For major global brands working to strike the right balance in their China marketing mix, one of the biggest and more consistent challenges is deciding which online platforms to adopt and which to ignore. Over the past decade, brands flocked first to Weibo and then to WeChat to reach (and ultimately sell to) consumers in mainland China. More recently, brands have turned to launching official accounts on platforms such as Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili, allowing them to leverage the popularity of e-commerce livestreaming and short video among millennial and Gen Z consumers.
So far, one global trend that has yet to fully gain traction in China among major brands is podcasting. The Chinese model of audio has some characteristics that set it apart from the West’s, which is largely ad-supported but shifting towards being more listener-supported. In China, free podcasts tend to be entertainment-based, while paid, subscription-based podcasts — part of China’s booming “knowledge” economy — are attracting a flood of revenue and investment.
According to Marketplace, this knowledge economy (or, more accurately, the “pay-for-knowledge” economy) was already worth an estimated $7.3 billion in 2017 and has continued to expand since then, thanks to skyrocketing demand for content on topics such as personal finance, self-help, and health and wellness. The growth has been brought about by “a combination of factors: [the] desire for focused information that’s useful and relevant; the need to update skills constantly in China’s competitive job market; the ease of paying on a mobile phone; and FOMO — the fear of missing out.”
As is the case in other paid content sectors in China — such as streaming video, which can offer subscribers early access to their favorite programs, retail partner discounts, and other perks — the pay-for-knowledge economy unlocks exclusive content for paid podcast subscribers.
To date, major global brands have yet to fully tap into this trend in China as part of their marketing strategy, likely because the sector is not well understood. As NiemanLab has previously noted, comparisons between the United States and China are difficult in no small part because Chinese players are far more expansive: “the proper comparison would be to the U.S. podcast industry grouped together with the wider universe of audiobooks, meditation apps, and, at some future point, Spotify.”
Yet the past week has seen global attention turn to Chinese interest in audio, as a brief frenzy for purchasing Clubhouse invites followed Elon Musk’s surprise appearance on the American platform before access was curtailed. The Clubhouse craze put the spotlight on Chinese firms involved in audio, such as Agora, which provides tech that powers Clubhouse, and Lizhi, China’s second-largest audio platform — with both seeing their U.S.-listed shares spike in recent days.
Branded content could be the next frontier for audio in China, as last week the Nasdaq-listed Lizhi, which bills itself as a “UGC audio community and interactive audio entertainment platform,” announced a deal to create a branded podcast channel for Pop Mart, the biggest player in China’s fast-growing blind-box collectible toy market. This will be the first branded channel on Lizhi’s new Podcast mobile app, which the company debuted in January. Given that much of Pop Mart’s business revolves around collaborations with global partners — from museums to beauty brands to food and beverage producers — its upcoming channel could offer a way for global brands to dip their toes into China’s audio scene.
“Branded podcast is a new way of branding and this collaboration is an attempt of Pop Mart to use a different medium to increase its brand awareness among its audience.” said Lizhi CEO Marco Lai, adding that the company is looking to collaborate with more brands in the future to help them “reach new audiences, increase brand awareness, and engage their users with curated podcast content.”
News of Lizhi’s deal with Pop Mart, coupled with the Clubhouse connection, sent its shares soaring by more than 400% last week. And although no other branded podcast collaborations have been announced yet, investors appear intrigued by Lai’s plans to build the app into a global audio entertainment powerhouse. Now, the question is whether we will see other brands — particularly bigger-ticket names that center their marketing around content that is educational and oriented towards brand history and heritage — decide on a similar approach in China.