Jiepang CEO David Liu on how the social networking service is innovating to offer a better user experience–and how it is more than just a Foursquare clone.
Founded back in 2010 by Californian David Liu, mobile social networking service Jiepang initially aimed to fill the perceived need for a service like Foursquare, which is blocked in China.
The app, which is tailored to the needs of Chinese consumers, quickly gained a small but not insignificant market share of young, trendsetting users in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It was closely watched by industry and consumers alike to see if it was possible to compete in a space dominated by the big boys of the business like Sina and Tencent.
Now, with about 5 million users on its books, Jiepang is proclaimed as China’s leading location-based social network, and has worked with about 400 brands on a variety of campaigns and promotions that leverage its check-in functionality to connect with interested local consumers.
Two weeks back, Jiepang launched an update that it claims evolves its service from its original conception as a location-based service to a “holistic check-in social network”, which Liu hopes will help it shake off the tag of being “China’s Foursquare” and offer brand advertisers a variety of new ways to interact with the service’s users.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q. Can you tell us why you did this update and why it is important for Jiepang?
A. The first thing you see now is our sharing bar. Before there used to be a single check-in button, kind of like on Foursquare, but now in addition to check-in, we have a new sharing function called “With” and we also brought photo and text up the top. The idea was that we saw checking-in to location was great in terms of understanding the user and sharing that vertical of his or her life, but in terms of frequency of usage, it just wasn’t something that a lot of our users said they could use every day.
We wanted to expand on recording life and so first we opened up more types of sharing–who you are with, photos and text, and across all of these the biggest change to Jiepang 5.0 is the 16 activity tags. We are encouraging people not just to check-in their location but to check-in their activities. We want to go deeper and broader, and capture what is it that they are doing instead of just asking ‘Where are you?’ So the next time you are playing sports, you think of us, or when you are having coffee you think, ‘Ah, I should check-in to my coffee moment.’
Q. So within each activity you are creating self-sufficient communities that are aware of what others in the same group are doing?
A. Exactly. If you are really interested in work, I can look at all my friends that are currently checking-in to their work. It could be, friends at offices, talking about how their bosses suck, or how they are always first one in in the morning. You can also use this to connect with other people you don’t know but are sharing that moment; they could be across town or in a different city altogether. It’s for you and anyone who is sharing a similar activity or interest as you are, and so it’s easy to break the ice in this way.
Q. Where did the inspiration behind that idea come from?
A. It was first focused on our users. Towards the end of last year we did a lot of soul searching regarding the next step for the service. It didn’t seem right any more to blindly adapt what Foursquare was doing to China. We already had at that point 3 million users, a sizeable user base, so we did a lot of learning and distilled it down to two things: our active users liked Jiepang because it was where all their real life moments were. With Weibo and Weixin there is tons of clutter, which is great for them as there is a lot of data and a lot of content. But for our users, they look at Jiepang as a pure place for all their real life moments.
The second thing was that users went through a lot of strain to meet interesting people. In the past if someone were to check-in, they would have to tap in once or twice to a place of interest, this place page, they would have to go in and look at the photos, see who has been here, … see what they were doing, add them as friends. It wasn’t that great an experience, but strangely enough a lot of users were actually doing that to meet people. We were excited about that and so we brought in the activity tags to make it easier to check-in more frequently with their moments, not just when they are at a cool place, and we can capture that activity.
Q. So going forward then you are happy with the kind of users you have and you don’t want to ‘pollute’, I’m not sure that’s the right word, their experience?
A. I think pollute is the right word. Actually we saw people shift from Weibo onto Weixin for a similar reason, because Weibo is getting really cluttered, there are a lot of brands, a lot of media, a lot of gossip, celebrities, people that they don’t really know that well. So they moved over to Weixin, but now Weixin is getting quite cluttered as well.
Q. Smartphone subscribers are estimated to top 300 million by the end of the first half and the 3G penetration rate forecast to touch as much as 40% by the end of the year. Is this a tipping point in terms of convincing brands to allocate a larger proportion of advertising budgets to mobile and have you seen evidence of this through their engagement with Jiepang?
A. Yes. First of all, social media in general has been a long-term wave. There is a blurred line between PC and mobile because when brand marketers are looking at social, they are talking about Weibo, regardless of whether it is on PC or mobile. That applies to all the social networking platforms. It just so happens that everyone is shifting to mobile in terms of time spent and where they actually touch point. So I think it’s inevitable.
Q. Could you give me an idea of how brands might tap into the new functionality and what it offers them now that they couldn’t do before?
A. Before brands really liked check-ins because it may not have had the reach of Weibo but it had an accuracy and quality that Weibo didn’t have. We think that by checking-in to activities we will achieve the same effect, if not even more accurate or relevant. If I check in at a park, a brand might know that I’m at this park, but if I say that I’m at this park playing sports, then we can unabashedly push a Nike activity. There is tons of opportunity to expand on our principle that great advertising has to be great information. We want to make sure that while we push to users, it is not an obnoxious piece of spam but that it’s something that comes naturally.
Q. That’s a fine line but it sounds like you are confident you can target accurately enough. Are you aware of that line and that you don’t want to go too far across it?
A. If anything, this gives us more freedom because we feel a lot safer about understanding the user experience. We know what the range is and what falls outside of that range and we are not going to do. Before with check-ins for certain venues it was very easy and natural. With Starbucks for example, if you are there, then you are obviously having coffee and interested in Starbucks, so delivering a message was actually extremely positive for the user experience.
Q. Of the various kinds of promotional campaigns that have been run on Jiepang, which brands, and which strategies would you say have been most successful? Could you give an idea of the take-up rate?
A. The way we look at how many users participated in this campaign or activity, so in the case of Starbucks our biggest campaign last year was over 40,000 people in three or four weeks. (The campaign ran over Valentine’s Day and offered users a chance to obtain a badge and hence a buy one get one free discount if they checked-in with friends at Starbucks stores.) The second thing we look at is the actual reach of the campaign, because people on (our app) tie two or three social networking accounts onto Jiepang. What makes our demographic interesting is that they are very sociable. They tie in to Weixin and Weibo, into Douban and RenRen, all these platforms so the way we present our value to advertisers is not daily or monthly active users, but our active reach.
Q. Because those users tend to have a large number of followers on other social networking services?
A. Exactly, they are broadcasting. So we benefit through a partnership with these bigger platforms (including WeChat, which has an open platform Jiepang has used to develop its own channel and means of syncing contacts that use both services).
Q. Do you think consumers are ready to use mobile payments systems to pay for things, even away from online marketplaces like Taobao? Do you see that being leveraged by brands in future?
A. I think so. Across games and other social networking apps we have already seen a lot of cases in China where people will purchase virtual items and gifts and things like that. With a lot of these campaigns, for example Starbucks, of the 40,000 people who participated, 45% actually went in store to make a purchase and so payment, I think, would be a natural addition. If they want to purchase a gift card for a friend for example, that could happen but probably not within the really short-term timeline for us. We are still focused on how we redefine our product and help people record and share more of their lives.
In China when we look at social mobile, there are two really big companies but we don’t think it’s that scary because in the US and outside of China there are actually a lot of sizeable social apps. In China a lot of entrepreneurs don’t want to go into social because they don’t want to go against Tencent or Weibo because they are too big, but I think that creates an opportunity for a contrarian approach because if no one is competing in social, then shouldn’t it be less competitive? We are trying to gun for being the third-largest social app after Weibo and Weixin and so our view is that in the short term it will likely require us to invest more heavily into the user experience.
Q. Will you need to seek fresh investment to achieve that?
A. Within six months we hope to break even. But of course a lot depends on the uptake of our new Jiepang 5, it’s a brand new service, it’s going to open up new business monetization opportunities, which is exciting but also unproven. So we’ll wait and see, but if that doesn’t work out then we will be hitting the road and trying to get some more money.
Q. Finally, do you have any plans to expand overseas?
A. When we decided to really develop a totally different product, something that was basically not Foursquare, we jumped around saying that now we can actually launch this thing in the US and outside of China because it’s not a clone of anything. But realistically I think we have a long way to go in China first. But now because we are doing a unique service globally certainly there is room to grow outside of China.