How Zhihu has become one of China’s biggest hubs for experts

Zhihu may not be as well known outside of China as WeChat or ByteDance’s Douyin, but over the past eight years, it has cultivated a reputation for being one of the country’s most trustworthy social media platforms. Originally launched as a question-and-answer site similar to Quora, Zhihu has grown to be a central hub for professional knowledge, allowing users to interact with experts and companies in a wide range of industries.

Headquartered in Beijing, Zhihu recently raised a $434 million Series F, its biggest round since 2011. The funding also brought Zhihu two important new partners: video and live-streaming app Beijing Kuaishou, which led the round, and Baidu, owner of China’s largest search engine (other participants in the round included Tencent and CapitalToday).

Launched in 2011, Zhihu (the name means “do you know”) is most frequently compared to Quora and Yahoo Answers. While it resembled those Q&A platforms at first, it has grown in scope. Now it would be more accurate to say that the platform is like a combination of Quora, LinkedIn and Medium’s subscription program.

For example, Zhihu has an invitation-only blogging platform for verified experts and since launching official accounts, it has become a channel for companies and organizations to communicate with users. A representative for Zhihu told TechCrunch that the platform had 220 million users and 30,000 official accounts as of January 2019 (for context, there are currently about 800 million Internet users in China), who have posted a total of 130 million answers so far.

The company’s growth will be closely watched since Zhihu is reportedly preparing for an initial public offering. Last November, the company hired its first chief financial officer, Sun Wei, heightening speculation. A representative for the company told TechCrunch the position was created because of Zhihu’s business development needs and that there is currently no timeline for a public listing.

At the same time, the company has also dealt with reports that its growth has slowed.

Zhihu’s spokesperson says those reports were false, and that users and content have grown over the past year, especially after Zhihu launched a subscription tier in March. The company also says revenue in the first half of 2018 increased by 340% over the same period in 2017.

The platform was founded by its CEO Victor Zhou, a software engineer and former journalist at Chinese business publication CEOCIO, former investment manager Jixin Huang and software engineer Sean Li. Before launching Zhihu, Zhou co-founded, a now-defunct search engine that showed users search metrics like how websites were ranked by other major Chinese search engines.

Image via Getty Images / Dmitrii_Guzhanin

Zhihu was created to give professionals a trustworthy source of information. When the site launched, Zhou sent an internal memo to the staff that said “in the middle of an Internet that is like an ocean polluted with junk information, information that has real value is a scarce commodity. Zhihu provides a tool for producing, sharing and disseminating knowledge. We encourage every person to share what they know, collect that knowledge and make it available to everyone.”

Though many of the platform’s first users worked in tech, it has content about a wide range of industries, including business, entertainment, fashion and design. At its inception, joining Zhihu was by invite or referral only. Otherwise, would-be users needed to undergo a stringent application process that involved providing detailed answers to several questions. The platform opened to public sign-ups in March 2013, two years after it launched, and grew rapidly, from 400,000 users to 4 million in less than one year.

The company says it took a gradual approach to user growth on the principle that low-quality content would not translate into traffic or long-term user retention. It also crowdsourced user feedback to help write the platform’s policies and before implementing new features or updates. More recently, the company has started using AI-based technology to flag poor-quality content, encourage responses and get more views for posts.

In 2017, Zhihu launched it first paid products, including an online magazine, live-streaming video Q&A sessions with experts and panel discussions called “Zhihu Roundtables. Earlier this year it introduced its subscription tier, giving members access to exclusive content and features like more filters to customize their feeds, a member forum and a private dashboard that displays their activity on Zhihu.

Since the launch of official accounts in 2016, Zhihu has been used as a platform by Chinese and international companies including Tencent, Disney, Alipay, LinkedIn and Google. Users who work in a wide range of industry go to Zhihu for what would be considered very specific (and often lengthy) content that would get lost on other platforms like Weibo or WeChat. For example, in 2018, Nissan hosted a 10-hour long livestream during which an Infiniti car was dismantled to show users how it was built.

Part of its Series F investment includes working with Kuaishou and Baidu on content discovery and creating new ways of redistributing Q&A’s, articles and other content from Zhihu, with the objective of creating an ecosystem that extends beyond the platform. On Baidu, this includes “mini programs,” or lightweight apps that run within Baidu’s main app, with links to curated content related to users’ search queries.

One of Zhihu’s main challenges is competing with new platforms like Douyin (ByteDance’s version of TikTok for the domestic market and a Kuaishou competitor) that attract a younger userbase.

Zhihu’s spokesperson says that many of its users are in second- and third-tier cities, important growth markets for Chinese tech companies as more people in them go online, and that its user base is beginning to trend younger as twenty-somethings entering the workforce look for information related to their careers and look for an online community.

The company says its goal is to expand its reach to every person through partnerships with other tech companies like the ones it has with Kuaishou and Baidu that will keep its content from being siloed within Zhihu’s platform, while giving its top users a wider audience and more influence.