This is a translation of a media report by Guo Wen that originally appeared in Chinese in China Business Journal on March 7, 2009.
The Internet is an invisible world in which Rodney Cao has run his website for about 10 years. During this time he has established a stable and invisible network and “accidentally” established his own business. Now wherever he goes, he can feel the existence of the network.
Cao was very anxious and had trouble falling asleep one night not long ago: His 10-year-old website BrandVista.com was down because of other websites on the same server. He could neither visit his website nor take out the database. “Even though the website has experienced various challenges during the past decade,” he said, “it is still up and runs well 99% of the time. But this time I felt so bad because it disappeared.” He still sounded very uneasy as he told the story.
Friends in need
After hearing about Cao’s troubles, Oliver Ding (Nickname: Microspace), the former chief editor of the website, sent Cao an email from the US, suggesting that he transfer the hosting of the website to a server abroad. Ding also suggested using WordPress blog software to rebuild the site with a Nimbo magazine WordPress theme. He attached reference website links to the email. BrandVista.com came back quickly with help from Ding and other friends, including Rolland. “Finally, the Web2.0 era of BrandVista.com is on the horizon,” Cao said.
BrandVista.com weathered the storm with the help of friends. In fact, the successful operation of the website over the last 10 years has depended not only on Rodney Cao’s perseverance but also on assistance from numerous friends, whom Rodney has actually never met in real life.
Cao is an advertising veteran with many years of experience in 4A agencies. Observing the emergence of the Internet, he established BrandVista.com on February 23, 2000, when he was a group account director at JWT Shanghai, which is a branch of a top 10 international advertising agency. The site focused on marketing communications and offered weekly articles written by Cao to share his thoughts and insights. “Working on the site helped me organize my ideas, share information and experiences with friends who have the same interests, and explore new ideas,” he said.
“More than a website, it is also a community of people with a commitment to careers in marketing communications.” People often posted abstracts of English articles, and others volunteered to translate them. Cao contacted foreign scholars, for example, one studying Google, to get permission to post his articles on BrandVista.com. “I often received payment from media that published my articles. At the height of its popularity, a search of brand on the Chinese Google turned up my website as the first result. This level of popularity lasted about a year and a half,” Cao said. The website was clearly a pioneer among those specializing in branding and marketing communications.
An Invisible Community
Running for over 10 years, the site has about 10,000 registered users, many of whom engage in heated discussions on the website but rarely saw one another offline.
“This is an invisible community,” Cao said, seldom meeting members in real life.
“Cao is one person I know who really likes social networking websites. You can find him everywhere. He is on my contact lists at MSN, QQ, Facebook, and Linkedin,” said Phil Ren, the founder of MeiHua Information, a marketing research firm specializing in marketing competitive intelligence business.
When he established Wisecast.com (also known as Internet Advertising Pioneer), which is a leading website for online advertising research, Ren came to know BrandVista.com and left a message for Rodney Cao. From that point on, they became good friends; and now MeiHua.info and BrandVista.com have each other’s links on their respective websites. Ren regards BrandVista.com as the precursor to MeiHua.info in terms of providing information service, and he still receives BrandVista list-serv messages on marketing communications case studies and market trends analysis. Henry Yang, CEO of iResearch Inc., a prestigious Internet market research firm, was also active at BrandVista.com.
Dehong Wang, founder of Foresight Brand Management Consulting Co., Ltd., initially visited BrandVista.com when he started to do business with Cao in 2000. At that time a website set up by an individual was still a new thing, and also a rare thing is that is has been running for over 10 years. Focusing on marketing communications, BrandVista.com has attracted many marketing and communications professionals. Wang later worked on a brand manager website and engaged in in-depth communications with Cao. “By running BrandVista.com, Cao provides a community for professionals of marketing communications. He often wrote articles at midnight so that others could read them at their leisure,” Wang said.
Cao has said that he did not deliberately set out to create a community. “The purpose of some communities is unclear because people join them with various purposes, but our community is specifically designed for sharing ideas and experience relating to marketing communications. This is a cyber-community, and I try to gather and organize various marketing communications ideas and experience for others to learn from and comment on,” he said.
The website has become very popular, not only among marketing communications professionals but also as a place for students in the field to study after class. Jie Zhang from JWT said many of her colleagues have been members of the website for years. And every May or June, when students write theses and dissertations, the visits to the website always surge.
As a result of the formation of this cyber-community, Oliver Ding met Rodney Cao in real life fairly often. Whenever he came to Shanghai, Ding always made time to meet with Cao and even visited his offices at JWT and Ignite. Most of the communications between them are, however, done online. Later when Ding left the advertising industry, he became less active in this community; but he continued to visit the website often.
Xiaochun Chen (Nickname: Wu Yue Chun Xiao) recently graduated from college with an advertising degree. Shy but full of ideas, he took the opportunity to learn from others at BrandVista.com and reciprocated by translating many articles for the website. He now serves as a brand manager for a foreign wine company.
“BrandVista has brought me many unexpected business opportunities. After all, it is said, No pain, no gain,” Cao stated. Through the website he came to know many clients. For example, a professional from D’Arcy Worldwide Shanghai, an advertising agency, knew Cao through BrandVista and later introduced him to the interactive business of Coca Cola China’s website. After reading an article on the website, the marketing executive of Bright Food Co., a top food purveyor in China contacted Cao to sign an advertising contract with him.
BrandVista helped Cao recruit employees and attract business while he established Shanghai Ignite, Ltd., an advertising agency. The management team of Ignite were all members of the website, some joining it when they were still in school.
The influence of the website is apparent everywhere. When Cao went to Yunnan Province to promote wine for his client last year, he simply posted a message on the website and found some local members to help promote the event.
Once the chief editor of BrandVista, Oliver Ding now works at a web application development company in Texas. When he was still in Fuzhou in 2000, he found BrandVista.com through a search engine and later sent his articles on corporate identities to Cao for publication on the website.
Ding then suggested that Cao change the website from an html format to a database-driven format to make content management easier. As the chief editor of the website, Ding was responsible for updating articles, creating illustrations for the front page, and writing weekly emails for members. In addition he also recruited friends to take charge of forums. Ding said the website also served as a matchmaker when a couple met through the website.
“I think that people want to participate in building the BrandVista community because they believe that advertising industry and marketing communications professionals need a platform to encourage one another in the pursuit of professional excellence. We believe this vision can help enhance our happiness at work, and as we work for the vision, we also contribute to the industry. As we benefit from this community, our careers develop; so making contributions to the community is one way for us to pay back,” Ding asserted passionately.