If you were in New York City’s Times Square on September 21 last year, there was a high chance that you would notice birthday messages for Karry Wang, the leader of idol group TFBoys from China, on 10 large screen advertisements purchased by his fans.

Just a month later, the Chinese fans placed large screen ads once again at the exact same spot in an effort to promote their idols, including another TFBoys member Roy Wang this time. This was part of the promotion campaign that China’s fan service website iFensi created.

Promotion ads of Karry Wang and Roy Wang in New York City's Times Square. Photo from iFensi.
Promotional ads of Karry Wang and Roy Wang in New York City’s Times Square. Photo from iFensi.

Behind these shimmering LED displays and extravagant splurging on idol promotions are the power of fans from China. With the rapidly growing fan base in China, the entertainment industry, especially those companies dedicated to fan service, is making a huge fortune through this phenomenon. And iFensi is one of them.

“iFensi is a new company. A new team with an old brand,” said Liu Chao, CEO of iFensi, in an interview with AllChinaTech at his office in Beijing.

Founded in 2005 in China, iFensi was known as a go-to place for fan services and was later acquired by a Korean entertainment company. However, by the end of 2013, the business failed with only three employees left in the company. In October 2014, Liu Chao decided to purchase the brand back to China with the help of some early investors. He assembled a new team and the business started to take off.

The 32-year-old Liu Chao
The 32-year-old Liu Chao, iFensi’s CEO, said that the company is seeing a massive growth this year. Photo by Timmy Shen/AllChinaTech.

In March 2016, iFensi closed its Series A financing round with RMB 50 million (USD 7.3 million). Later in April 2017, the entertainment company landed RMB 150 million (USD 22 million) for its Series B financing round and it is now valued at an estimated RMB 1 billion (USD 147 million). This not only shows success of Liu’s business strategies, but it also indicates that the fandom market in China has grown bigger than ever.

China’s booming fandom power

“I believe the fandom market in China is ‘upgrading’ year by year,” said Liu with a smile.

“Bids for just a seat in our live streaming video studio can go up to tens of thousands of yuan,” said Liu, pointing to the studio just outside his office. The studio hosts various kinds of video streaming shows produced by iFensi, where idols appear and play games with the hosts and fans both in the studio and online.

iFensi often broadcasts live online from the studio. Photo by Timmy Shen/AllChinaTech.
iFensi often holds live online broadcasts in this studio. Photo by Timmy Shen/AllChinaTech.

Liu said that the flourishing fan economy scene in China is the major driving force for the company. Thanks to the Internet, fans have more channels and options to follow their idols and support them. According to an iFensi report in 2016, the fan base in China has increased to 470 million people in 2016 with a steady growth of 40 million people year-on-year.

Also, online video streaming sites and live streaming platforms have led to the rise in a group of celebrities that may not have so much fame and exposure on mainstream media, but are wildly popular in niche markets. For instance, actor Xu Weizhou who became popular after playing a gay character in a web television series along with Jiang Zile who also acted in another web series, are both quite popular on iFensi’s platform, according to Liu.

“Often times, this kind of idols would have some pretty crazy fans,” said Liu. “It’s quite normal for these fans to buy over a hundred of membership accounts just to vote for their idols to ascend on our ranking list.”

Liu stressed that this is a trend in China that iFensi has spotted and is focused on expanding this business.

The fandom business model

Just like other Internet companies, iFensi resorts to advertisements, e-commerce, and virtual value added services to monetize its services.

iFensi sets up a membership package that allows fans to buy virtual gifts to support their idols during an online live streaming show. The fans who purchase the membership package can also receive a “heart” each day which is used to vote for their idols to ascend on iFensi’s ranking list.

Liu stressed that the power of fan clubs in China are getting bigger than ever. Fan clubs are serious businesses and are professionally organized with lots of volunteer managers. Just on iFensi, there are 14,200 fan clubs in which money spent on supporting their idols has surpassed millions of US dollars annually.

“The fan clubs are a lot more organized and disciplined than before,” said Liu. “Their plans to leverage their resources have become more strategic, and they also have more and more money to put to use as well,” said Liu.

This is why Liu came up with this idea to help those fan clubs manage their wealth. Last month, iFensi launched a “fandom bank” financial service for fan clubs with a third party financial partner.

In the past, it is often the leaders or board committees of the fan clubs who have the power to control the money. “This is not entirely safe. What if the manager takes the money and run?“ said Liu.

“Fan clubs can save money here [with us],” said Liu. “Other than providing the wealth management service with interests, we can also give you discounts if you ever want to throw some celebrations or to put up ads to promote your idols.”

Launching the financial product just last month, iFensi has had about 40 fan clubs sign up for the “fandom bank” service and hopes to engage over 1,000 fan clubs by the end of the year.
It is a bold strategic move for iFensi to step forward with its financial management product, but Liu believes that this is the next trend in the fan economy and the company is definitely not going to miss it.

“Before our Series B financing round, we focused more on how to get users to engage with us and spend more time here,” said Liu. “But now after the B round, we have to think more about getting fans to put their money here.”

Perhaps in the near future, putting up promotion advertisements in Times Square for idols like Karry or Roy will not cost a fortune for the fan clubs as it does now, thanks to the power of fans.

(Top photo from Baidu images)

Read also: Fans bring China’s fandom power up another notch

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Timmy Shen
Timmy is a writer at AllChinaTech. He's passionate about photography, education, food and all things tech. He holds a master's degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Write to him: timmy[at]allchinatech.com