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Tapping the potential of social media is key to reaching the vast market of English-language learners in China, according to Barbara Tassa, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of WeblishPal Inc. of Toronto. But converting browsers to customers is a constant challenge.
Danny Wang and Barbara Tassa
Photo: Jessica Blaine Smith
WeblishPal matches up those learning to speak English with native English speakers in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and beyond, who serve as their paid teachers. WeblishPal takes a percentage for matching the learners up with the teachers. The company launched last December; it grew from an assignment in an entrepreneurship class at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, when Ms. Tassa’s classmate, Danny Wang, who is from China, gave a one-minute pitch for it. (Mr. Wang is the company’s co-founder and co-CEO.)
Ms. Tassa, 29, came to Canada as a child from Estonia, and observed that her sociable mother was quick to pick up English, while her reserved father was less comfortable in his new language.
How big is the market for you in China?
The English-language learning market in China is pretty massive. When we were putting our business plan together, we were looking at over 300 million people in China learning English every year. The entire market is over $3 billion annually. Our addressable market directly is probably 30 million individuals—students looking to study abroad and young professionals trying to get ahead, and work in global companies, where they need to know how to communicate with global colleagues.
How do you penetrate that market online?
We’re trying to create content that’s interesting, which means information about universities, daily English tips and videos on how to pronounce difficult words in English. We can create a lot of fun content for people to interact with. And we engage on the social-media side on websites like Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent. The Facebook equivalents there are Renren and Kaixin001. People in China can’t access Facebook, Twitter or even Wikipedia. Part of our online strategy is finding the right channels to send our messages across. We promote a lot of our tutor videos, tutor bios and sample classes so learners can get a sense of what kind of content is available. We really try to market the people providing the teaching service.
How do you convert browsers to customers?
Part of our challenge is to figure out how to make it easier for those people who have already registered for the website to be more comfortable reaching out to the teachers. We find encouraging the teachers to provide content like video blogs, where they show how they lead classes, is working really well. So the students can actually hear the type of English they speak, and whether their experience and interests are what they’re looking for. We reduce the uncertainty of taking English classes online by providing as much information about the teachers as possible.
Business people may have expertise in a whole bunch of areas, but may not know much about social media. How difficult is it?
It takes experimentation to figure out what people react to. What’s hard is figuring out how diverse a user base’s interests are, and creating content that they’ll continue seeing the value in and tell their friends about. Eventually they become customers because they see that, “Hey, this company really cares about my language-learning and is giving me tools in various forms so that I can actually be successful.”
Do you have people on the ground in China?
We do. We have about three right now. We are focusing on getting the word out. Not only do you have to localize, but you really do have to be there in order to successfully form partnerships. We’re looking at forming partnerships with foreign language schools – for example, high schools that are training their students to pass language exams so they can gain admission to overseas universities.
What is your vision for the company’s future?
We definitely want to be the destination for English learning online. That probably means developing our partner network further into school systems, and developing content partnerships so that when people come to WeblishPal they’re able to not only find the conversational language partners they need, but they can also meet the specifications for passing various language exams or other niche areas of English.
What is the lesson of your success?
To keep going. It’s not easy creating a business and growing it. If something isn’t working, try a different approach and keep at it.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.