Why Path Is Gaining Traction in China




In an interview TechCrunch had with Path’s CEO and co-founder Dave Morin, Dave mentioned that China is the top 5 area for Path on subscribers. Yet he isn’t quite sure about why. His answer is ‘One of the biggest segments of our users is family, and that is a big part of China’s culture.’ This answer is logical, but to a Chinese immigrant that has worked in both places like me, it’s much deeper than that. Let me explain.

I have been using Path for some time. Mainly because that Path’s user interface is very well designed and have some unique patterns and I’m a user interface guy, I have a good appetite for great UI. Since Path is a social network app focusing on private, intimate experience, I started to build up my Path ‘Friend list’. Very quickly, I found that most of my friends that using Path are from China. Being an 1st generation immigrant in US, I still has some friends in China. Usually on new apps fronts, since I’m closer to the ‘creative engine’, I used to be the early adopter. But not this time, this time there is already a small community building up around Path. It intrigued me. What did Path did right to gain this kind of early traction in China?

1. Early Adopters, wall-climbing clan?

It is quite interesting, that many early adopters of Path use it for purely one reason: It allows them to bypass Chinese ‘Great Firewall’ and actually gain access to Facebook, Foursquare and other social networks. People in China might not as informed as the rest of the world due to censorship, but the urge to know more and have free access to information is all the same. There are a lot of people, especially those work in IT industry, that are tech savvy and have access to Internet from very young age. They have access to websites, services and apps normal Chinese don’t know or care, and they don’t want to lose those. Censorship was getting in their way to web service like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. So like all the courageous frontiers do, they start to figure out different ways to ‘climb the (fire)wall’. Path, happened to be one of the ways. Visiting Facebook or Twitter via web or iOS app is totally blocked, but Path, since it’s a niche product, wasn’t on the radar. People can still share their status, check-ins in Facebook or Foursquare via Path. This is not really the kind of story of glory on Path’s side, but being a niche player as it was then really gave them some advantage.

2. Growing subscriber base, rooting for the elites.

Path always has a focus on family and closed friends. Different from Facebook’s open and everybody style, Path is more about intimate and close relationship, about sharing moments with yourself and your close circles. Like I said earlier, it’s logical to say that because Chinese has a strong focus on family, Path will naturally rooting for them. In reality, Path actually roots for the young elites of the society. Yes, Chinese has a focus on family, but there is a very big generation gap between the young generations and the old, much bigger than in US. Chinese’s Internet development just caught up these decade or so, before that, a lot of people haven’t even used a computer. So the old generation don’t really get to learn how to use Internet, let along mobile apps. Even now most city families in China own 1 or more computers, the old generations still are not comfortable to use it. (But they are getting more used to use iPhone or Android phones now, cause it’s easier for them. More on this point later). The young generations, however, grew up with Internet. Even their family can’t afford a computer and Internet access, there are Internet Cafes everywhere.  They are the main Internet content consumers in China. They spend money on apps and buy virtual goods on ‘Kaixin Farm’ (Equivalent of Farmville in China). They are the ones to support the phenomenon financial success of some Chinese Internet companies. They usually are young professionals (a lot of them works in IT or design industry), live in big city, drive their own car, and enjoy modern life just like the rest of the world. They are kind of the ‘elite’ group in China, they want to be unique, to be different, and feel good about it. Being a niche product, having a unique UI, and only runs on iPhone (at that time a symbol of fashion and coolness in China) , Path is a perfect fit for them. I think they are now the biggest demographic of Path.

3. Crossing the chasm, leverage the coolness.

So what could be the best strategy for Path if they want to expand their niche presence in China and become the mainstream? I have a fairly simple answer: Go after the ‘coolness’ and grab the young generation. Social status and peer pressure is very important in China and coolness has a price. You’ll be surprised how much money people are willing to pay just to look cool. If all the cool kid is using Path in school, then the rest will follow. If some young celebrities are using Path, fans will use the app just to follow their idol. If the young professionals are all using Path to exchange ideas, sharing photos, then you’ll have to use it to get into their circle. Some PR campaigns would also help, like sponsoring the biggest match making show ‘You are the one‘ by live blogging via Path(again Path makes the show looking cool) etc.


Image: by Apple China

Don’t worry about the older generations though. If the sons and daughters are using it, the parents will use it eventually. Family is still the core value of Chinese society after all, and cool kids will still teach their parents how to use it. (An advantage for Path is, their user interface are quite simple and intuitive, which will make the learning curve for the parents less steeper. ) The old generations will be told: ‘Mom, Dad, you really have to learn how to use this app, or risking not seeing all the update photos we took of your grandson.’

Mon and Dad will learn, oh they sure will.