Xiaohongshu 小红书, a Chinese lifestyle platform, has emerged as an indispensable marketing tool for brands worldwide, enabling them to connect not only with the Chinese market but also with the global Chinese diaspora.

Often dubbed ‘China’s answer to Instagram,’ as Instagram and many Western social media platforms remain blocked by China’s Great Wall, Xiaohongshu offers a unique gateway. Its layout may remind some of Instagram but Xiaohongshu marketing isn’t just about beautiful pictures and tags; it’s a realm where text wields immense power.

Stephanie Cheung, director of Vermilion Asia who has been running Xiaohongshu accounts for brands for six years, emphasizes this distinction: “Xiaohongshu is different from Instagram. Text content here should do more than capture attention; it should offer insights and inspire longing.”

Replacing traditional search engines

Xiaohongshu, also known as RED or Little Red Book, was founded by Miranda Qu and Charlwin Mao in Shanghai in 2013. Initially envisioned as an online international tour guide for Chinese shoppers, it started as a platform for users to review products and share their shopping experiences within the community.

Content has since expanded beyond shopping but this unique blend of user-generated content (UGC) has fostered a strong sense of community, where users actively discover and share new brands, products, ideas, and lifestyles. Additionally, Xiaohongshu integrates an in-app shopping interface, allowing users to seamlessly explore, search, and purchase products.

For many users in China, Xiaohongshu has effectively supplanted traditional search engines, as Google remains inaccessible due to China’s internet restrictions, while Baidu, often considered China’s counterpart to Google, faces challenges related to ad fraud.

One active user states, “Whenever I have questions or seek information, I turn to Xiaohongshu. It’s an expansive treasure trove of knowledge, offering comprehensive answers to my inquiries.”

A decade since its inception, this UGC platform has emerged as one of China’s fastest-growing startups, boasting approximately 260 million monthly active users. The majority of its users are reportedly females born after 1990 and residing in urban China. Some of them have transformed into influential Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs), actively collaborating with brands and monetizing their content.

Expanding beyond China

Xiaohongshu’s user base has transcended urban China’s boundaries, with millions of users now in regions boasting robust Chinese diaspora communities, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States. This includes Chinese overseas students, numbering in the thousands every year, with the peak reaching 710,000 in 2019 before the onset of Covid.

Kelvin Gan, an executive at 6sense Marketing Agency, illustrated the trend during an interview with the Chinese business outlet 36Kr Global: “Nowadays, many young Chinese in Malaysia, especially Chinese speakers like myself, turn to Xiaohongshu for life-related information. It has become their primary source, replacing platforms like Facebook and YouTube, particularly since 2021 during the pandemic.”

Imraan Ahmed, owner of the UK-based fashion store Autograph, has also recognized Xiaohongshu’s role in attracting Chinese customers to his business: “We have been with Xiaohongshu for a while [and we] have a member of staff that is constantly posting products. It helps really bring the customer to the shop from all over the UK.”

Ahmed emphasizes that Chinese overseas students are among their most significant customers, and during the holiday when the students go back to China, his business saw a roughly 40% decrease.

Notably, numerous major international brands have established official accounts on Xiaohongshu, including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Gucci, Prada, Celine, and Balenciaga.

Xiaohongshu marketing 101

What sets Xiaohongshu marketing apart from other social media platforms is its focus on delivering useful, informative, detailed, and authentic content.

The company has established a system to combat fraudulent content. In December 2021, Xiaohongshu formed a dedicated team equipped with advanced algorithms to detect and remove false content. In 2022, it took legal action against four companies engaged in fraudulent practices, such as creating fake reviews and click farming.

“Posts should refrain from using strong claims about a product, as overly commercial posts are downgraded by the platform,” shares Cheung. Having returned from mainland China to Hong Kong in 2021, Cheung has actively encouraged her clients to embrace Xiaohongshu. She’s observed a recent surge in the platform’s popularity in the region, driven in part by the full reopening of the border between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland in February post-Covid.

The underlying logic is straightforward: consumers place immense trust in personal endorsements. Consequently, rather than relying on paid advertising, many brands and agencies turn to KOL and KOC marketing, alongside live-streaming, as their most effective strategies.

Cheung emphasizes that brands can leverage rising KOCs, who may have around 5,000 followers on the platform. A relatively small number of followers can be powerful for all brands, she notes, and the focus should be on consistently delivering high-quality posts, rather than costly collaborations with one prominent KOL.

As Cheung aptly notes, “The number of followers an account has doesn’t necessarily determine whether its posts will go viral. As long as the content is useful and of high quality, there’s a chance.”

These strategies and marketing approaches extend far beyond companies seeking growth solely within China. From restaurants and grocery stores to health facilities, vendors worldwide are tapping into the benefits of marketing on Xiaohongshu.

Growing pains

Despite Xiaohongshu’s efforts to expand its global reach, it appears to be primarily confined to the Chinese diaspora community. Over the past few years, the company has attempted but failed to launch international variations. For instance, it introduced Uniik for Japan and Catalog for the US, both of which ceased operations within two years.

ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, also entered the arena as a potential competitor by launching an international app called Lemon8 (formerly Sharee). Lemon8, colloquially known as the “Little Yellow Book” due to its interface resembling Xiaohongshu. Unlike Xiaohongshu, however, Lemon8 caters to local users in various countries, including Japan and the US. Although Lemon8 made a significant splash upon its 2020 launch, it has struggled to sustain its initial hype.

Additionally, Xiaohongshu encountered challenges while venturing into e-commerce. The company recently announced its decision to shut down its outdoor e-commerce platform, Little Oasis 小绿洲, in October, despite launching it just over a year ago.

Yaling Jiang, a business reporter, commented on these challenges in her newsletter, “The platform has grappled with business challenges. Its decision to shelve a US IPO in mid-2021 only intensified concerns about its ability to generate revenue.”

Although Xiaohongshu maintains an in-app e-commerce function, as Jiang noted, users often find inspiration on the platform but make purchases on other apps, such as Taobao.

In August, the company unveiled a new e-commerce strategy that integrates a commission-based buyer model. However, whether this new approach can steer Xiaohongshu out of its current challenges remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, the consensus among those we interviewed is clear: they encourage all brands to consider using Xiaohongshu for marketing. "If you want the Chinese market then yes, [marketing on Xiaohongshu is a must], and everyone wants that market," affirms Ahmed.