How a local Chinese newspaper reached new readers and built a business on WeChat

More than 1 billion people use the Chinese messaging app WeChat each month. Not surprisingly, the app’s reach spreads far beyond China’s borders as Chinese expats, travellers, and students studying abroad all use the app.

So in 2015, when the Philadelphia-based Chinese newspaper Metro Chinese Weekly was looking to grow its digital reach it turned to WeChat. It launched an official account called PhillyGuide.

This week in Solution Set we’re taking a look at how Metro Chinese Weekly has built an audience — and a sustainable revenue stream — on the platform. Lenfest Institute intern Anh Nguyen is back to report this story for us. Lenfest Local Lab User Experience Designer Faye Teng created the graphic you’ll see in this story and also helped with translation.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one fantastic thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other useful resources.

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Here’s Anh with the TLDR of what you need to know about Metro Chinese Weekly’s WeChat — Joseph Lichterman


TLDR

The Challenge: Confronted by the challenges of print, The Metro Chinese Weekly, a local Chinese-language publication in Philadelphia, wanted to grow its readership and maintain its ad sales.

The Strategy: Metro Chinese Weekly launched PhillyGuide, a WeChat account covering Philadelphia, in 2015. In 2017, publisher Dan Tsao created a WeChat microsite, Navigasian, which is a hybrid between Yelp and Groupon, to connect local businesses with potential customers.

The Numbers: PhillyGuide has more than 35,000 followers. Two full-time staffers were hired to curate the news feed daily. Navigasian has grown its clientele to more than 70 businesses in the area. The subscription cost is $395 per month.

The Lessons: Publishers — especially minority-owned news orgs — should tap into the power of social media in their communities and connect with locally owned businesses to be sustainable.

The Future: Metro Chinese Weekly hopes to expand the model to other markets, starting with New York City.

Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about WeChat and Chinese social media.


Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:

The Challenge

The Metro Chinese Weekly was created in 2007 by Dan Tsao to cater to the growing Chinese population in the Philadelphia area. Tsao’s publishing company, New Mainstream Media, also owns and operates Metro Viet News, a Vietnamese-language newspaper.

At the time, the Metro Chinese Weekly had many rivalries — mainly, Chinese newspapers from New York City, Hong Kong, and Taiwan that were distributed in Philadelphia. Metro Chinese Weekly struck a chord with readers though because it had local, community-centric coverage.

At its peak in 2015, Metro Chinese Weekly averaged 126 pages per issue and had more than 80 advertising clients. Many of the paper’s clients are car dealerships, supermarkets, luxury brands, and local restaurants.

But just like any other newspaper, Metro Chinese Weekly has seen ad sales slip and it has started to lose print readership to the Internet and social media.

Tsao wanted to find a way to remain relevant to a younger and more digital audience and also wanted to find a way to boost advertising revenue.


The Strategy

Founded in 2011, WeChat is a messaging app that’s immensely popular in China. It is now one of the biggest social media platforms in the world with more than 1 billion active monthly users. You can do many things with WeChat aside from just messaging friends. Users can share status updates, order food, hail a car, or even pay their bills.

Although WeChat is often criticized for sharing information with the Chinese government, it remains the most popular platform among Chinese nationals and Chinese people living outside of China.

The readership of Metro Chinese Weekly consists mostly of local Chinese Americans, Chinese students studying abroad, and Chinese travelers visiting Philadelphia. Tsao realized the untapped potential of reaching a wider audience through WeChat, and Metro Chinese Weekly’s official account, PhillyGuide, was created in 2015.

WeChat’s official account function helps businesses and brands promote themselves and differentiate themselves from personal accounts. WeChat official accounts allow anybody to follow them and receive push notifications.

PhillyGuide shares stories from Metro Chinese Weekly and posts sponsored-content from local, mainly Chinese-owned, businesses.

Recent stories and guides included a piece about a murder outside of a train station near Philly’s Chinatown, a list of recommended accountants, an update on a Chinese-American scientist who was sentenced to prison for stealing trade secrets, and a review of a local restaurant’s Chinese buffet. (It has all you can eat Crawfish!)

“The ease of use and large user base are what attractive about WeChat,” Tsao said. “We couldn’t have done the same thing with Facebook, which even many of my friends and family members don’t use.”

In three years, the account has amassed more than 35,000 followers and enticed many advertising clients to move from the newspaper to WeChat.

Given the interest from advertisers, Tsao has expanded the staff selling ads on the digital side for WeChat.

“Because we have a strong relationship with advertising clients from the newspaper, they followed us to WeChat and remained satisfied with the returns,” said Tsao.

In 2017, to capitalize on PhillyGuide’s growing following, Metro Chinese Weekly started Navigasian, a WeChat microsite which acts as a digital storefront to businesses linked with PhillyGuide.

A microsite on WeChat takes advantage of WeChat’s basic functions including login, payment information, and sharing capabilities, but it enables creators to control the design, front- and back-end development, and content management.

Users can simply build their own website and integrate the WeChat API for it to be a quasi-independent platform from WeChat’s structure.

Many international and mainstream brands have a presence on WeChat through official accounts but local small businesses do not necessarily have the resource and time to invest on one. (The verification process by Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, is also on case-by-case basis.) Navigasian tries to make it easier for businesses by hosting their accounts on its platform and growing their online presence through PhillyGuide.

“Newspaper advertisements cost a lot of money but they no longer serve the purpose to our clients,” Tsao told me. “We have to provide local businesses with something that works for them and the ecosystem in WeChat presents that opportunity.”

Tsao said the Navigasian package comes with marketing, social media and e-commerce functions which allow businesses to make sales, provide customer service and market new products seamlessly and simultaneously. In other words, Navigasian is a hybrid between Yelp and Groupon where users can translate their passive interest in a business into action.

Readers can choose to access Navigasian through PhillyGuide’s sponsored posts and interact with businesses on the microsite. Specifically, users can read reviews of any business, book an appointment or reserve a table, buy a coupon or group sale, and leave a comment at the end. Everything is recorded and stored onsite so clients know exactly how many people visited the microsite and bought the same voucher.

On the clients’ end, Navigasian allows companies to link business accounts to their personal ones so that they can promptly respond to inquiries, answer complaints, and see sales in real time. They will also receive technical help and insights on consumer habits from data collected by the Navigasian team.

“I didn’t want engagement with our clients’ brands to end at an article [on PhillyGuide],” he said. “It’s hard to track overall returns that way, especially if we can’t see what the readers are reading. Navigasian is meant to enhance that aspect and deliver more concrete results.”

Metro Chinese Weekly has an international team (more on that below) of product designers, programmers, ad salespeople, and content creators dedicated to Navigasian. The team has more than doubled in the past year to meet growing demand. Tsao said the startup has brought about new job positions that he has never thought of before, like UX designers and product managers.


The Numbers

PhillyGuide has more than 35,000 followers. Metro Chinese Weekly has a print circulation of 12,000. Tsao didn’t share user numbers for Navigasian.

Two staff members were hired full time to curate the PhillyGuide feed and interact with users.

Despite stagnating print revenue, Tsao said the paper is still profitable, which has allowed it to experiment with Navigasian and PhillyGuide.

“Without the typical financial challenge, it was a natural transition for the company [from print to social media],” he said.

Navigasian has 20 employees working to provide the infrastructure and services for a growing list of 70 clients. Half of the team works in Philadelphia and half works in Hangzhou, China’s tech capital.

“There are new roles in the business that never existed before like product design managers and programmers. However, it’s a challenge to find talents over here who are also bilingual,” Tsao said about the international team.

As Navigasian plans to provide service in English (more in The Future), Tsao insisted that his employees were bilingual to help them dwell better between two worlds.

Many early Navigasian partners saw success in reaching customers through the platform. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of Metro Chinese Weekly’s longtime advertisers, used PhillyGuide and Navigasian in 2017 to promote three concerts and sold around 800 tickets in total. Blue Mountain Resort, a ski resort in Palmerton, Pa., also sold nearly 230 ski passes through WeChat at the end of skiing season this spring.

Navigasian clients sign a one-year contract and pay a monthly fee of $395, or $4,740 per year. Navigasian takes care of the front- and back-end design, even curating promotional posts to be publicized on PhillyGuide.

With more than 70 clients, Navigasian generates roughly $332,000 annually.

“I am hopeful with this model and the early results have been very positive,” said Tsao. “Chinatown is booming with concept stores catering to Chinese international students, one of our main demographics, so there is enough interest to continue growing Navigasian.”


The Lessons

Know your audience: Every community uses different tools and platforms online, and by recognizing and understanding how the community you’re trying to serve communicates, you can more effectively understand the demand for news and reach a broader audience.

“Chinese people socialize and communicate through WeChat but for example, Japanese and Korean people use LINE more,” Tsao told me.“Not all Asians are the same and there are many different ways to reach a specific community.”

No matter if you are a minority-owned publication or a general interest outlet, it’s necessary to have a specific audience in mind for your coverage and to have a distinct strategy to reach them.

Money, money, money: It’s almost cliche at this point for journalism pontificators to say you should meet the audience where they are — on social platforms. (I just did it in the last section!)

But unless you can effectively monetize that audience — through reader revenue such as subscriptions, via advertising, or other mechanisms — it’s difficult to make a business case for why those platforms are important.

So while Tsao understood that Metro Chinese Weekly readers were moving to WeChat, he also understood that he needed a way to make money there to afford the journalism and support the business. At the same time, it’s important to differentiate between sponsored and editorial content, so readers understand what’s journalism and what’s a paid ad.

“Every newspaper has a noble goal to service the public but without sustainable revenues, it could not do it right,” Tsao said. “That’s why my goal from day one has been keeping the business afloat by selling as many ads as I can and creating new channels to do it better.”

• Think beyond straight news: Yes, covering city council and school board meetings are critical functions of local journalism, there’s also value in providing readers with other service information such as where to go out to eat and what to do on the weekends.

Newspapers have always had arts and entertainment news, of course, but publishers should be thinking more about how they can serve readers in new ways.

One of PhillyGuide’s adaptations of this rule is the way it employs social media language for the headlines of sponsored posts. In one post promoting a new dumpling restaurant in town, PhillyGuide had the running headline as, roughly translated, “In my life I have never had better tasting dumplings that filled my heart with much joy.” Cheesy? Yes. But would you click on it? I sure did.

You don’t want to mislead or trick readers, of course, but having a little fun can make a huge difference.


The Future

Metro Chinese Weekly’s next plan is to bring Navigasian to English-language users.

“When I looked at WeChat two years ago, I saw many potentials to turn PhillyGuide into a standalone app for English users which would appear on Apple Store. Now with Navigasian, that ambition is even more likely to become reality,” said Tsao.

The paper also plans to expand Navigasian to other cities. Philadelphia was the ideal place for test marketing and helped prove Navigasian’s business case. Now the microsite is ready to enter bigger markets.

“I am looking for investments to bring Navigasian to New York but my hunch is that the model can be scaled to many more cities,” said Tsao.

The Metro Chinese Weekly is still doing well and not going anywhere soon. Tsao was reluctant to expand the newspaper but he attributed PhillyGuide and Navigasian’s successes to the its operation. (There are other companies, such as WalkTheChat, that provide WeChat agency services.)

“A fresh startup with the same idea as Navigasian’s could not have achieved the same success without the connections and knowledge we gathered from years of running the newspaper,” Tsao told me.


Want to know more?

Here’s some more background from Nieman Lab on the three companies — Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (WeChat’s parent) — that dominate the Chinese Internet.

• Like seemingly most platforms, WeChat has a misinformation problem. Poynter wrote about the rogue fact-checkers trying to fix it.

• Censorship is also a major issue on Chinese social media. Here’s a Nieman Lab story about that.

• Here’s a couple great reports on messaging apps: A 2018 Reuters Institute study by Antonis Kalogeropoulos 2015 Tow Center study on messaging apps from Trushar Barot and Eytan Oren.

• In other news, The European Journalism Centre’s Engaged Journalism Accelerator is trying to learn more about how newsrooms are practicing engaged journalism — reporting + community engagement. They’ve created a short survey that you can take here. (It’s open to everyone, even if you don’t live in Europe.) Also, here’s the EJC’s database of more than 70 European news orgs practicing engaged journalism.


Anything to add?

This is Yossi again, taking over from Anh. Is your news org doing anything cool with messaging apps? I’d love to hear about it for a potential future issue of Solution Set.

Want to learn more about Solution Set, offer feedback, or ask questions? Sign up for the SMS version of Solution Set. Click here to sign up or text SOLUTION to (215) 544–3542.

See you next Thursday! (Also if you’re going to be at ONA, let me know! I’d love to meet up in Austin.)


Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the monthly cost of Navigasian. It is $395.
Creative Commons photo by Book News.
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