Internet & Tech

The smaller screen

Online ‘influencers’ can earn more than film stars

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Zhu Chenhui: travelling again

You know you’ve made it when Harvard Business School asks to write a case study about you. But for Chiara Ferragni, 28, the story started in 2009 with a fashion blog called The Blonde Salad. Since then she has amassed millions of followers on Instagram and Facebook. Trading on her social media clout, she now owns a publishing company, an e-commerce store and even sells her own line of footwear.

Ferragni prospers in the world of “high-low” fashion, making money as an ‘influencer’ by offering a window on her glamorous but supposedly accessible lifestyle. The best of these fashion bloggers often branch out into their own clothing lines too.

In China, several weibo celebrities are using social media in a similarly entrepreneurial way. Online giant Taobao revealed recently that of the top 10 sellers of women’s fashion on the e-commerce platform, seven are operated by popular personalities on weibo.

Some are so successful that they are surpassing movie stars in earning power, the Global Times gasps.

Take Zhu Chenhui, the rumoured girlfriend of Wang Sicong, son of China’s richest man Wang Jianlin. She has been operating a virtual shop on Taobao since 2011. And as of the first eight months of this year, the store – room 209 – had reached Rmb200 million ($31.4 million) in sales, says Western Metropolis Daily.

Assuming a profit margin of around 45% – Taobao claims that this is an industry average – Zhu could make Rmb150 million by the end of this year, an industry observer told the newspaper. That may even match the earning power of Fan Bingbing, China’s highest-paid movie star.

So why is Zhu so successful? Her weibo posts typically feature personal snapshots like selfies or pictures of food. Occasionally she offers glimpses of her luxury lifestyle (Hermes handbags are a favourite) and her travel schedule (she’s in Los Angeles this week). A photo posted on her Taobao virtual shop this week shows her ready to catch yet another flight (see photo above).

Such self-promotion appeals mostly to young, brand-conscious women. And with such a receptive audience, Zhu uses her weibo as a marketing channel to plug her products. She is usually pictured wearing her own merchandise in weibo posts and she frequently reposts messages from fans who rave about how much they like her products.

When Zhu showcases a new outfit on weibo it often becomes one of the best-selling items that day on Taobao.

Zhao Ruohong, who has 290,000 followers on weibo, similarly exploits her own popularity on social media to promote her Taobao shop High Heels 73 Hours.

Like Zhu, the Shanghai socialite posts beautifully framed images with flowery captions designed to entice a younger generation of consumers.

But she’s not just offering an aspirational lifestyle. Zhao is relatable too – she likes to poke fun at her weight, as well as her obsession with all things chocolate (despite being stick-thin, TMT Post adds).

That strategy has struck a chord with online shoppers. Even though shoes on Zhao’s Taobao store retail for Rmb1,000 per pair (relatively steep for most middle-class consumers) her designs sell out soon after she plugs them.

Like other weibo influencers, Zhao is generating sales without spending very much on marketing.

Notably, few of these influencers trade off backgrounds in the entertainment industry.

“Our fans are used to going on our weibo page every day. They like to follow our lives, even down to the trivial stuff. In fact, they think we are more real compared with movie stars. We are more relatable and they aspire to be us,” Zhao Daxi, another weibo personality-turned-entrepreneur, told TMT Post. The most zealous fans tend to be women in the 18-23 year-old age bracket.

For some of this new breed of businesswoman, setting up a virtual store on Taobao is only the first step to commercial success. Chen Xiaoying, who has 240,000 followers and operates the e-commerce fashion outlet Jupiter Concept, is already looking to open her own bricks-and-mortar store in Paris.

Why France? “More and more Chinese tourists are going to Paris. So opening a bricks-and-mortar store there is beneficial for successfully building my brand image,” she told TMT Post.

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