Tea Leaf Nation

The Formula for Chinese Web Riches: Ugly but Fast

A 'web designer's nightmare' can mint money if it successfully targets China's middle class.

Image: Fair Use
Image: Fair Use

Chinese online recruiter Zhaopin.comzhaopin means "to hire" — is not a pretty site. Those surfing to the homepage are met with hundreds of logos and brands crammed together like bumper stickers. But looks are deceiving: Zhaopin Ltd is one of many domains on the Chinese Internet that are ruthlessly utilitarian, all about clicks and revenue, and with little care for design. They may be tough to look at but they’re lucrative. Case in point: With its May 5 application to list on the New York Stock Exchange, nicely timed to tap the buzz surrounding Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s IPO, Zhaopin is positioned to rake in an expected nine figures. 

Launched in 1997 by a Brit and a Canadian who went to China to study Mandarin and ended up starting a business, Zhaopin is a dinosaur by Chinese Internet standards. It’s since changed hands and today is majority-owned by Melbourne-based SEEK Investment Pty Ltd, but its veteran status remains a leading strength. Good marketing, including clever TV spots like this one showing the toll of a lousy job on an office worker, helped it grow into a solid brand with 74 million users, the most of any Chinese job site.   

Co-founder Steven Chiu told Foreign Policy that when the site got its first venture capital in the late 1990’s, the company mainly spent it on marketing. "We spent it on doing the things you’re supposed to do as a young Internet company: advertising on billboards, on subways, on buses and on TV," said Chiu, who is now based in Paris and says he has no financial ties to Zhaopin. "It had a big impact, making Zhaopin a household name in China." 

What they didn’t splash out on was web design. "The site is ugly," says Chiu, who now works for a startup education website, HSTRY.org. "It really hasn’t changed at all in 10 years. We weren’t in the business of trying to make the best looking website." Instead, "we knew how we could monetize and we did it." 

Industry analyst David Wolf told FP that China’s leading sites tend to be eyesores. Many popular sites, including top portal Sina.com, are a "Web designer’s nightmare," Wolf, managing director of public relations firm Allison+Partners’ China practice, said. But "function trumps form at the moment on the Chinese Internet."

For Zhaopin, as with many others, the formula works. Recent college graduates hunting for jobs, like 24-year-old Li Xinze, a Beijing interior designer, automatically turn to Zhaopin. It’s no surprise: the site has been around since Li was seven. "It’s convenient and very fast," said Li, who says she found her last two jobs online. Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting in Beijing, told FP that Zhaopin "draws much of its advantage not from any particular differentiation of services provided but rather from being an early entrant." 

Zhaopin’s IPO timing, at least, is impeccable, coming just as Alibaba prepares for a listing that could bring in as much as $15 billion, more than Facebook garnered in its IPO. For its part, Zhaopin has a financing target of $100 million, a ballpark that Wolf says is "midrange to modest." "They’re not asking for the world," he said. "They really want to surf this China high." 

It may feel like a high for investors, but young Chinese are facing a murkier picture. Last year, Chinese media dubbed 2013 the "worst job market in history" because it saw a record number of college graduates — 7 million — enter the labor force. This year, there will be an additional 4 percent, or more than 7.2 million. Zhaopin may be less aspirational than LinkedIn, which in Feb. 24 launched a Chinese beta site with a name that means "select the elite," but that’s part of its appeal as a space for the kind of low-to mid-range white-collar jobs that China’s college grads covet. It’s not currently geared toward the factory worker looking to assemble iPhones but instead toward the IT grad hoping to land a position at a Genius bar in an Apple store in Beijing or Shanghai. To take one example, positions posted by state broadcaster China Central Television including a Japanese translator and an on-air host for a shopping channel. 

The site’s other useful features include a section for job counseling, where members ask questions like: "Is it legal for a company to demote you and cut your pay when you get pregnant?" or "I am 49 with a lot of experience in sales management, why can’t I find a job?"  

But Wolf says college graduates aren’t the only key demographic on the job market. Chinese of all ages are increasingly using the Internet to manage their careers because more people are moving to the cities and getting online. China now has 731 million long-term urban residents and 618 million people online, figures that grew 1.2 and 9.5 percent respectively from the previous year. They will have to jostle with millions of other Chinese to land a good job, but that’s just fine for Zhaopin and companies like it. "The growth numbers," Wolf concludes, are "extraordinarily promising."

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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