MECO 6936 Social Media Communication
Name: Junyi ZHANG
Class session: Kai Soh Thursday 6-9 pm
How cultural intermediaries bridge the gap between brand and audiences: using the case of a Chinese shopping app RED
The term “cultural intermediaries” was firstly introduced by Bourdieu (1984) in his book Distinction: A social critique of taste, which refer to a new middle class “new petite bourgeoisie” who transfer cultural capital into economic capital. For Bourdieu, cultural intermediaries are typified by the agents in sales, marketing, advertising, public relations and so forth. Based on Bourdieu’s theory, Negus (2002) suggests that the role of cultural intermediaries in the creative industries, explaining how record companies and their artist and repertoire (A&R) agents located between pop music artists and mass audiences. Same as A&R agents connecting consumption and production in creative industry, Hutchinson (2017) argues that social media influencers are doing the similar thing in the online environment. The co-creative, decentralized social media contents production environment is conductive to the emergence of digital influencers, who can both engage a large group of individuals and align with brands well.
Who are the cultural intermediaries?
According to previous research, cultural intermediaries are those who have tacit expertise within specific cultural fields, and have the ability to influence other’s orientations towards goods or services. They also understand surrounding stakeholders’ interests clearly, translate one source of capital from one stakeholder group to another, and finally facilitate cultural production. According to Maguire and Matthews (2012), cultural intermediaries’ personal and professional habits, such as their occupations and their class, enabling their expert roles in value production processes. Hutchinson (2017) raises four typical types of cultural intermediaries within the new media ecology: social media producers, community managers, change agents, and micro influencers. Social media producers are those who produce contents for brands, such as Kendall Jenner post selfie with Daniel Wellington watch on Instagram and have got 3,956,442 likes (as shown in Figure 1). Micro-influencers are the micro-celebrities who frame audiences’ attitude of goods or services through social media, such as Instagram (Abidin, 2015). Social media producers and micro-influencers both have great understanding of customers’ norms and cultural taste. They can capture “cool” goods and provoke customers’ interests through social media, and then let customers share through their fan networks, and finally reach the exponentially influence by word-of-mouth marketing. Change agents are the “opinion leaders” who can guide public opinion towards the right direction. For example, Matt Damon used toilet water for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Ice Bucket Challenge to highlight the scarcity of water and the benefit of Ice Bucket Challenge. He played the “change agent” role to realign the direction of the campaign when it had been criticized. Community managers can spread messages across multiple platforms through some community-management techniques. They have the ability to develop new governance models for online communities. Hutchinson (2017) highlighted that all these roles are should positions co-creative audiences alongside existing institutional models.
Case study: RED (xiaohongshu) app
RED (xiaohongshu) is a social e-commerce app that provide a platform for Chinese users buying oversea products, and sharing shopping tips (as shown in Figure 2). Targeted to 18 to 35-year-old Chinese women, RED helps users buy luxury goods from oversea, such as cosmetics from Asia, nutrition from Australia, fashion products from European. Differentiated from other cross-border e-commerce app, RED have very high engagement rate. Until 2016, there are more than 200,000 bloggers posting their findings on RED for other users to peruse (Rowan, 2016). According to Analysys data (2018), the Monthly Active Users (MAU) of RED has reached 15,394,700 in 2017. There are several celebrities share their cosmetics recommendation in RED as well, such as Chinese famous actress Fan bingbing, pop star Angela Chang (as shown in Figure 3). These celebrities have considerable influence in sales when they promote a product (Popescu, 2014). Several products recommended by Fan bingbing even out of stock for a long while. Because of the increasing number of celebrities entering this platform, RED even opened a “celebrities” category for users to find these celebrities’ recommendations easily. As the CEO Mao said in 2016 (Rowan, 2016), RED is an incubator for word-of-mouth marketing, with vocal opinion leaders who share their experiences with foreign merchandise and experiences, and help savvy shoppers to get the best products from overseas.
How cultural intermediaries bridging the gap between RED and users?
Hutchinson (2017) outlined three model of cultural intermediation that align with social media governance: single point of contact, multiple cultural intermediaries, community editors (as shown in Figure 4). I will illustrate these three model with the case of RED.
Single point of contact: This model is the most centralized model of social media governance which simply keep the connection between co-creative contents and institutions’ governance. For the case of RED, at the beginning, it just hired shopping experts and travel experts to write review of merchandise bought overseas, and it aim to help users buy valuable goods when they travel outside. There are a few staff vet every shopping reviews contributed by experts before publishing it online. These staffs can help to convey the core message to audiences, while ensure the contents maintain the integrity of the institution. Thus, these staffs can be seen as the cultural intermediaries under the single point of contact model. However, under this model, it only allows a few experts contributing contents, and it cannot quickly response to the change happened in online community.
Multiple cultural intermediaries: By realizing their target audiences’ willing of sharing experience and deep trust of these review, RED has begun to encourage audiences sharing on the platform with some coupon reward in the late of 2014 (Rowan, 2016). There are multiple cultural intermediaries involved in these platform to guide the production of cultural artifacts. Firstly, RED assigns a team called “Captain Shu” to highlight the most useful posts and give higher reward for these bloggers. They also reclassify the contents and block some negative contents as well. Furthermore, it would hold some discussion topic to engage with audience. Captain Shu plays “institutional facilitators” role that know what contents can increase users’ interest and how users will join in it. Secondly, there are micro-influencers involved. Besides shopping experts, RED hired more cosmetics or fashion experts from other social media platforms to share their recommendations of the goods, usually for the goods selling on the RED. With the endorsement of the micro-celebrities, some niche products can quickly be noticed by the followers. Thirdly, users become nano-influencers. They not have much flowers, usually between 100 to 10,000, but they have high degrees of credibility, especially when they are friends or families of the audience. Brown (2018) post a research shows that Generation Z and young millennials tends to trust recommendations from influencers more than what brand itself says. Furthermore, females are willing to share their experience with friends, even strangers. These cultural intermediaries operate simultaneously to ensure the co-creative environment align with the core governance model of the institution.
Community editors: In this model, users increase their responsibilities to help facilitate this platform. Users under this model are not only participate in the cultural artifacts productions, but also monitor and negotiate the co-creation environment to ensure contents represent each stakeholders appropriately. For the case of RED, users have the right to report the content related to advertising, spam, or illegal (as shown in Figure 5).
Influencers can reach the audiences effectively, but it is possible that they share some recommendations of low quality or unsuitable goods or services just because they belong to one part of the whole commodity chain. For the case of RED, one of the mask shared by famous celebrity Fan bingbing has been criticized not suitable for all skin type. Although cultural intermediaries can facilitate the collaborative cultural production through influencers effect, it may spread fake news at a large scale as well. Thus, the monitoring mission of cultural intermediaries should not be omitted.
In conclusion, in contemporary social media environment, cultural intermediaries are useful “tools” for media organization to engage with niche and fragmented audiences. Cultural intermediaries also solve the problem of low quality or poor entertainment value contents under participatory culture through their expertise on engaging audiences and delivering brands’ value. This essay use the example of one e-commerce app RED to illustrate how the three modes of cultural intermediation works in connecting brands and audience. Although cultural intermediaries still have side effect should be dealing, they are connecting production and consumption and trying maximize economic value undoubtedly.
Abidin, C. (2015). Micromicrocelebrity: branding babies on the internet. M/C Journal, 18(5).
Analysys data. (2018). 2017 e-commerce Top 100. Retrieved from https://www.analysys.cn/media/detail/20015054/
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Brown, E. (2018, April 4). One in three trust an influencer’s words over what a brand says. ZD Net. Retrieved from https://www.zdnet.com/article/over-one-in-three-trust-an-influencers-words-over-what-the-brand-says-about-itself/
Hutchinson, J. (2017). Institutional Cultural Intermediation Cultural Intermediaries: Audience participation and media organisations(pp. 33-62). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hutchinson, J. (2017). Introduction Cultural Intermediaries: Audience participation and media organisations(pp. 1-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Maguire, J. S., & Matthews, J. (2012). Are we all cultural intermediaries now? An introduction to cultural intermediaries in context.
Negus, K. (2002). The Work of Cultural Intermediaries and the Enduring Distance between Production and Consumption. Cultural Studies, 16 (4), 501-515.
Popescu, G. H. (2014). The economic value of celebrity endorsements: A literature review. Economics, Management and Financial Markets, 9(4), 119.
Rowan, D. (2016, March 16). China’s $1bn shopping app turns everyone into trendspotters. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.wired.co.uk/article/little-red-book-xiaohongshu-crowdsourced-shopping-app