China Social Commerce Landscape: Fall Of The Giant And Rise Of The Startups

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The Pioneer’s Unsuccessful Venture

Taobao, the largest Chinese ecommerce site, made its first foray into social networking area with the unveil of Taojianghu on April 1, 2009, aiming for reinforcing connections between its customers for trustworthy online shopping experience which would in turn, leads to increased transactions. This could be seen as one of the Chinese social shopping (or social commerce) pioneers all around, besides Mayi’s unsuccessful tryout, a SNS site with a touch of social shopping, founded by Ruan Peng(aka Maitian in Chinese websphere). Mr Ruan joined Baidu last year in charge of the Social Networking Unit after Mayi went offline.

With Mayi’s failure in place, it’s awful for Taojianghu to duplicate the martyr’s failure. The SNS subsidiary of Taobao didn’t rise to Taobao’s expectations. Taojianghu debuted with functions like online diary, album, profile, connections, Farmville-like social games and other apps etc., pretty much like regular SNS in China. But as we recently checked, Taojianghu ranked under 1 million (world) or 100,000 (China only) on Alexa, or accounted for no more than 1.6% of Taobao’s total traffic.

The Rise And Fall Of Taobao’s Taojianghu

The lackluster ranking speaks to Taobao’s setback in social shopping. It’s rumored that Taojianghu would be shut down in May except for keeping three features including Juhuasuan (a taobao group buying trial), Taojinbi (attracting active users with bonus gifts ) and Taofenxiang (shopping experience sharing). As you can see, the lately revamped site boasted links to these three functions featured on the main navigation bar, though the in place SNS elements were hid deeply instead of being totally removed.

screenshot of Taojianghu

“Taobao should embrace all around SNS strategy.” Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba which owns Taobao, said earlier this year. The newly redesigned interface of Taojianghu typified common social commerce sites, featuring functions like shopping experience sharing, items posting, personalized recommendation and so on. And the site is planning another striking renovation. Nonetheless, the social shopping initiative by the No. 1 Chinese ecommerce platform is still struggling.

Taobao announcing the integration of Taobao and Taojianghu on 24th May

The rumor, says Taobao will abandon Taojianghu as separate product and integrate it into Taobao main site, was confimed by Taobao’s latest move in announcing the integrating of Taojianghu and Taobao on 24th May, which means Taojianghu is officially put aside. Taobao accept its failure in social shopping after nearly 2 years’ experimenting as well as struggling, eventually.

China social shopping is burgeoning

Although Taobao’s social attempt seems a major setback, more and more social shopping websites are emerging. Meilishuo and Mogujie are among those.

Screenshot of Meilishuo

Meilishuo – Female-only social shopping by Stanford founder, whose former venture sold to Douban

Founded in Nov. 2009 by Xu Yirong, a Stanford MCS, Meilishuo (which means, beauty talk) is a social shopping vertical targeting female online shoppers, featuring functions such as items sharing and recommendation. Xu founded Zhuaxia, an online RSS reader akin to Google Reader, several years ago, and then sold it to Douban, a popular book, music, and movie reviews community. After that, Xu spent one year wondering what to do in the next step. Later on, the idea of creating an sharing community for females come out of his mind.

Users can share items they bought online, while anyone who followed you will see these purchases, and you can also explore everyone’s recommendation and recent purchases. By following someone, you will get first-hand information about what she bought and shared lately. Aside from these, users are eligible to receive money rewards if they buy Taobao items which featured on Meilishuo. A common business model employed by social shopping sites: taking a cut from the transaction they forged.

“Only female users are welcomed.”

Another noteworthy point is, it seems Meilishuo is taking tight control over registration and users’ quality. Login in using Sina Weibo open platform, the site reject male users saying:”Only female users are welcomed.” And all register should go through a verification process, during which lots of new users are rejected.

Meilishuo is heavily reliant on Taobao – which is so ironic for Taojianghu – almost all of its item buying links refer to goods listed on Taobao, including clothes, shoes, cosmetics and so on. Meilishuo now claims millions of users, ranking 601 (China only) on Alexa.

So does Mogujie (which means Mushroom Street), another Chinese social shopping initiative which founded by Chen Qi late last year and based in Hangzhou, where Taobao is headquartered.

Screenshot of Mogujie

Mogujie – founded by Taobao alumnus: key challenge is to understanding the female mind

Mogujie adopts the common business solution, taking cut of transactions – mostly from Taobao. The nascent team also targeting female users in light of the fact that they are the major buying force on Taobao. It serves the users with functions like items sharing, shopping experience posting, pictures uploading, items recommendation groups (like BBS)and so on.

Chen worked at Taobao for 6 years, holding various positions including UI designer and product manager. He remarked that, the “growing pains” of Mogujie wouldn’t be how to make profit in light of the booming online shopping business on which Mogujie is based. According to him, the real and urgent challenges facing Mogujie are how to address young female online shoppers’ needs, since their minds are really tricky to understand. “What we want to do is, “ Chen said, “understand female’s minds to meet their needs in the fittest ways while making Mogujie more fun and more easy to use. ”

Mogujie ranked 863 (China only) on Alexa.

More To Be Expected

Besides them, Fangdongxi, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Huang Xiuyuan, Duitang and Paopaojie are all amongst the social shopping heat. They shared the same idea and same model. The nascent market is enjoy high-speed growth, partly due to hot money flowed into the area. Chinese ecommerce startups are receiving mint of money lately, which triggered concerns over another round of imminent bubble.

Being social is deemed as Web 2.0, but we believe that those social shopping sites should go beyond that to stand out from the crowd. Sharing or rating isn’t enough, it’s easy to be copied by rivals and easy to be forgotten by users. That’s why there are so many social commerce initiatives coming out of like nowhere, and some of them had already disappeared – even before the bubble bursts.

Go beyond social

So how to stand out? Let’s go Web 3.0, which attach much importance to personalization and customization. By personalization and customization, what you see on website might be stuff that you are most likely want to see. The website adapt to your tastes and preferences, making recommendations that just fit. Isn’t that the core idea behind social shopping? Help the users find what they want to forge transactions. If Web 2.0 is all about social, then Web 3.0 is all about data and personalization. Personalized recommendations are heavily reliant on data gathered from user behavior.

According to a Credit Suisse report, Taobao has huge amounts of e-commerce database valuable to study-user behavior. Taobao management discloses that Taobao’s platform generated 50 tera bytes (50,000G) database on a daily basis in January 2011. Since April 2010, the giant online shop has started to sell database packages at the lowest price of Rmb300 for a monthly package. These packages are great source for analyzing user behavior to make targeted and accurate recommendation which would leads to transactions and revenues for social shopping sites.

So to sum up, sites with reliable shopping experience, trustful connections, accurate recommendation and profitable business model are more likely to stick to the end in fierce competition.