Gorkana Meets…Jim Erickson

First, tell us a bit about Alizila and what it covers.

Alizila isn’t a corporate blog in the conventional sense. We call it a corporate news website, and what we do is cover Alibaba Group and the e-commerce industry as much as any journalist would. Our staff consists of Melanie Lee and myself. I’ve been a financial news reporter and editor for more than 25 years. Melanie was a business reporter for Reuters in Asia. Although we are attached to the Alibaba Group PR department, in many ways we function as an independent entity practicing “brand journalism.” We tend to write fully fledged and researched news stories—spot news and features—rather than chatty, fact-free blog items.

Unlike other corporate blogs and websites, Alizila covers the whole e-commerce industry, not just Alibaba Group's companies. What are some notable trends and developments you've recently covered?

We tend to focus on China, naturally, because we are a China-based e-commerce company, and because there’s a lot of global interest in the intersection between Internet technology, China’s emerging economy, and the country’s growing consumer class. Our front page currently features the impact Big Data is having on online retailers selling on Alibaba’s Tmall.com, which is a China marketplace for international brands. There’s another on the growing interest among global agricultural producers in selling seafood, fruit, and processed foods directly to Chinese consumers via online shopping websites.

What are some other unique features of Alizila that set it apart from other websites and blogs?

The site started as an unusual experiment. In 2009, during the depths of the Global Financial Crisis, Alibaba’s Global PR Chief John Spelich and I got to talking about journalists we knew who were being laid off, how drastically the news business was shrinking, and how some venerable news magazines were disappearing. Given how difficult it was for Alibaba to get coverage in that environment, John had the idea of Alibaba starting its own DIY news website by hiring journalists to cover the company and review its products and services, offering them some independence to do so without too much interference from PR and marketing.

At the time I was working as TIME magazine’s Business and Technology Editor for Asia. As luck would have it, TIME laid me off in early 2010—and I went to work for Alibaba creating Alizila. The funny thing was, a handful of other companies were thinking along similar lines at the time. Intel, for example, launched a site called Intel Free Press that’s not too different from Alizila in spirit and tone. As they say, nowadays every company is a media company.

Do you see the blog expanding to include new sections or features?

We run Alizila on a shoestring budget, but we’re improving all the time. We wanted to be more of a resource for broadcast news, so not too long ago we overhauled our video library, making it possible for news organizations to download and re-purpose our growing list of video features. Broadcasters can go there for b-matter when they are doing their own video features on Alibaba Group, too.

We’re hoping to refresh our front page this year and will probably add a feature on e-commerce for small businesses. In addition, we’ve stepped up our content creation for other news websites, which we find are short of staff and therefore hungry for quality e-commerce news and service pieces from credible contributors.

What posts have been most popular?

Big, breaking news about Alibaba Group companies tend to be the most-read stories that appear on the site. In part that’s because our PR department sometimes gives us the news first instead of issuing a traditional press release, and then points journalists to the Alizila story so they can use it to write their own stories. It’s actually proven to be a fast, efficient method for getting the news out, and happily it brings us traffic.

We also create content for independent news websites such as Forbes, Business Insider, Internet Retailer, Yahoo Small Business Advisor, and The Huffington Post, and the right stories can attract a lot of attention. Two examples:

  • Melanie recently wrote a first-person account of what it’s like to rent a Chinese boyfriend from Taobao Marketplace, Alibaba’s giant online shopping website. It was a cute story that got lots of play when it was picked up by Business Insider around Valentine’s Day.
  • Last year I put together an infographic highlighting the explosive growth of online shopping in China, comparing it with e-commerce stats from other countries. It was republished by more than 80 outlets and to this day shows up as one of our most-clicked-on pieces of content.

What are some of the PR, marketing, and promotion opportunities you and the Alibaba Group have worked with on Alizila? How can PRs help you develop Alizila's content?

Pure promotion is not our department. Our mission is to deliver important news and useful information about the industry, the company and the services it offers, and to do this in a factual and trustworthy way without hype. That said, we work with our internal PR and marketing departments closely and regularly. Sometimes we have an idea for an interesting story and we approach PR for help in arranging interviews within the company—just as an outside journalist would. At other times, PR or marketing comes to us and pitches us story ideas—which we usually accept. After all, our primary purpose is helping Alibaba become a well-known and trusted brand in the West as it is in Asia.


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