The rise of Xiaohongshu: the little red’s big ambition

August 19, 2022 0 Comments

On August 4, lovebirds in China celebrated “QiXi”, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day derived from ancient folklore. While trending topics on most Chinese social apps were still fixated on heated discussions of the Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip, Xiaohongshu(Little Red Book), an app often seen as a combination of Pinterest and Instagram, offered an escape from the stressing news for young lovers. Xiaohongshu users, who are dominantly female, shared their Valentines day experiences, gifting suggestions, and picturesque spots to pose in front of.

“Rose Waterfalls” are a popular art establishment theme in several cities in China this year.

A brief timeline

Launched in 2014 in Shanghai, the app inherently resembles the city that birthed it — fashionable, modern and bourgeois. After 8 years, the app has grown into a one of a kine social app, with over 200 million monthly active users and 72% of which are born after 1990, and 50% of users are from first and second tier cities.

In China, Xiaohongshu is incomparable in terms of organic community building. Almost every eccentric topic can find its niche group of users on Xiaohongshu. However, it is little known that the app started off as a cross-border e-commerce app catered to women.

Xiaohongshu’s shopping page has incorporated more product genres than cosmetics now. 

Xiaohongshu’s founder, Mao Wenchao, is a Stanford graduate who witnessed first hand the buying craze of Chinese tourists overseas. Back in early 2010s, due to the tax return policies in many countries, rising exchange rates of RMB and the overall economic growth in China, Chinese people saw traveling overseas as an opportunity to buy quality goods at a reasonable price. Businesses drooled over the deep pockets of Chinese tourists —— Korean clothing brand EnC was on the brink of leaving department stores in 2006, but was revived after a Chinese enterprise acquired the brand and marketed EnC as high-end clothing in China.

Chinese people had money, but didn’t understand what they were buying — that’s what Mao observed and how Xiaohongshu came to be. According to an [International Business report ]published in 2015, when Xiaohongshu’s slogan was “finding good things abroad”, 90% of the app’s users are female.

Xiaohongshu grew rapidly and became one of the most successful cross-border e-commerce company at the time, even got visited and complimented by State Council Premier Li Keqiang in September 2015 and Vice Premier of the State Council Wang Yang in 2016.

In the coming years, Xiaohongshu further substantiated its cross border business by launching REDelivery, an international logistic service, as well as extend its business model beyond the internet by launching REDhome retail stores.

From an ecommerce app to a social app

As Xiaohongshu grew, it embraced the KOL culture along the way. More specifically, Xiaohongshu has breed a generation of KOCs (Key Opinion Consumer) who gained popularity by simply sharing products, unlike influencers on other social platforms which might attract followers by producing self-related content.

The KOC culture became a double-edged sword, which helped Xiaohongshu attract users and strengthened the sense of community, but also diluted its image as a shopping app. According to a report by Toubao Research, advertising consisted of around 80% of Xiaohongshu’s revenue in 2021, while e-commerce only took up 20%.

Qu Fang, the founder of Xiaohongshu, has repeatedly said in interviews back in 2017 that “Xiaohongshu is not an e-commerce business, but an playground,” which hints the app has drifted away from its original purpose and was embracing diverse contents and business models.

The app began monetize and regulate its KOC culture in 2020 by launching a Creator’s Center and initiated the “Woodpecker Program”, which cracks down on false advertising and third-party agencies which connects Xiaohongshu influencers with brands. These moved allowed Xiaohonghshu to keep its influencers in line, and keep third-party agencies from profiting off of the app’s ecosystem.

Xiaohongshu KOCs post products from third-party platforms as pictures, since links have been banned.

In 2021, the app tired to solidified its pool of traffic by banning Taobao links in Xiaohongshu, and encouraged businesses and brands to open their own shops inside the app. With Taobao being blocked, inserting Xiaohongshu shop links in their posts became the more effective option for businesses. In the same year, the app also launched “Dandelion”, a service which connect content creators to brands and charges a commission fee from both sides.  

Attracting male users

Recently, Xiahongshu has been trying to attract more male users and make the platform more diverse. Camping, skiing, surfing……many of Xiaohongshu’s hot topics in recent years have been gender-neutral. The app saw sports as its way in to the male market. A series of well-known athletes such as NBA star James Harden, Olympic winners Zhang Jike, Guo Jingjing and basketball players such as Zhou Qi has opened their Xiahongshu accounts and has shared their daily lives such as exercising.

James Harden’s first post on Xiaohongshu received over 96 thousand likes. 

According to a Tech Planet report, in an Xiaohongshu internal meeting in May 2021, an important initiative was announced — to encourage content and content creators related to men, with key areas being technology, digital products, sports, knowledge and fashion.

In 2021, sports related posts on Little Red Book grew by more than 1140% year-on-year, fitness related posts grew by 300%, and tech related posts grew by 500%. Male users have engaged with categories previously dominated by female users as well — food related male content creators increased by 254% year-on-year, and travel related male content creators increased by 138%.

Notably, even though Xiaohongshu is still a female dominated social platform, many male users are not deter by the fact. In fact, male users may chose to sign up for Xiaohongshu in order to better understand woman. On Xiaohongshu, it’s often seen that a male users asks the community for dating tips or advice for choosing gifts, which are often responded by female users.

According to LatePost, in 2022, Xiaohongshu, which already has a firm foothold in the women’s market, will focus on expanding the number of male users aged 18 to 35. Its goal is to increase the number of male monthly active users to 80 million by the end of the year.

Role as gatekeeper

In addition to the rapid growth of its KOC culture, Xiaohongshu has also successfully seized the opportunity of sensational short video model. According to a China Entrepreneur report, 80% of Xiaohonghu’s current user usage time has been contributed by its short video content.

While the form of contents on Xiaohongshu expands, the app‘s core — the sense of an organic and friendly community seems to be becoming more and more chaotic.

In recent year, Xiaohongshu’s brand has been somewhat tainted by its content. Netizens faults the visual-centric platform of spreading body shaming ideals, and inciting anxiety when Xiaohongshu content creators were caught photoshopping plain sites to beautiful sceneries, or posing seductively in Buddhist temples. Similar to Instagram, a visual-centric social platform would inevitably propel users to enhance their photos or videos in order to make their content more appealing.

A comparison between Xiaohongshu posts(top) and actual scenes(bottom).

The app published its Community Rules in April 2021, which asks creators are required comply rules such as avoid excessive retouching, opposing pseudo-science and refrain from flexing.

If photoshopping and flexing can be considered as minor flaws of the app’s community, it’s recent Tinder Swindler-like scandal would defame the app more seriously. The female-dominated app has become the haunting ground scammers, according to a Nanfengchuang report.

On Xiaohongshu, there are more than 40,000 notes with the hashtag #KillThePig (an idiom referring to frauds targeted at women and often use relationships as ruses). In addition to users crying about their experiences of being cheated out of money and feelings, there are also some users who complain about their photos being stolen by scammers.

The platform’s large, women-dominated user base and its social features which encourages users to share details about their lives have made it easy for scammer to select potential victims. A revamp on the community’s atmosphere is much needed for Xiaohongshu in order to protect both its users and the company’s public image.

Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash [modified]

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