Why is it Hard to Run a Clubhouse Clone in China?

I was invited to a Clubhouse clone from China, along with a few other influencer friends. We worked with the operations team to hold a room there and the result was surprising.

What happened?

Background

While some Chinese felt Clubhouse was yet another audio-based social app after YY.com, Huya, and Lizhi, I disagreed. These apps provide more like live streams of online singers, gamers, etc. rather than free-flowing discussions.

Chinese are giving it a second try. I’ve received a dozen BPs, wireframes, and test links. Many teams claim to build Clubhouse but better, with one or two or three revolutionary features, where creativity often does the opposite.

The story

I plugged in the invite code, input my name, and uploaded a profile photo. Here I noticed the first localization: no first name + last name format, simply any name you’d like others to call you. Yes, we like pseudonyms.

After registration, I saw the homepage with no rooms, only a text “the world is quiet now” in Chinese. Familiar with Clubhouse, I managed to follow 40+ people through other users’ follower lists. Still, no rooms. Okey, let’s wait for the event tomorrow.

I got up at 6 am the following morning, which was at night in China when users should be the most active of the day. I entered the room and joined the stage. I knew every guest speaker already, either from Weibo or Clubhouse — we produce text and video content that covers over a million Chinese combined.

Event started. We talked about how to grow an online audience on content platforms in China for about 1.5 hours. The app’s operations team was in the room under “followed by speakers” the whole time. Though the discussion was hot, the room had less than 20 listeners.

That was disappointing. My friend tried hard to message everyone to communicate from inviting us to making the poster. If we were to hold an event on Clubhouse, with tens of thousands of Chinese followers, people would flood into the room immediately without our effort.

Challenges

1. Network Effect

The first thing to encounter for all social apps is the network effect: the more users there are on a platform, the more value a single user derives from using the platform.

It’s 100x harder for fresh audio content platforms to gather users. On my first day on Clubhouse in January, I only saw two English rooms filled with people I didn’t know. Losing interest, I closed the app and would never open it again if not Elon Musk’s room a week later.

From April 2020 to January 2021, it took almost a year for Clubhouse to gradually grow the right users to a point where a huge wave of users did not change the community’s color too much. The Chinese market won’t wait for that long.

The good news is that Clubhouse already trained tens of thousands of Chinese users on how to use the app and fostered plenty of Chinese influencers to bring good audio content. The WeChat group for Clubhouse influencers, C3000, now has 140+ folks with over 3k followers.

The question then becomes, while these influencers could have reached a bigger and wider audience on Clubhouse, how to attract them to come to the new platforms in China.

Or, should the operation teams invite the Chinese counterpart of Elon Musk?

2. Compliance

Real-time censoring will be the next biggest challenge for Clubhouse clones in China. Soon after the hype in February, a handful of apps such as 对话吧 went live but soon taken down from app stores “pending adjustments. ” As for the app I tested, changes to bios take about 5 minutes to reflect on users’ side.

For any products with user-generated content, it’s important to build a strong operations team to detect potential violations and act fast on reports to minimize legal risks.

3. Localization

Some feature modifications from Clubhouse I saw were to switch to pseudonyms and allow users to change room titles.

A new market in China means new ways to operate. A WeChat group for seed users is in general a good idea; yet most connections and communications should happen in the app, not on WeChat.

Online communities in China tend to be more informal and down to earth. When most users skip their professional background in their bios, it’s unknown whether Clubhouse clones in China will continue serious conversations or turn to a more casual place to social and chill.

To sum up…

Tech influencer aka 甜菜欣欣 (70k+ Weibo, 24k+ CH), VC investor, @Google engineer, @Columbia alum. Talk startups, AI/ML, China, and creator economy.

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