Girls, Girls, Girls: Alibaba’s Play for Mobile ‘Losers’

October 25, 2013, 8:14 PM

Girls, Girls, Girls: Alibaba’s Play for Mobile ‘Losers’

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Alibaba is calling on desperate men to build a user base for its fledgling messaging application, Laiwang. In a new promotional campaign that began yesterday, Laiwang is sharing with users the profiles of more than 30,000 models with users on its messaging platform. The women are a part of Alibaba’s Tao Girl platform, which was created in 2007 as a resource for merchants who want to use professional models to show off their products on Alibaba’s massive e-commerce site.The new initiative is aimed at attracting people interested in chatting with the women–and also checking out their photos—and turning them into dedicated users of Laiwang. It’s the latest of several and so far lackluster measures Alibaba has taken to generate interest in the messaging service, which has failed to take off since it was introduced at the end of last year.

Laiwang (pronounced lie-wahng) is the latest front in the growing rivalry between Alibaba and gaming and social media giant Tencent Holding Ltd. Tencent’s WeChat messaging application has taken China by storm over the past two years, drawing more than 300 million users. Laiwang has 1 million users, and some industry analysts worry that Alibaba may struggle to bring users to its e-commerce platform without a potent rival application to WeChat.

Earlier this week Alibaba founder Jack Ma posted a memo on the company’s internal web forum, calling on employees to help expand Laiwang. In the memo Mr. Ma said that each employee must find 100 new Laiwang users outside the company by the end of November. If they fail to do so, Mr. Ma wrote, they should expect no bonuses.

Such is its shortage of users that Laiwang launched the models campaign on Weibo,Sina Corp.SINA -1.72%’s popular Twitter-like microblogging service in which Alibaba owns an 18% stake.

Despite Alibaba’s considerable resources, turning Laiwang into an app that can truly rival WeChat will be a tough challenge. Julia Zhu, a former Alibaba employee who now operates an e-commerce consultancy, outlined those challenges in a recent piece for the Chinese Wall Street Journal: “WeChat has already satisfied customers’ mobile message needs, and it has already attracted massive numbers of users. You could say it’s achieved a decisive victory. Laiwang right now doesn’t have a clear foothold. Outside the ‘burn after reading’ function that WeChat does not have, I’m afraid normal users won’t find a scenario in which it’s necessary to use Laiwang.”

The new marketing ploy to connect users to attractive women is at least generating buzz. The campaign’s launch announcement on Weibo was reposted more than 20,000 times in the roughly 24 hours since it was first posted Thursday afternoon.  In the post, Laiwang references the popular Mao Zedong saying, “women hold up half the sky” and  appeals to “nouveau riche” and “losers” who want to meet women online. The post includes a long list of photos of some of the women.

A link leads to a landing page that displays a version Alibaba’s cartoon mascot as a woman smoking a cigarette with one strap of her dress falling over her shoulder. Below her, three cartoon men also modeled off of Alibaba’s mascot grin goofily as hearts flutter above one man’s head.

Though in places like the United States, the advertisement might have provoked criticism, most responses to the new campaign were positive. Many users on Weibo posted happy or nervous-looking emoticons. A user writing under the name The Old Cat’s Woman remarked, “Where is the benefit for females? I want cute boys!”

Some did take exception to the new tack by Laiwang, not for its use of women, but instead for its aggressive targeting of WeChat.

“I’m actually very against this type of Chinese marketing. One opens a gas station on a road, others rush to follow. Then they do this business to death,” wrote another user. “Why can’t one person do a gas station, and another put a hotel, restaurant or supermarket beside it, then everyone can live well together? After all it turns out Jack Ma is running this business like a country bumpkin.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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