SMART INTERVIEW – Sarah Zhang, House Films

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We are proud to bring you the first of our SMART Interviews with Sarah Zhang – 张晓文, producer/director/host extraordinary with House Films in Shanghai.  Over more than a decade, Sarah has hosted and produced sixteen popular online shows focussed on China’s internationally-minded consumers.

Currently Sarah hosts Dining with David and Sarah (with chef David Laris), Fast & Tasty and the Connoisseur Wine Show.  Before her current focus on wine and dining, Sarah broke new ground with shows such as Sarah’s English Challenges and the Quest series, which introduced English learning to Chinese netizens in a fresh and practical way.

Due to the popularity of her shows, Sarah is now recognised as a high-profile lifestyle/food/wine opinion leader in China – clocking up no fewer than a million reads on her Weibo account monthly.   In recognition of her influence, Weibo classifies her as an “entertainment star” – that is some achievement for someone just broadcasting online.

Noting her important pioneering role in developing online content in China, we spoke to Sarah about her views on China’s digital development and where she sees things going in the future.

Interesting questions, but even better answers. Read on.

If China Digital was a movie or TV show, how would you describe the ‘role’ you play?

If we see the China digital media landscape like Game of Thrones, we have some players with castles and powerful well-resourced armies – like the big advertising agencies and media players – we also see players like “Khaleesi” who have no castle nor well paid armies.

Due to this, she needs to build her power from the people by understanding their needs and wants.  So in this world, I’d be like Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons, and my web shows are like my dragons.

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Sarah and her web shows (dragons)

The contribution that I bring is that: the digital/social media advertising space is at its heart: “media”, all media is based on compelling content therefore strong compelling content like a web show needs to be at the core of any brand’s digital/social media initiative.

People relate to other people, not to brands/products. We believe that by using consistently compelling video content as the core of a brand’s digital/social strategy, the brand will be able to build/aggregate an audience of people who feel passionately about their products or services.

In the last year, what are some of the key things you feel are changing the relationship locals have with digital/social media?

Well for me, there are key changes in terms of the phone app, WeChat.  The advent of the WeChat stores is a game changer in terms of how locals are interacting with their phones.

While Chinese consumers will continue to engage enthusiastically with e-commerce,  some level of fatigue will start to set in.  We are starting to see this already, as locals are being bombarded by the sheer number of subscription accounts on their WeChat interface, in many cases, simply ignoring new messages.

Looking specifically at online video, we are noticing increasing efforts to monetarize the medium, including introducing ‘buy while you watch’ functionality.  Also I am noticing an increase in ‘personal media’ (自媒体)- that is, individuals who are launching their own content, independent of organizations and brands.

What do you feel are the key differences between Chinese social media users and users in other countries? Why?

In China, social media has almost replaced traditional media.

Comparing to other countries, China has by far, the largest number (also the largest ratio) of people viewing video content online/mobile (as opposed to TV) of any country in the world - the way these viewers find these shows is through social media. Only the old and poor watch traditional TV and read traditional print media, meaning in societal terms it literally ‘falling off a cliff’.

As a consequence of the “one child policy” for 20 years, young Chinese don’t have brothers, sisters to engage with, therefore social media plays a much more important role in their lives and socialization, they use it as a way to connect with friends and discover the world.

Why do you think that Chinese citizens have such an intimate relationship with social media content?

They’re mobile. China never developed a ‘sit-at-home in front of the TV’ style of entertainment. With mobile digital/social media, they can be connected to their community as well as access the content they want, wherever they are.

They use social media to get news about society, entertainment; also information, tips, advice which is useful in their daily life. They also treat social media as a place for them to learn.  Of course, they like to watch video content on social media too.

Another reason is that they like to share their experience with their friends and peers.

Besides, on social media, they can follow their favourite celebrities, business leaders to know their updates and gain inspiration.

Where do you see China digital/social going in the future?  What are you excited about?  What are you concerned about?

Video content will become more and more important on social media, since it’s visual and powerful for storytelling.

Along with video content, we’ll be seeing more video-driven e-Commerce as brands are trying to catch the trend.

I’m excited about this as we (our business) are getting into e-Commerce, I believe great video content is the best way to build desire for brands/products among consumers.

Mobile content will be increasingly popular as people are becoming ‘glued to their cell phone’ – especially the younger generations.

My concern is that along with the the rise of social media, comes with an explosion of information, it’s getting harder and harder to attract people’s attention. This requires individuals/brands to be more creative so they stand out among the clutter.

I think that digital content, like I produce (both educational and entertaining) will become increasingly important for brands who want to attract targeted consumers. New tech like VR will also enhance story telling in the digital mobile space.

I’m afraid that the big players in the advertising space will continue to flood the digital environment with annoying push advertising and pollute the experience for digital consumers – making the space less rewarding for consumers and brands than it should be.

As a producer and host of social media content – what have been a couple of highlights in terms of how you have connected with your digital audience?  How did you create this effect?

There are so many.  Some of my fans have told that they chose their career because of watching my shows (the Connoisseur wine show, Dining with David and Sarah, for example), several have told me that my shows make them feel that life is beautiful. I’ve heard from a young person working in the wine industry that my wine show Connoisseur helped him get through his first year studying enology in France.

Often my fans say that they watch my shows to relax and that they wish they were there sharing the food and wine and conversation. Many of my fans cook the dishes shown, on our cooking show, buy the wines or even go to the restaurant locations where we shot our wine shows and order the exact food and wine featured on our Connoisseur show.

The feedback that I’ve received from fans of our shows is profoundly powerful which is why I know we’re on the right track.

The base of all media is communication and human connection. We use video as a way to bring fans into the enjoyable world of food, wine and lifestyle.

We create our shows in an entertaining and fun style, an atmosphere of relaxed yet stimulating conversation, so the audience gets the feeling that they’re ‘hanging out’ with interesting friends. We construct a pleasurable world that my fans want to re-visit, this builds a sense of personal connection as well as interest in the products featured.

Thanks Sarah, and all the best for the future, the SMART team will be watching for sure!

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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