LBGT market grows
Entrepreneurs develop products for emerging consumer group
Zhu Qiming, CEO of mobile game developer Star-G Technologies, foresees rosy prospects for China’s emerging “pink economy”, a new business model that caters mainly to the lifestyle sand demand soft he LGBT community.
Zhu’s company, a startup in Beijing, has received several rounds of investment after releasing a business plan to design and develop mobile games exclusively for gay men in China.
“With rising social tolerance, people in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community have begun to demonstrate their identity and meet other members of the community through a range of social activities, including games,” he said. “I see strong demand going unfulfilled, and that provides us with ‘pink’ opportunities.”
Zhu first found inspiration in a popular mobile game, Green Mountain Fox Legend, which allows virtual marriages among players, regardless of gender.
“It’s not a gay game, but that novel function managed to lure many supporters from the LGBT community,” he said. “We see a lot of same-sex unions in the game.”
The dearth of mobile games targeting the LGBT community is exactly the sort of opportunity that startups such as Zhu’s have been looking for, because the mainstream game market is dominated by large, established companies and a specialty product is “our last chance”.
The company is now developing three mobile games targeting gay players, known as “gaymers.”
One is an openly gay role-playing game that allows gaymers to choose their own images, clothes and accessories, such as watches and jewelry. It will allow players to network and interact with their peers, and even marry (within the game). Tying the knot makes couples eligible to participate together in assigned tasks, such as planting trees and fighting monsters, he said.
The game also allows couples to upload their own photos and display them for other players to rate. If the couple gets enough points, they can receive “virtual gifts” such as fancy tuxedos and brandname watches.
Zhu said the game will be open to straight men, but “it’s a queer thing— I don’t think straight people would appreciate it.”
As a 32-year-old well-educated gay man, Zhu said his claim is not only based on his own experience and emotions, but also on investigation and analysis. According to Zhu, the essential ingredients of games for gay men are good-looking characters, common hobbies — such as working out, healthy lifestyles and fashion — and a touch of eroticism.
To promote the games, Zhu plans to cooperate with Blued, an international gay hookup app headquartered in Beijing that has more than 27 million users, about 20 percent of them from outside China.
With such a huge, strongly targeted user base, Blued has so far attracted five rounds of investment totaling tens of millions of dollars, according to Geng Le, the CEO.
He declined to disclose the financial details, but said business is a smart, subtle way of raising the visibility of China’s LGBT community and gaining greater social tolerance.
“That’s one of the social merits of the booming pink economy that we cherish most,” said the former police officer, who is gay.
The company has forged partnerships with other businesses that want to tap into the “pink market,” particularly in areas such as entertainment, shopping, travel, insurance and even assisted reproductive technologies, he said.
In October, Blued jointly launched China’s first Pink Economy Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest in conjunction with Mars, an investment management company in Beijing.
The winners will receive funding from investors willing to finance their plans, and as of last week, more than 60 business plans had been received from both home and abroad, according to Zou Shenglong, Blued’s senior public relations manager.
The pink economy is set to become a major market. Industry analysts estimate that there are 400 million LGBT people worldwide and they spend more than $3 trillion each year.
China is the world’s third-largest LGBT market, after Europe and the United States, and is valued at $300 billion per annum. The 2016 China LGBT Community Report estimates that China’s LGBT community numbers at least 70 million people. The report — jointly released in November by organizations such as Blued, Rela (a widely used lesbian social networking app) and the global public relations agency Weber Shandwick — said the areas with the greatest potential include tourism, fashion, cosmetics, marriage planning, entertainment, and even surrogacy — which remains a gray area in China’s legal framework.
A report on LGBT travel, published in 2012 by the World Tourism Organization, showed that members of the community tend to travel more and spend more than straight people during their trips.
Thomas Roth, president of Community Marketing & Insights, a consultancy in San Francisco that issues an annual report about the LGBT community, said the company is just setting out in China, and many other international businesses with experience of serving the LGBT community will soon begin looking at the emerging market in the country.
“Chinese companies will also expand their business focus into this new area very soon,” he said.
Geng Le, of Blued, is ahead of the pack. In December last year, the company launched a livestreaming platform that quickly became a major source of revenue. It now has more than 100,000 users and is expected to generate hundreds of millions of yuan by the end of the year.
Geng is making big plans and aiming high. “We are trying to form a business circle to target LGBT communities and become a leading gay networking company,” he said.
“Business development is the biggest charity (in the sense of raising awareness), particularly in the fight against LGBT-related social discrimination and stigma,” he added.
Zhao Ke, editor-in-chief of Gayspot magazine, said the fact that the community has managed to attract attention in a neutral, unbiased manner is a positive sign, because for many years, LGBT people, particularly gay men, were only mentioned in the context of HIV/AIDS control and prevention.
Wu Zunyou, director of the National Center for AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease Control and Prevention at the China Center for Disease Control, said that perception is not altogether surprising given that gay men are at greater risk of contracting HIV/ AIDS compared with other susceptible groups such as sex workers and people who inject drugs.
Sentinel surveillance conducted by the center shows that in somecities one in 10 gay men tests positive for HIV, while the national prevalence of HIV among the straight community is 0.06 percent.
Wu Hao, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at You An Hospital in Beijing, one of China’s largest HIV/AIDS treatment centers, said more than 80 percent of HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed so far this year were gay men.
He urged businesses that target the LGBT community to embrace social responsibility, and emphasize AIDS prevention and control in their products.
According to Geng, Blued’s platforms — including the dating app, the website, and the livestream — offer value-added services that provide users with information about HIV prevention and support.
“The provision of such services helps to protect our users from HIV while providing us with a better relationship with the government and a smoother development environment,” he said.
In addition to the online delivery of services, such as HIV prevention education, Blued has partnered with Beijing’s disease control and prevention departments to establish HIV testing sites that provide free tests.
Feng Zi, a gay man in Beijing and an active Blued user, said that every three months he receives an alert via the app reminding him to take a free HIV test.
“I meet friends and land dates there, but they (Blued) are also responsible for protecting me from HIV/AIDS,” he said.
Contestants and organizers pose for a photo at China’s first Pink Economy Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest that was held in Beijing in October. The competition was aimed at companies hoping to provide goods and services for the country’s LGBT community.
Zhu Qiming, CEO of mobile game developer Star-G Technologies, makes a speech at the business innovation competition.
A gay man (right) prepares to have a free HIV test at a testing site jointly established by Beijing’s disease control and prevention departments and Blued, a gay hookup app headquartered in the capital.