LinkedIn China began promoting its independent professional networking app “Chitu” in late June. The popular professional networking company seeks to position Chitu as an app “more in tune with Chinese needs.”
Unlike many competing products, the development and direction of Chitu is managed entirely by LinkedIn’s China team, said Shen Boyang, CEO of LinkedIn China.
But Chitu’s mere existence is evidence of the company’s struggles.
LinkedIn has not been the breakout success that many hoped for when the company entered China last year. The app has become yet another name in China’s long line of failed professional networking sites such as Wealink, DingTalk, Momo and Tianji.
Momo in particular experimented with novel ways to retain users, such as providing dedicated channels for coworkers to gossip or complain about their bosses. But judging by the company’s ongoing slide, it has never found what Chinese users want.
For most Chinese users, professional networking sites are only a tool for finding work or sourcing talent. But on these two points, most fall short of meeting their expectations. Swarms of advertisements and junky leads quickly overwhelm users’ accounts.
Sites like LinkedIn appear to be playing two different games, positioning themselves as both business and communication platforms. But no number of social networking features can hide the fact that most users visit LinkedIn to find jobs.
Reid Garret Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said in his book The Start-up of You that professional networking depends on weak relations.
But weak relations are not how Chinese business works.
Most professional networking sites follow the LinkedIn model, which uses an inherently Eurocentric approach to understanding users. For whatever reason, Western users seem to be more willing to share their experiences and moods without any utilitarian purpose.
In China, social networking is decidedly utilitarianism.
The recommendations of friends and opinions of one’s parents exert a heavy influence on one’s career development. What’s more, Chinese social communication heavily emphasizes drinking and eating in person.
In China, it’s face-to-face communication between acquaintances that lays the groundwork for business.
“Americans may seek out people who would be helpful on LinkedIn and talk about business directly. In China, it’s friends first, business second,” said Lin Feng, the founder of Tianji. “No matter how perfectly I imitated LinkedIn on Tianji, recruiters were the only people who were ever looking at profiles.”
Furthermore, Americans and Europeans tend to have a stronger work-life distinction. In China, these spheres blend until it’s hard to say whether a meal was a friendly meet-up or a business lunch. It¡¯s hard to convince users to split their lives across different platforms.
It’s unsurprising that many companies treat Weibo and WeChat, with their more than 550 million active users, as the primary tools for communication and discovery.
No Valuable Users
Whether in China or abroad, the most active users of professional networking sites are freelancers, start-ups, small businesses and recruiters. While there are many CEO accounts, few come from notable firms or offer anything in the way of valuable contacts.
Most traditional industries in China don’t explore new apps, and senior managers rarely have any technological competence. Many view the Internet with suspicion and avoid it like an unnecessary trouble or danger.
Ordinary workers, while more adept, have a limited need for networking relationships. In China, second-degree – or even third and fourth-degree contacts – offer very little aid in career development.
But senior managers and executives are the backbone of professional networking sites. Without them, directors, managers and workers and graduates have little incentive to sign up. The dearth of good users leaves many sites unable to generate useful content.
Chitu faces a difficult decision. If it appeals to the social networking habits of China’s young adults, it will never attract the high-level users it requires to avoid abandonment. Whether its team can learn from 10 years of failure to find a formula that works for China remains to be seen.