Chinese Podcasts: Knowledge with a Price Tag

(Cover photo: Li Xiang, a former journalist and the first person launching paid podcast on Dedao the app discusses his show on a press conference. From Sohu.)



Since 2016, podcast, an entertainment medium that never got trendy in China over the past decade, became a popular, modern, even in some sense a noble activity among China’s urban, hard-working, knowledge-craving middle class.


On November 18th, Mi Meng "咪蒙", one of China’s most popular internet-media celebrities with over 10 million WeChat subscribers, announced the launch of her podcast through Ximalaya FM, the biggest Chinese audio content marketplace. The news attracted mounting criticism rather than anticipation among her fans and China’s internet media watchers, as most people frowned immediately over the title of the podcast, "Mi Meng teaches you how to earn 50,000 a month".


Mi Meng’s podcast is offered on a paid subscription base, with 99 RMB for 15 episodes and a tempting promise: it guarantees, as Mi Meng herself claims, a total refund if your salary wasn’t raised by 50% within 3 years after listening to her podcast.


Think this sounds like a desperate move of tricking innocent working newcomers’ money? Take a look into the field of “Pay for Knowledge” (知识付费) in China and you’d realize such a trick is actually not that uncommon.


Mi Meng claims, "if you don't get a pay raise (after listening to the podcast), I will give back full refund."


Pay-for-Knowledge: Solution or Gimmick?


Chinese tech media likes to call 2016 the year of Pay-for-Knowledge (知识付费元年). After exploring various business models from advertisement to e-commerce, China’s “content entrepreneurs” - those who make a living or even run a business through their WeChat or Weibo accounts - have discovered a new way of monetization: by wrapping up their content as essential knowledge and sell it directly to users, hence Pay-for-Knowledge 知识付费.


Paid question-and-answer platform Fenda. (photo from: CRNTT)


Now bear in mind, if there’s one thing China’s tech media is good at, that is to invent fancy concepts as attempts to grapple the overwhelming development in the internet industry. Pay-for-Knowledge, as creative as it sounds, is in reality a thin wrapper for a phenomenon that was born long before the internet: charging consumers directly for content, through regular subscriptions or one-off payments.


Without thinking about what knowledge actually means, internet companies jumped on the bandwagon of Pay-for-Knowledge, coming up with all sorts of claims to educate and inspire their users. There are social apps such as Fenda, Weibo and Zhihu with features which users could pay KOLs or celebrities to answer questions. There are one-to-one consulting services which you could make offline appointments with experts (Zaihang for instance). There are also WeChat groups charging members for tutorials, discussion sessions, online lectures and many more.


Among the various kinds of Pay-for-Knowledge services, audio shows, or as we prefer to call them, podcast with Chinese twists, is the most popular of all. Platforms such as Ximalaya FM, Qingting FM and Dedao have all started exploring subscription-based podcasts in 2016: with the hope to occupy every single minute of their users' time (time=traffics=money, duh), platforms hunted down influencers or reputable experts to create educational podcasts, packaged episodes into 10 - 20 minute long mini lectures, threw on price tags (usually between 99 RMB to 200 RMB per year) and got ready to sell.

Left: Qingtin FM. Right: Ximalaya FM.



Dedao, founded by former national television producer, now internet entrepreneur Luo Zhenyu (a rather legendary businessman whose stories deserve more telling for sure), announced this May that it has reached over 7.36 million users and 670,000 daily active users. Dedao now has 31 paid subscription programs, among which the most popular one, “Professor Xue Zhaofeng’s Economic Class”, has attracted over 215,000 subscribers.

Last December, XimalayaFM, China’s now biggest audio content aggregation app, launched its first ever “123 Knowledge Festival”. Within 24 hours, it generated over 50 million RMB ($7.56 million) in sales, the same revenue of Alibaba’s first Single’s Day sale back in 2009. According to Chinese media, paid podcasts accounted for over 50% of the platform’s total revenue in 2016.

XimalayaFM announced that it has reached over 400 million users by September 2017.


Chinese Podcasts, Knowledge style


The more we looked into Chinese podcasts, the more we were fascinated by the market's distinctive development trajectory comparing to what happened in the west: podcast was, after all, a Steve Jobs invention that merged broadcasting with iPod (hence the “pod” and the “cast”); even with rapid development of mobile technology, it still took over a decade to grow from an obscure method of information-sharing to a popular medium for audio content distribution in the English world. Podcasts in China however is a completely different story: China’s internet companies, like they did in many other cases, reinvented “podcast” the Western creature into a brand new species for the local market, and managed to monetize directly from consumers to profit both the producers and the platforms (XimalayaFM reportedly splits profits with podcast creators by 5:5).


Selected top-paid podcasts in China (data from public sources, till October 2017):


The peculiarity of Chinese podcasts doesn’t just lay on business model. A tour around top charts of Chinese podcast platforms would ring out a consistent theme of those content: personal development. The most popular podcasts either directly feature keywords such as “better life” “more wealth” and “individual success” in their titles, or provide tricks and tips in how to make one more successful through practical approaches, such as to make better public speeches, to become a better business manager or to be better at dating girls. So many voices loudly shouting to the ears of Chinese podcast listeners, teaching and demanding them to become better, to learn more, and to strive for a more ambitious life goal - be it in career, in dating, or simply in the development of personal interests.


Personal development podcasts on Ximalaya FM.


As much as the intention to educate and inspire is genuine, podcast producers in China need to battle boisterously for traffics and money by creating the most content as frequent as possible. “We were asked to plan ahead for over 100 episodes when we first got in touch with XimalayaFM, and to update at least three new episodes every week,” says Ms.Xu, the head producer of a business-themed podcast featuring a successful businessman as lecturer, and now with over 60,000 paid subscribers. “To keep the production as quick as possible, we hire a ghost writer for the lecturer, so all he needs to do is to read aloud the scripts, record it on his phone, send it to me through WeChat, and we will do the rest from editing to marketing. This is the most efficient production mechanism we’ve figured so far.”


So how about content quality?

Having listened to the trial episodes of a number of the most popular paid podcasts online, we could not help but to feel beyond disappointed. As much as these podcasts claim to be full of knowledge and wisdom from successful elites, in reality, they are stuffed with repetitive information and dreadfully bland. Buying one of these podcasts is incredibly easy (thanks to WeChat Pay and Alipay), yet to keep listening, and to actually learn anything from this so-called audio knowledge service is annoyingly hard.


After getting famous for her debate performance in hit talk show "Qi Pa Shuo", Ma Weiwei teamed up with other influencers to launch a paid podcast named "Good Good Talk".


In today’s China where the economy still booms yet social inequality gets ever wider, the urban middle class is tied up with a stark sense of anxiety from all aspects. Purchasing a knowledge podcast, in this case, becomes the same as getting a gym membership: what people are truly paying for, in the end of the day, is not a healthier body or mindset (which takes real work and time), but an alluring illusion, a label to prove that they are still working to become a better person, still striving hard for bigger, greater dreams that economic prosperity would hopefully bring to life.


"Fragmented time, life-long learning." - slogan of Dedao the paid knowledge app.


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