OPW INTERVIEW - Oct 28 - I first met Dr Song Li at iDate Beijing in 2007. He was one of the most active and participatory speakers and delegates of any iDate I've ever been to. He asked lots of questions, and shared lots of insights and opinions. Since then Match bought a 20% stake in Zhenai in 2011 (see news). I last interviewed Dr Song Li in 2008 (see interview), so its time for an update. (iDate Mobile will be in Beijing China in May, 2015). Here's my interview with luminary CEO Dr Li. - Mark Brooks
How does Zhenai work now? I understand you provide matchmaking over the phone?
Zhenai has been doing well. We expanded our service model based on online-to-call center matchmaking service into an online dating service (with the help of our strategic partner Match.com) and online-to-offline matchmaking service.
What service levels does Zhenai offer?
We now offer three types of dating/matchmaking services to a broad range of singles in China:
(1) Zhenai Online Dating through the website Zhenai.com and the mobile app Zhenai: This is similar to the service provided by Match.com in the U.S.: RMB 398 (US$64) for 12 months;
(2) Zhenai Online-to-Call Center Matchmaking: RMB 5,000 (US$800) for 6 months; with call-center-based matchmakers providing matchmaking services over the phone;
(3) Zhenai Online-to-Offline Matchmaking: For a wide range of subscription prices depending on the level of customization, but generally more expensive than Zhenai Online-to-Offline Matchmaking. With matchmakers providing face-to-face matchmaking services, This service is only available in the largest and most affluent cities in China.
Have you thought about expanding to the Chinese diaspora?
No plan at this point because we think that there is a big room for growth in China and we do not want to be distracted right now.
China has just surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest ecommerce market in terms of total transaction value, and I think that the Chinese iDating market will catch up with the American one in revenue size before the end of this decade, so I want to focus on our domestic market.
Over the past decade, China has taken over the U.S. to become the No. 1 market for a wide range of consumer markets including TV sets, personal computers, smartphones, cars, now ecommerce, I don't see why the iDating market would be any different.
How has your partnership with IAC/Match gone so far?
We are truly quite happy about our partnership with IAC/Match, Match has been generous in providing its technology and operational experience to us. We have learned a lot about how to improve ROI and other critical operational metrics. What they have provided us is not just new capital but their almost two decades of experience in the Internet personals industry.
How would you say iDating in China is most different from iDating in the USA?
It was quite different as recent as three years ago because the payment infrastructure in this country was way behind that in the U.S. then, so doing pure online dating services was more challenging. But now our online payment infrastructure has significantly improved.
We can now adopt Match-like service models based on multi-month subscription offerings, and we have. Compared to Match.com, we are still disadvantaged in that we have to rely on online debit payment systems (which have become much better in China) but not on credit cards-based systems, so we can't have an auto-renewable subscription model yet, which means that it would not be economically viable to offer single monthly subscription packages at this point. You will certainly lose a significant amount of income from those who would have paid if single month subscription had been made available to them.
On the other hand, China has become the world's largest smartphone market, with some 800 million users, so mobile apps-based services including dating/matchmaking services have grown leaps and bounds in the past 3 years. Now a significant portion of Zhenai's revenues come from its mobile app.
What have you learned from iDating sites in USA recently?
I met the Tinder co-founder CEO Sean Rad 3 years ago and visited him recently in his Los Angeles office, I am very impressed with what he and his team have accomplished with their cool product of Tinder app. Unfortunately, it is very hard to create a Tinder-like product in China because, for Tinder to grow, you need to leverage Facebook to import the user's profile. I think that it is critical that Tinder-like dating apps are able to leverage real world friends-based sites like Facebook. China does not have a Facebook to leverage. We have a lot of social platforms for strangers with screen names and cats' pictures, which would be useless for Tinder types of products.
How many of your users login on mobile now, vs desktop?
I can't disclose the actual figure but some 40% of our new users now come from Zhenai's mobile app. The challenge we face now is that mobile users are growing faster than desktop users but the average age of our mobile users is younger --- generally speaking, paying customers tend to be more mature. Hopefully, with the passage of time, the situation will change because at some point every device, mobile or not, will be apps-based.
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