Learning to sell

New Oriental pivots to ‘educational’ e-commerce


Dong Yuhui: mastered sales lingo

I am Dong Yuhui. I am the son of a farmer. I was a teacher. Now I am a salesman.”

This is how Dong introduces himself during his sales sessions on video platform Douyin. His profile sounds like that of an uninspiring teacher who’s trying his luck in a new field after losing his job.

This was exactly what happened to many teachers after the Chinese government’s crackdown on the education sector last year. New directives banned private sector firms including Dong’s employer New Oriental from offering the majority of its tutoring services for-profit.

But Dong is now one of the most sought-after salesmen in the e-commerce sector. Rather like Taiwanese singer Liu Genghong, who was having a lacklustre career in the entertainment industry before seeing his popularity explode after filming a few exercise videos during lockdown, Dong came to stardom out of nowhere.

Previously an English language teacher at a branch of the New Oriental tutoring business in his hometown of Xi’an, Dong had instructed more than 500,000 students in the past eight years but like most newcomers to the broadcasting industry, the 29 year-old was initially nervous in front of the camera and didn’t know how to communicate with his audience. Some of his former students mocked that he looked like a clay soldier from the Terracotta Army in his native city.

The early performances by Dong and his colleagues explained some of New Oriental’s early struggles in branching out to e-commerce. The Hong Kong and New York-listed firm’s Douyin channel Oriental Select went online in late December but attracted only a small audience – in Dong’s case only about five people. “Two of them were my parents,” he told China Times.

Yet Oriental Select and Dong started to get more traction earlier this month. More than 136,000 tuned into its e-commerce broadcast during a session on June 9. According to China Times, the channel then added nearly 1.6 million followers in just three days. Encouraged by the improvement – growing from zero to more than 3.3 million fans in total in six months – New Oriental’s share price in Hong Kong nearly doubled in a single session last week.

Oriental Select seems to have found a sweet spot in its e-commerce push. The platform focuses on promoting the sales of agricultural products and books. Thousands of e-commerce hosts have been doing something similar but Dong also stands out by offering bilingual sales pitches. Apparently applying a technique he acquired in his classroom, Dong combines English phrases with selling a range of goods. The sometimes amusing style has intrigued viewers, who have posted comments such as: “It’s a good way to spend money when you get a product and also some extra knowledge.” Even the People’s Daily commented on the positives of the approach, although New Oriental still has some distance to travel in reinventing itself as a business. Its share price is still 90% lower than where it was two years ago (despite a 10-times rebound over the past month).

Previously the company hired thousands of teaching staff but Dong is one of the luckier few to have been able to pivot into a successful new career. Partly that was because of his background. Coming from a farming-oriented village, he’s positioned himself as ideally suited to Oriental Select’s new agricultural focus. Probably more importantly, the spike in social media awareness of Dong and Oriental Select came from the all-powerful software that drives much of the traffic to the platform. Douyin’s algorithms have made the video firm one of the fastest-growing e-commerce businesses. In a model it describes as “interest e-commerce”, Douyin pushes ads and other sales messages automatically to areas of interest like sports. This helps to explain the sudden surge in views of Liu Genghong’s fitness videos during lockdown.

Additionally, China’s e-commerce industry is hunting for new livestreaming talent as some of the most popular KOLs have looked fatigued or have run into the trouble with the authorities. That’s good for Dong who is clearly relishing his time in the spotlight too.

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