When the court historian Chen Shou wrote about the Three Kingdoms and the preceding Eastern Han Dynasty (25-280 AD), a warlord and his horse came in for particular acclaim. The warrior was Lu Bu, and his steed was Red Hare, supposedly capable of “galloping across cities and leaping over moats”.
It was this stallion that LinkedIn China wanted to emulate when it launched a service for the Chinese market called Red Rabbit (bear with us – the logo for the product is a horse, like Lu Bu’s).
Certainly, LinkedIn has had more success in jumping the barriers that have prevented other overseas internet brands from prospering in China’s highly restricted internet market.
When LinkedIn China was established in 2014, its global service had already attracted four million Chinese users and in its two years of local operations it says it has grown its user base to 20 million.
One factor in its success has been a readiness to play by the local rules in censoring content that the local authorities might find objectionable (“It’s gut-wrenching,” Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s boss, told a tech conference last year).
Another reason is its determination to localise its China offering. Huxiu writes that when LinkedIn began its search for a head of its China division its twin requirements were that the person have a background with an established American internet brand and experience of assisting an international corporation nativise in China.
Step forward Shen Boyang, who in 2006 was a member of Google China’s foundation team, before being promoted to its head of strategic partnerships in 2008.
Strategic partnerships have been a lynchpin in LinkedIn China’s development strategy: first the tie-up with WeChat to connect people’s LinkedIn pages with their WeChat accounts, and then the deal with QQ to personalise emails using the account holder’s LinkedIn information.
Besides working with WeChat and Weibo – China’s most popular social media platforms – LinkedIn has adjusted some of its other practices to the local business culture.
For instance, in WiC185 we wrote how ushi.com – a LinkedIn imitator – had struggled to reflect the importance of personal relationships in Chinese business life (commonly known as guanxi, the practice is characterised by giving and receiving favours and building a network of trusted commercial contacts). Ushi.com is now defunct, but LinkedIn China has been careful not to repeat the mistake. According to Shen, it staged more than 100 networking events in 2015, allowing face-to-face meetings. The bigger occasions also proved a draw by offering attendees the chance to meet business heavyweights such as Lee Kai-fu, Li Ning and Peter Thiel.
But there were still concerns that LinkedIn China was too constrained by the US-focused LinkedIn model. The firm had adapted parts of its offering to better suit its Chinese audience, Phoenix News reckons, but it was difficult to make radical departures from the global system.
One point of contention: LinkedIn was primarily designed as a desktop and email-based interface, whilst China’s internet world is built on mobile devices and instant messaging.
Another issue is LinkedIn China’s audience. The four million users who signed up before LinkedIn was officially available in their home country primarily worked for international businesses. “LinkedIn naturally attracts people with an overseas background who work at multinational corporations, because these people need to be connected with the world,” Shen admits.
Millions more Chinese don’t work in multinational firms. Thus LinkedIn China doubled down on its go-local ethos and took a dual-brand approach by launching Red Rabbit: an app-only service, exclusively for employers and employees at Chinese companies.
Red Rabbit is geared towards a more youthful audience and Shen says it will complement its existing desktop service. A year on from its debut, the Red Rabbit app has been making steady progress, LinkedIn China says. It also offers a better opportunity to grow the local user base to a volume closer to the 111 million people that are registered with LinkedIn in its leading market, the US.
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