In China, You Can Go to College to Become a Social Media Influencer
As colleges around China approach their final few weeks before the winter break, frequent users of Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) may have noticed a new type of post in their feeds: students asking for likes and followers to pass their final exams.
Xu Maomao (@徐毛毛), for example, posted a video hash-tagged “SOS”, where she pled for 10,000 followers in order to complete a course called “Self-Made Media Content Creation and Operation” that she is taking at the Communication University of Zhejiang (CUZ). “I am now an ordinary college student forced to become a social media influencer”, joked Xu Maomao.
As influencers in Europe struggle to balance the weight of selling a brand and remaining “authentic” to their followers, their Chinese counterparts are taking college courses that will help them secure a career path towards the lucrative profession of social media influencers. From China’s e-commerce hub Hangzhou, to the inland agricultural base of Henan Province, and even in far-off Tibet, vocational colleges across China are training young people to become professional influencers. Semesters are now spent on entry-level courses on topics such as short-video editing, social media marketing, e-commerce, and other aspects of the new “trade”, and are often taught in cooperation with industry players such as the social media platforms themselves. By offering these courses, the Chinese higher education system is now part of the driving force for the professionalization of Chinese social media influencers and is producing a large talent pool that is now pouring into the country’s flourishing digital economy.
By December 16, two days before the deadline, Xu Maomao was still half way to go towards the goal of 10,000 followers. Her course instructor eventually agreed that anyone with 5,000 followers could get a 90 for the final exam, perhaps because too few had achieved the original target.
Students nonetheless share myths of successful predecessors, who accumulated millions of followers in the course of one semester. Xiaolai (@小来爱耍赖) is a third-year student at CUZ. She took the course last year. On October 18, 2020, Xiaolai posted her first video on Douyin, which, just like Xu Maomao’s, was part of her course assignments for that semester.
As “an ordinary college student”, Xiaolai started her influencer career from scratch. Her early posts were mostly funny, self-entertaining clips without much substantial content. After a make-up tutorial video brought a surge in her following, Xiaolai decided to focus on beauty and fashion, and has since attracted 2.14 million followers.
According to a report by the China Advertising Association, influencers like Xiaolai with 2 to 5 million followers on Douyin make up the top 1% of the platform’s influencer pool. In the terminology of China’s influencer economy, they are better known as KOLs, or Key Opinion Leaders.
After securing the transition from an “ordinary college student” to a KOL, it is standard procedure to monetize that influence. “As your followers grow into a few thousands, small brands will come with samples for you to try on and make videos with”, Xiaolai explained. Once the number grows into something like ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, KOLs are able to charge a fee for promoting the product on their channels.
Social media influencer marketing is only one way to monetize one’s Internet fame, which is now common practice around the world. What makes the Chinese case distinctive, though, is the level of professionalization influencers exhibit in terms of their content production and monetizing methods, both of which have been largely standardized by an ever maturing industry value chain surrouding the influencers. This value chain includes multiple players from brands, e-commerce retailers, to platforms, influencer incubators, and finally, influencers themselves, who occupy a central position as the direct link between consumers and products.
At some point in an influencer’s career path, they’d move beyond the advertising model and dive deeper into e-commerce either by establishing their own brands or becoming a livestreaming salesperson for established brands. The dominance of e-commerce as the ultimate monetizing model for Chinese influencers is no coincidence.
The concept of “influencer economy” (“网红经济”) in China can be traced back to a press release from Alibaba‘s Influencers Economy Media Seminar held on August 26, 2015, one year following the e-commerce giant’s public listing in the U.S. The seminar aimed to stimulate Alibaba‘s e-commerce retail growth by promoting the economic models behind the stores popularised by influencers, hoping to create a “personalised, engaging shopping experience for its consumers through highly relevant content production and social engagement on social media”. In the seminar, the then-director of Taobao’s apparel department, Tang Song, promised that Alibaba would provide “absolute support” for stores to build an ecosystem around their influencers.
With the rapid development of livestreaming services, and thanks to the pandemic, Alibaba‘s strategy has given rise to argubly the most significant change in China’s retail e-commerce – livestreaming e-commerce: it has become the single most lucrative business in the country. An iResearch report shows that Taobao Live’s Gross Merchandise Value (GMV), or the total volume of goods sold on e-commerce platforms, had exceeded 400 billion yuan by the end of 2020. Douyin’s GMV reached an astonishing 500 billion yuan, while that for Douyin’s rival, Kuaishou, was 381.2 billion yuan, a 539% year-on-year increase. Accordingly, by April 23, 2021, China had over 8,700 newly registered companies whose business involves livestreaming e-commerce, ten times the growth the year before.
In tandem with the industry’s rapid expansion is a perceived lack of talent in the field. Companies and platforms across the value chain are craving for new prospects. Chinese employment market regulators predict that, by 2025, the demand for livestreaming e-commerce talent could reach as high as 40 million. As the key elements of livestreaming e-commerce, and with their established fan bases, KOLs have become the most sought after talent in recruitment efforts. And universities and colleges are helping satisfy that need.
“The industry is developing so fast, but the education system has been lagging far behind”, commented Li Xinxiang, director of the Livestreaming and Social Media Influencer Research Center at Communication University of Zhejiang, where he supervises a course on social media content production and operation and a course called “Short-video Livestreaming and Influencer Economy”.
It is worth noting, though, the involvement of Chinese higher education system in the industry, exemplified by the numerous courses and majors related to social media content production, livestreaming, and e-commerce, is not a purely market-driven choice, but has also been largely driven by state policies on vocational education.
In July 2020, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security included “Livestreaming Salesperson” as an officially recognized profession. In March 2021, the Ministry of Education released a document where “Livestreaming E-commerce Services” and “Social Media E-commerce Operatios” were listed as majors in Chinese vocational colleges.
In this context, the past year has seen a rising number of vocational colleges across China offering livestreaming and social media-related courses in their curriculae. But these course offerings might not be everything the students need. To have it written on paper is one thing, but, in reality, it requires much more to run a course about a new industry as livestreaming e-commerce. Among the key problems is the question: where do the teachers come from?
For Chinese vocational education, which puts much more weight on practice than theoretical knowledge, teaching always poses a challenge. This has been partly resolved by a government-led initiative called “Integration of Industry and Education”, where vocational colleges enter into co-operation with local enterprises, with the former providing the future workforce while the latter offers opportunities for internships. In the field of livestreaming, colleges are experimenting with this model too.
At CUZ, for example, course materials are co-developed by lecturers from both the university and industry insiders from companies such as ByteDance. In China’s southern city of Guangzhou, Kuaishou, Douyin’s rival, partnered with a number of local colleges in an effort to establish research institutes and organise online courses surrounding influencers and livestreaming e-commerce.
One student currently in the middle of things is Jane, a second-year student at CUZ. Majoring in “Internet and New Media”, she has taken several courses related to short videos and livestreaming e-commerce. In an interview with Pandaily, Jane said that these courses mostly focus on how to operate social media accounts. “Usually, the teacher would set an overall theme for students to create their own stories with… [and] sometimes the teachers would take us through successful cases of short videos, and analyze why they went viral, what we can learn from them.”
Another student is Meishu, a student in the School of Cultural Creativity and Management at CUZ. One of the e-commerce courses she is taking this semester asks students to make a short video of themselves on camera introducing a product. The number of likes and forwards will determine their final score for the course. Commenting on a course about short video content production and editing, Meishu said that teachers would teach skills such as how to produce eye-catching content on current affairs and attract new followers. “If you want to be a social media influencer, this course should be helpful.” But Meishu also admitted that theories and skills could not promise success, citing her own experience on Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. “You never know what will become viral”, she said, “sometimes you get nothing from the carefully designed content, and in the end it is the ones that you never laid hope on that got popular.”
According to Li Xinxiang, the director of CUZ’s Livestreaming and Social Media Influencer Research Center, most of the graduates will land jobs at MCNs in Hangzhou, China’s e-commerce hub and where Alibaba is based.
MCNs, or Multi-Channel Networks, used to refer to agency companies that connected Youtubers with brands or assisted them with copyright issues. But, in the Chinese influencer ecology, MCNs have now assumed a much larger role than traditional agencies. E-commerce MCNs, for example, now act as the middleman between KOLs and brands, while also providing social media account operation services and supply chain support.
Feibo Co-create is one such MCN. The company is based in Xiamen, China. Its co-founder Guo Qin said that as the industry grows, there are fewer and fewer potential influencers to be signed. “At this point, you begin to see Matthew effect in the industry, with top companies benefiting the most and the smaller ones get very little.” The lack of human resources in the market has driven MCNs to shift their focus from establishing contracts with established influencers to incubating their own.
Differing from the way an MCN incubates future influencers, which, in Li Xinxiang’s words, only “pinches off the best shoots”, colleges provide students with some of the most foundational skills and abilities, such as short video editing, basic data analysis skills (for understanding social media engagement performance), and public speaking, among others. To some degree, by partnering with platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou and offering these entry-level skills and knowledge of the industry, vocational colleges are preparing Chinese young people to enter the booming influencer industry, which oftentimes starts with a job at an MCN.
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Despite support on the policy side, such courses are not immune to controversy. As both Jane and Meishu, the students from CUZ, have noticed, the campus is brimming with optimism for the Internet industry. “Most of the students at our college see Internet companies as the ideal destination after graduation”, said Jane, “sometimes it could be blind faith because the environment does have an effect on you.” Meishu also recalls that almost all of her teachers had encouraged them to “seize any possible opportunity you can to enter the Internet industry, because it’s the quickest way towards success.”
A member of one of the college-industry partnership programs – who wishes to stay anonymous – noted a similar trend, “as far as I can see, students are mostly being taught to brand themselves in the age of short-videos. Model students are those who have succeeded in attracting enough followers and profiting from them… It was nothing like a traditional educational setting. It’s a huge influencer incubator.”