The Fight Against Advertising: a Proposal to Build a Professional Online Platform for Chinese Communities in the U.S.
With the benefits of modern technology and globalization, more and more scholars and professionals from different backgrounds choose to come to the land of free to keep pursuing their dreams. Throughout the past five years, a large percentage of Chinese parents choose to send their children abroad to pursue a degree or a career, mainly in the U.S., and the number is still growing. In China, this social tendency has been referred as “the second big wave of studying abroad”.
With this tendency, the market and the need for private education institutions and agencies are also rapidly growing, since applying to a college is a complicated process, especially with the language barrier. It can be costly to choose a good agency to help with the application process. However, not all the agencies appear to be professional or even legitimate. Many people are tricked into false advertising and end up with a degree from a fake institution. The small agencies tend to build their own websites and provide free online consulting to attract potential clients (both parents and students), and they would try to sign contracts with them. These small sites all often poorly maintained and most questions posted remain untouched. When people choose to post questions on the major websites, they often find themselves overwhelmed by ads and promotional contents. Even a lot of answers they received are just to promote the agencies in a different approach.
Considering the conditions above, I want to propose a plan to build a clean and functioning online community (a question-and-answer website) for Chinese people who want to pursue a degree or a career in America and those who are currently pursuing them to share their experiences and suggestions.
In the following paragraphs, I will introduce the features of the website and explain how these designs can help recruit and retain newcomers to become a successful community. I will also engage the arguments made by Kraut and Resnick, the authors of Building Successful Online Communities (2011), to help explain the designs.
The website will be named as LiuMei (stay in America) and will resemble to Quora in a general sense, as Quora itself is a question-and-answer website without advertising. However, LiuMei will be focusing on a much narrower and professional scope of topics without getting involved with commercial interests, therefore it will likely be more challenging to retain the newcomers in this specific setting. In my proposal, I want to engage the members and keep them in the long run by introducing new designs in addition of the traditional question-and-answer website features.
The Design of LiuMei
To sign up for LiuMei (no charge), new members will only need to submit their email addresses. When the new members sign in, they will have the opportunity to provide personal information such as occupations and to choose a profile picture (no real photo required) on their profile pages. In the main space, only the names of the members will be shown in the posts and the interactions.
To make this community successful, LiuMei will start with attracting new members who already have degrees and occupations in the U.S., as they are usually the people who are most experienced and qualified to provide accurate information and authentic suggestions. Therefore this group of people will become the foundation of the community once they get involved. It is essential for this website to recruit and keep these people since the function of this community fundamentally provides less benefit to them, compares to those who are more “ignorant” (e.g. people who are still preparing language exams in China). For the next step, same invitations will be sent through the main Chinese social app WeChat to recruit “newbies”. I would assume this process is relatively easier since the function of the community is most beneficial to these “newbies”.
To recruit the knowledgeable new members, invitation messages will be sent out mainly through LinkedIn and Facebook. In these invitations, the main function and goal of the community will be clearly stated: LiuMei aims to create an organized online environment for Chinese scholars and professionals in the United States to share information/experiences without being bothered by ads and promotions. Members in the community can easily share posts they consider valuable through email, Facebook, and similar links to their friends, which according to Kraut and Resnick, will attract more attention from other people. Kraut and Resnick also argued that by allowing members to invite people outside of the community will encourage early participants to attract newcomers.
When newcomers sign in for the first time, they will need to sign membership agreements stating that all forms of advertising and offensive languages are prohibited inside the community. Furthermore, on the contrary of saying “RTFM” like many online communities, this community will focus on reinforcing the idea of “there are no stupid questions” to all its newcomers. This idea aims to encourage the new members to “speak up” and then potentially start a discussion that can attract more attention. Furthermore, it serves to create a friendly and supporting environment for those who generally feel less knowledgeable.
Unlike most question-and-answer websites, LiuMei will have a reward system to engage newcomers and encourage their contributions. Members can receive nicely designed digital badges and medals, which will appear on their profile pages, after they complete certain tasks (i.e. signed in twenty days in a row; collected a hundred thanks; invited twenty friends). When members have enough awards, they are able to unlock titles such as “Star Performer”, which will be tagged with their usernames in the posts. Furthermore, every week the list of top 30 contributors in the community will be posted with awards given. The main goal of these designs is to keep valuable members with most information engaged in the community by rewarding their contributions. The rewards and titles can also serve to help knowledgeable members distinguish themselves from other members, therefore they are more likely to take bigger responsibilities and contribute more, according to Kraut and Resnick.
In addition to the reward system, all members will also receive a digital plant pot on the right side of their profile page. Each contribution the members make can help “grow the plant” and eventually the most active members of the community will grow the biggest “apple tree” and are able to “show it off” in their profiles. I hope this design is able to provide a game-like experience to newcomers and to keep them engaged in the community.
In LiuMei, before people choose to post their questions, they will receive a pop up list of related questions and posts. If their questions remain unanswered, he/she can then confirm to post the question to the public domain. Private interactions between members are also encouraged. In the posts, there will be a button to start a private chat with other members. I will also suggest introducing a mentor program within the community, in which newcomers can choose knowledgeable members as their mentors and therefore they can be better supported and even build personal bonds with their mentors. According to Kraut and Resnick, when newcomers are provided with mentorship, they will become more committed to the community. This mentor feature can be further developed into a “family tree” of mentors and mentees, which will also appear on the profile pages. The main goals for this mentor program are to increase personal bonds between members and also to create a sense of belonging for newcomers.
In terms of funding, since there is not charge to become a member in LiuMei. The website will also highlight a donation feature similar to the one in Wikipedia. Furthermore, members are encouraged to send a link of the donation to their friends and family. I would assume that parents would be more generous to support the idea of LiuMei, since it serves to help their children. In fact, parents are also welcomed and encouraged to join the community.
Though many features I suggested above can be costly for a non-profit website and have potentials to backfire (i.e. the reward system). I believe that a large amount of Chinese communities in the U.S. will welcome a professional platform to share information and experiences in different fields, and I believe newcomers (especially parents) are willing to donate a few bucks to support a good cause.