In bid to up its monetization game, Q&A site Zhihu expands membership program

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Once known as a Quora copycat, 220 million-strong Q&A platform Zhihu is forging ahead with its paid content ecosystem with the launch of a new membership system on Monday.

According to a press release, paying yanxuan huiyuan (“salt select members,” translated literally) will receive increased access and new features. These include an advanced keyword search function from Zhihu’s homepage as well as the ability to post images in the comments section of responses and articles.

They’ll also have nearly complete access to Zhihu’s paid content, which includes subscriptions to hundreds of Chinese magazines, plus 3,500 private classes and live-streaming lectures and 10,000 e-books unique to the platform. In addition, they’ll receive exclusive customer service and emojis.

Former Zhihu “super members” and “reading club members” will automatically be upgraded to the new system, with RMB 198 (around $29.50) yearly fee remaining the same. Other Zhihu users can also buy in for the same price.

The shift represents a change from the site’s old membership model, run through its “Zhihu University” educational offering–a set of paid online courses on business, humanities, science, and other subjects. By contrast, according to a company representative, the new system allows members access across the platform’s wide variety of resources. It’s also part of a bid to offer users a more “competitive” package and eventually, “enrich and improve our business model.”

To reflect the platform’s renewed focus on membership services, a department named for Zhihu University will be renamed Zhihu’s “membership business department.”

Zhihu has played around with various schemes in the past to boost community participation and ensure quality content. Last October, for instance, it launched a ‘social credit’ plan along the lines of Alibaba’s Sesame Credit system, which rewards users for factors such as “friendly interaction” and “content creation.” Like other content platforms, however, it faces the challenge of monetizing user interest.

In late February, for instance, anime and gaming website Bilibili announced a net loss of RMB 565 million in 2018 despite a near-quadrupling in the number of paying users. The CFO of streaming platform iQiyi similarly stated that 2018 was a “transition year” for the company as it doubled down on original video content. While that company beat analyst expectations in 2018, it lost RMB 9.1 billion ($1.3 billion) in total while reporting 72% year-on-year growth of paying members.

According to the press release, membership status will not affect question or answer rankings. As of January, Zhihu had over 220 million users, the majority of whom are relatively young, in the 18-35 range, and seeking self-improvement material, company VP Zhang added.

The site’s latest update comes shortly after the announcement of a partnership between the Q&A site and e-commerce site JD.com on March 8. Under the agreement, both old and new members will receive a one-year membership for JD.com’s discount program, JD.com Plus. That deal also included a one-year VIP membership for iQiyi.