The online celebrities making a mint in China

‘Ordinary’ people with strong personalities and outspoken views are attracting huge followings online — and with it lucrative advertising deals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 2:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:44pm

Papi Sauce refers to a popular brand of chilli condiment in the United States, but in China it is the alias of a woman who has become one of the hottest celebrities among mainland internet users in recent months.

Her three-minute videos posted to her Sina microblog account of her playing different roles and commenting on the latest social topics in an exaggerated, sarcastic and often self-deprecating way, have helped her attract more than 10 million followers.

Jiang Yilei, her real name, lived a quiet life at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing a year ago, but now finds herself the mainland’s second best known web celebrity after Wang Sicong, the flamboyant son of China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin – according to the mainland’s IT industry flagship magazine Internet Weekly.

The arrival of social media in the mainland more than a decade ago and the increasing accessibility of the internet has allowed many ordinary young men and women to gain celebrity to massive audiences with their eye-catching opinions and comments.

Many are followed by millions of fans who are keen to catch whatever they do or say. Web celebrities often appear in newspapers or on television as conventional media has developed a fascination for them as well.

But compared to their counterparts years ago, the current crop of big name cyber celebrities are leveraging their fame to cash in, with the earnings on par with first-tier stars.

Zhuang Minghao, a veteran private equity investor who specialises in social media, said China’s share market players began paying special attention to the cultural industries last year – including entertainment – and he expects an investing spree in this sector in 2016.

“At least based on investment statistics, investors’ pursuit of this sector will last for some time,” he said, adding that top-ranking content providers should be among the shortlisted targets for investors.

Jiang is in such a position. After maintaining a steady following for months, she received 12 million yuan (HK$14.4 million) from domestic private equity firms last month.

They will hold an auction on April 21 for advertising slots inserted into her future videos.

Her business model is not new: many web celebrities not as popular as Jiang but who can still boast many followers display paid advertisements on their sites.

Another group of web celebrities have cashed in with online fashion merchandising.

Many are similar in appearance: pale skin, large eyes, tall and slim and with pointed chins like China’s top actress Fan Bingbing (范冰冰).

Having grabbed many fans on the internet by showing off their affluent lifestyle, it means they can easily direct their huge online orders to their stores.

According to a Guotai Junan Securities research report, online sales of clothes reached 615 billion yuan in 2014, with the bulk of them going to web celebrities’ shops. One such success case is a woman who uses the alias Xue Li and is rumoured to be the girlfriend of the junior Wang.

The former model made an estimated 150 million yuan profit last year from her store at e-commerce website, the securities firm said.

Joyce Ling, vice-president of strategy at digital consultancy Publicis.Sapient, said that anyone, with the help of social media, can express their opinions, and people were also eager to receive a variety of opinions outside the values that dominate traditional mainland media.

“So whoever is outspoken, can act without hiding their personality or presents views outside the mainstream is more likely to be the centre of attention on the internet,” Ling said.

But keeping the loyalty of fans is not easy. Some web celebrities interact frequently with fans, by chatting online or showing videos of their everyday life to impress on people that web celebrities are also ordinary humans, Ling said.

“This is a good way to maintain cohesion of fans,” she said.

Some other web celebrities try to target their output to smaller groups with more focused interests.

Cao Sanxing, deputy dean of the New Media Institute at the Communication University of China, said the career of a web celebrity can be short, just as it is for mainstream stars to remain in the public spotlight. “People who draw the most attention will win,” he said.

“The time for a piece of news circulating widely on the WeChat platform is statistically merely about 15 minutes.”

Papi Sauce investor Luo Zhenyu is definitely aware of this. “Will Papi Sauce be popular for another year? No one knows,” he said. “In this case, why not harvest her future now?”