Will I get married this year?” Your question will be, “What will be my Gaokao score?” or “Will I get this promotion?” anything you want. They give you your tea, and you open the lid, you take off the lid, and you will see the answer to your question printed there. Because this format became extremely successful in Chinese social media, everybody was publishing videos about it. Right now, this Answer Tea is one of the biggest bubble tea chains in China. As you see, it is accessible online and offline.    

Matthieu David:  A lot of people are asking how to connect social media in China to e-commerce. But basically, first of all, Chinese social media is a major platform, the same way you would buy space on newspapers, on TV, on Times if it’s still existing. Another interview I made of someone working on a Michelin guide, and he told us a restaurant to be successful would have to be playful. I feel that what you are describing is to be playful, including Answer Tea, not only with Douyin.

Let’s go to other platforms. People were saying Weibo is dead. What’s your feedback on this?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  In terms of going to what you just mentioned, being playful, it’s not just the restaurant. Everything right now on social media in China needs to be playful. Why? Because Chinese social media has entered the stage and age of retailtainment. So whatever retail that’s happening, be it food or you go to the hair salon, or you’re going to the shop, be it online or offline, it’s all about being entertained. It’s about the experience, in other words. So you need to be playful, you need to be fun, and you need to be a part of this movement which we call retailtainment.

The question was just now about Weibo, right?

Matthieu David:  Yeah. Is it dead? We saw that Weibo actually has good mention numbers, not that bad, in fact. They did a lot on live streaming. They did a lot of e-commerce on social media in China. But since there are a lot of companies and brands are switching budgets from Weibo to WeChat, Douyin, and even Xiaohongshu, do you feel it’s fair?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  To be honest, Weibo was proclaimed dead many, many times over the past four years. When WeChat came out, everybody was running and pulling their hair, screaming, “Oh my God!” Then Douyin came out, and Xiaohongshu became popular, the same thing, they go, “Okay, Weibo is in decline.” Actually, the revival of Weibo came a couple of years back when they purchased Yizhibo and Miaopai, live streaming platforms, and short video platforms. That was the revival because a lot of young people went back onto this platform. The revival came when Alibaba gave a lot of money to this platform to boost it, so more than 30% of the company is actually powered by Alibaba’s investment.

I believe that Weibo is there to stay. They keep reinventing their platform. They keep adding services, for example, for bloggers, for a thought leader in China where you can follow a blogger, and you can pay a subscription fee. They keep it very vibrant in terms of the way content spreads in the shop, in contrastto WeChat. They are moving and shifting from being a news platform – because we have news platforms like Toutiao, for example. They are shifting from that and being slightly gossipy kind of platform into more thought leadership, pretty pictures, some kind of merger between Instagram really campaign platform and Facebook in many ways. Another thing that you cannot really beat is that Weibo still has about 70% of total Chinese KOLs and bloggers compared to other social media in China.

So if we talk about thought leadership in China, it still largely happens on Weibo. If you want to get eyeballs, if you want to get in front of a lot of people, this is the platform for you to go and do your branding. If you want to build one-on-one connections, then you go to other platforms. So I believe that it’s there to stay. It’s definitely it uses innovative business model. It doesn’t need to stay ahead of the curve, but I believe that they have strong backing by Alibaba. They are smart people. They will keep the show running until they figure out what’s the next best thing and then they might purchase another company to plug it into their ecosystem and make themselves even stronger.   

Matthieu David:  Give us the last three words on your description for Alarice, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. Would you be able to talk more about the case of the Chinese company you mentioned going overseas? Certainly, you are going to get one more of those cases. Can you describe what you do? What are the challenges? How do you switch from basically managing Weibo, WeChat, Douyin, and all the Chinese social media to use Facebook, Instagram, which are not used because I understand that you’re awayfrom what they always use but here you have to use the ones that offer Chinese clients.

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Right. The brand that we are managing right now is the Yidan Prize, the world’s largest education prize which is powered by a Chinese philanthropist; in fact, China’s biggest education philanthropist. He is also the co-founder of Tencent. These are the people that we’re working with.

Of course, the challenges are, number one, China in general, when we talk about brands, when we talk about organizations, or we talk about philanthropy, Chinese social media in the rest of the world is very misunderstood and very often it is also villainized. This is the biggest challenge. It’s not about translating the messages and finding the right words. If you understand the product or you understand the organization, you understand the outcome, the big goal, what this product or this organization is trying to achieve, you can always find the right words and the right messages for Chinese social media, and you need to adjust them platform by platform. But the biggest challenge is really in that perception.

The perception, unfortunately, is that if it is a product then okay, it’s cheap and it’s bad, and if it’s a technology product then they’re all spying on us. They just want to capture the market because they want to spy on us. Even if it’s, for example, something like philanthropy, yeah, people just don’t know what is genuine or not. They don’t understand what’s going on, and very often they don’t want to hear. That’s why the challenge here is really becoming a part of a global community. So as a brand, you need to cooperate with other brands, you need to establish partnerships, cross promotions on Chinese social media. You really need to basically play with the big boys in the West in order to be affiliated, accepted, and somehow have a slightly positive, more positive first impression. Because when people hear a brand from China, it’s not always like it’s the brand from France or a brand from Italy or brand from the U.S. It’s a slightly different connotation.

I believe that in some countries like Southeast Asia, like Africa, this is changing. Europe and the U.S. are slightly behind in that respect. I am a strong believer that we’re going to see more and more Chinese brands, Chinese organizations, Chinese everything, technology spreading and going global and changing the way we live, the way we work, the way we perceive reality. I believe this is continuous education and also playing with other big players on Chinese social media that will make a huge difference. The sooner people will understand that China is not all evil and all-encompassing kind of mastermind behind all of the biggest fears, the sooner people understand that, the better it would be for essentially everyone. It’s exciting to play some role in that continuous education.  

Matthieu David:  It’s very difficult to find a balanced view on Chinese social media, especially with everything that’s happening in the world now. If you were on ChoZan, you are delivering training, masterclasses. My question is, what are the main questions that you are answering to those masterclasses and training that your clients have?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Most of the questions are very, I would say, tailored to their organizations. Most of the times these are training that an agency or a certain internal team of a big brand invites you in and says, “Okay, please train us. We really want to know that.” People are always interested in bloggers. People are always interested in running campaigns and how to run an effective campaign on Chinese social media because China is very expensive and you don’t want to throw money outside of the window. Most of these brands already work with agencies but they want to understand beyond what the agency tells them. They want to grow their own internal experts that will be able to have a meaningful intellectual discussion with the agency, not just, “Oh okay, let’s do that.” People ask a lot of questions about the current social media in China, where this is going.

People talk about modern consumers on social media in China because they’re changing so fast. We talk about the trends; we talk about the realities of life of people in different parts of China because Chinese consumers, a lot of homogeneous groups, but first you see people who live in South China or live in Central China are extremely, extremely different.

So, yeah. It’s basically social media in China focused. For example, if it’s a new platform like Douyin or Xiaohongshu or Duoshan or something like this, people want to know platform-specific tips and best practices. People want to know all those KOLs, advertising campaigns, and they want to understand the portrait of their consumers and how to move them on this journey of new retail that China is right now so good at.

Matthieu David:  How do you stay informed? How do you stay up to date? How do you select the content? There’s so much content to read – how do you do it?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  Absolutely. This is also why everybody in this space, especially if your internal team, if you’re not in touch with so many different touch points but only look at your industry, you really need to least once a year update yourself because the social media in China is moving so fast. There are so many new developments, new features on social networks, new trends, new hot topics; you constantly need to stay on top and pay efforts to be there.

For me, I’m very lucky to have an incredible team that is right now when previously I used to do it myself. Right now, I have an incredible team that’s actually in the trends so they actually execute campaigns and they execute strategies for the clients. At the same time, a part of their job is to give me all this digest. So when we come up with training materials for a specific outcome, we do not take it from the shelf and present it. We always revise it. We always revise it; we always add new stuff, we do the research. So basically, I have the team that goes and searches for all that stuff. The big trends I know, the big things I know. But you always need to dig deeper. For me, I just have the people that are able to do that professionally well, and that’s how I’m so, so incredibly lucky and blessed and grateful to have them. Otherwise, it would be a huge undertaking to do it all by yourself.   

Matthieu David:  It’s only one hour. It went very fast. Thank you very much. It was very, very interesting. I think you have many other topics we could go further and dig in, but it’s already one hour. How did you like it?

Ashley Galina Dudarenok:  It was phenomenal. Thank you so much, Matt, for having me. You are a phenomenal host that really makes the conversation flow.

Matthieu David:  Thank you very much. You are too. It was easy for you. Thank you very much. It will probably within a week, and I hope you all enjoyed the show. Thanks, everybody for listening to China Paradigm, the China marketing podcast where we interview entrepreneurs in China.

China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.

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