Why Zhihu is not the Chinese copycat of Quora

Liu Rui

Internet products seem to be easily copied, or at least taken across borders, especially in the case of China. Due to the GFW and the fact that most Chinese can’t get access to mainstream foreign social networks, China’s own social networks are booming. We can see a Chinese version of Google, Baidu; there is Sina Weibo, like Twitter in China; Renren or Xiaonei – which is not used anymore – could be considered as the Chinese Facebook.

Zhihu, which means “Do you know” in Chinese, was launched in January 2011, just one year after Quora. Many considered Zhihu to be another copycat of Quora. At its early stages, the app was indeed a shadow of Quora. But now its functions and its impact on Chinese users extend far beyond those of Quora.

To me, Quora is a platform where people raise and answer questions. Zhihu is more like a community with the function of social media. I have been a frequent user of Zhihu since 2013, a time when when Internet and smart mobile phones grew tremendously in China. I used to search Quora several years ago to find the answers that I want. But now Zhihu, just like WeChat, aka China’s Whatsapp, is already part of my life.

I search for information and browse Zhihu during my daily commute, and I’ve found new friends via the app. People have even made money through it. Zhihu is a product where not only can you get the information you want, but also a place which can satisfy your desire to connect with others.

Its user base is made up of well educated Chinese, mostly aged between 20-40. Additionally, Zhihu has taken full advantage of its scope as a knowledge platform to penetrate every profitable area, like selling books to its users. Zhihu can be used to both make money and make friends.

The most unique feature of Zhihu that attracts me most, lacked by Quora, is called “Zhihu Live”. The business model of “Zhihu Live” is about knowledge sharing. The users of “Zhihu” are simultaneously the consumers and creators of content. “Zhihu Live” is an interactive product where everyone can share the knowledge of their particular area of expertise and make money. Those participating in the audience only need to pay a small sum of money, and 1-2 hours to gain the knowledge in a specified area. How cheap and how quick you can get your question answered accelerates the spread of information, making learning more efficient.

Screenshots from Zhihu Live
Screenshots from Zhihu Live

Let me give you an example. Topics on Zhihu are diverse, ranging from English learning to healthcare, from psychology to storytelling, from finance to reading, etc. I enrolled to attend a famous lecturer’s two live sessions regarding “Reading”. The enrolment fee was only 0.99 RMB (USD 0.14), but a total of 121,230 people attended, so the total revenue was around 120,000 RMB (USD 17,331). This is called the “Fensi Jingji” or the “economy build upon fans”. As long as you have fans, you make money. Zhihu Live and Zhihu are platforms which create and stimulate this phenomenon. Another product is the “Zhi-Hu”, monetized on users paying for answers.

Another feature that is worth highlighting is the Zhihu Bookstore. Although I like reading “real” paper books, most of the mobile generation like to read on mobile devices, especially during a commute. Zhihu bookstore understand their users, and cater very specifically towards this demographic. Zhihu collects their users’ demographic information and behaviour; it then it uses the data to recommend the best books to individuals.

As mentioned earlier, Zhihu users create knowledge, and Zhihu collect and collate it, presenting it to users in a variety of ways. The Zhihu weekly and monthly columns are a collection and summary of all the information.

The original idea behind Zhihu is from Quora, but could you still say that it is just a Chinese carbon copy of Quora? Definitely not.

(Top image from Wikimedia Commons)

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