SHANGHAI — Anny Fan wants to be the first homegrown Chinese influencer to make it in the U.S.
Fan currently has 4 million followers on Weibo as well as more than 300,000 followers on WeChat, and has long-term partnerships with international fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel, Fendi, Tod’s, Bottega Veneta, Prada and Miu Miu in her home country of China. She has now signed a deal with Society Management, a talent management company specializing in fashion, beauty, pop culture and digital media, which represents the likes of Adriana Lima, Liu Wen and Kendall Jenner.
The new signing with Society Management, and her plans to expand her sphere of influence to the U.S. market, is not only a milestone in her own career but also a big step for Chinese-born influencers, who have typically found it harder to forge an international following.
China’s marketplace is highly segmented, with geographic regions varying widely in everything from average population age to climate to disposable income levels. It is a country bubbling with excitement, where the “China Dream” is quite possibly even more intoxicating than the “American Dream.” Fan’s personal brand plays into this. She trades in aspirational posts: a big city girl done good.
“I am not media. I’m a blogger. So first, the very important thing about delivered messages from me is to be very authentic and be who I am. So I just share the things I really use and are my true life,” she told WWD. “Tier one, or the different tier cities, these consumers are temporarily in this tier. Because, as far as I know, a lot of my followers from maybe tier-two cities or tier three, they actually love to read more content about fashion. They are more interested in that than maybe people from a tier-one city.”
The blogger’s foray into the U.S. was serendipitous. After expressing a wish to spend more time in New York, a friend set her up for a coffee meeting with Society Management. Fan was not familiar with the agency, but after sending a message to Chinese model Wen to confirm that the company was legitimate, she was happy to sign on the dotted line.
Fan believes the U.S. is the most digitally advanced country for online influencers. This might be surprising for some, considering China’s considerable clout in the arena of e-commerce, mobile payment systems, social media platforms and new retailing models. But Fan doesn’t believe the two can be conflated.
“For e-commerce, yes. China is more advanced. But I think for digital content, the U.S., they have more creativity,” she said. “Originally, a lot of functions on Weibo and WeChat, they learned from Instagram or Twitter. I think they modified it quite well, but it is not the original.”
One obvious issue for Chinese influencers — or KOLs, key opinion leaders as they are referred to in China — when trying to appeal to an international following is the language barrier, which is why even the biggest mainland Chinese KOLs struggle to gain traction abroad, outside of non-Mandarin speaking communities. Nevertheless, Fan believes that because her followers are trending away from reading long-form articles, and instead are preferring images and videos, it will be easy for her to produce a short caption in English. “My followers, most of them are using Mandarin, but a lot of foreign bloggers, their main job is not about writing. So language cannot be the boundary. They are doing videos or pictures. Even if other followers don’t understand what they are speaking, they can use an English caption,” she said.
Fan’s Chinese ethnicity, and the unfamiliarity of China in the West, is a unique selling point that she is planning to leverage abroad. She is hoping to show her foreign followers a little slice of a Chinese girl’s life. “I think U.S. followers are quite interested in native Chinese, because a lot of the bloggers with an Asian face were born in the U.S. or Canada. So even though they have an Asian look, they are very Western. But for me, I am a typical Chinese girl who has an international vision,” Fan said.
“I need to show them my real life, and what young Chinese girls’ lives are like right now, because it might not be the same as they used to think,” she added. “They might be surprised that Chinese girls are so international right now.”
She is uncertain about whether she is a pioneer for Chinese influencers trying to make it internationally, and if the floodgates will now open for more homegrown Chinese KOLs to venture overseas.
“I’m not sure about that, I don’t think they are. Because you need to give up a lot of things in China to explore a new market, and I’m not sure what other people think. For me, I just want to learn more. Because I might spend more time in New York, so that means I cannot attend a lot of events locally,” Fan said. “My work is mostly based on me and my style, so if I leave China, that means I lose a lot of jobs here.”
The Shanghai native started her Weibo blog in 2010, sharing Western fashion information at a time when many of her counterparts were focused on Japanese and South Korean style. At 5 feet, 8 inches, the long-limbed influencer’s body shape is more akin to that of a Western model than to the average Asian body-type, which is why she first became interested in fashion houses and models from the U.S. and Europe. “For a lot of Chinese girls, their size is small, so they are more suited to wearing the Korean or Japanese style. For me, I am model size, and I loved following the news about the top models in the industry,” Fan said.
In 2014, with the rise in popularity of WeChat, Fan opened an official account on the Chinese social media platform, where long-form articles were most popular at that time. The following year, Fan’s Weibo had reached 600,000 followers and after initially quitting her role as a public relations officer in a bank to move with her family to Australia, she had a change of heart. Brands started approaching her with offers to collaborate on different projects and she saw it as an opportunity to create a career from her online presence, rather than just a hobby. She now has 15 people on her team based out of Shanghai. “It’s more like being an entrepreneur, it’s creating your own corporation,” Fan said.
From 2015 onward, Fan began to streamline her online activities as she became a full-time blogger. She started taking more street-shots and worked to develop and refine her online image. She also stopped writing as many long-form articles, preferring instead to post images and videos, following the social media trend in China.
Asked about how she tailors her content to different platforms, Fan thought for a while. “I think it depends on the reader’s habit. Because the habit of readers in China at the beginning of social media time, they liked reading very short text. Then, from 2013 or 2014, they started reading long articles. Now I think they are tired of it. They love pictures and videos. I think this is more of a Chinese thing. I have never heard of any of my Western friends reading long articles on social media. They read on newspapers or web sites. For long articles, I prefer to use WeChat,” she said.
Ultimately, the move to the U.S. market is a trial run for Fan, and she will be splitting her time between New York and Shanghai. If it is successful, she also has her sights set on Europe. “I heard there are a lot of brands’ digital teams that have moved to London, so I think London would be the second,” Fan said.
“It will be like an adventure. It will be very interesting to create more content about my real life. I think, in Shanghai, everyday has been very routine, and for my real life, I don’t have much to share with my followers. I love to try new things, and things other people haven’t done yet. Yeah, I’m not sure if it will be successful, but I really want to make the move,” she said.