Riding The Blogbus

Saturday evening I’ve met Héng Gē (横戈), CEO and founder of Blogbus, the oldest independent blog service in China, in a small café opposite of the Shanghai Public Library. Heng Ge, whose regular name is Dòu Yì (窦毅), founded the service in late 2002. With more than 4 million accounts they are not the biggest, but probably the best-reputed blog service in China, sporting a lot of users from the oh-so-important “creative class”. They don’t do advertisement for the service, just word-of-mouth campaigning.

While the major competitors are all working with teams of several hundred employees, Blogbus is still a small bunch of people. And they are profitable. After having drawn a major outside investment in 2006, Blogbus reached the break-even in time for their 5-year anniversary in 2007. Blogbus’ source of revenue are context-sensitive advertisement and user-fees for premium services like customized URLs, designs, and extended upload space.

And they are proud of experimenting with innovative forms of advertisement, making use of the community for providing an emotional background of awareness for offline campaigns. E.g., Blogbus invited their bloggers to an event at Shanghai’s Ice Bar sponsored by Absolut Vodka, inviting them to write about it without explicitly mentioning the brand. Or Blogbus bloggers participated in a series of theatre events that were part of a campaign for the new Buick Lacrosse (motto: “My Gentleman Boyfriend”). A new idea involves linking certain keywords in bloggers’ contributions to discussions about beauty and ugliness, thereby setting the stage for an offline campaign of a cosmetics brand. Don’t they expect protest of the users? No, because it’s just a temporary, playful thing.

Right now the Blogbus blogs are organized into 8 channels, each maintained by 2-3 editors. Every other week 10 new interesting “passengers” are featured on the homepage. The users are encouraged to form groups along interesting topics. Something like the topical structure of About.com is the model for this strategy.

There is no financial incentive for the bloggers. I ask about revenue sharing (like Sina.com, one of the big portal and blog service providers, is offering it to its power bloggers). After some slightly evasive answers, Mr. Heng says, No, we normally don’t pay any bloggers for their contributions. Only if they participate in outrightly commercial campaigns. But there is a honour system, outstanding bloggers get credit for their work and they are invited to special events organized by the company.

The talk is a little difficult, due in part to the language barrier and the tedious procedure of having questions as well as answers translated by a helpful friend. But also, both of us are a little uneasy with the situation. I’d prefer to talk about blog culture and content, he prefers to talk about his successful business. I have yet to find the right tone between journalistic interview and scientific inquiry, encompassing both.