Author: Yolanda Wang, Translator: Kevin Wang and Editor: Yunchieh Tsou
VoiceTube, Taiwan’s largest video English learning social network, finished at the top of over 1000 competitors from 89 country this June to become the FbStart 2016 App of the Year. In addition to winning US$100,000 in prize money, VoiceTube is also in close negotiations with Facebook, with an eye on future global partnership.
This Taiwanese startup managed to dazzle on the international stage in only a few short years: the team behind VoiceTube came together at the end of 2012, and the website was launched in April 2013. After only three and a half years, VoiceTube now has 1.6 million members, and an active user base of 2 million (users are not required to register), viewing over 40,000 videos on their website.
Not content on being Taiwan’s leader in video English learning, the team is now branching overseas to teach foreigners English. What does VoiceTube have that sets them apart from the rest, and how did they monetize their viewing traffic?
YouTube’s free-to-share, caption-able videos as groundwork for VoiceTube
Even though most Taiwanese are eager in learning English, general English proficiency remains low even for people who have spent decades learning the language, due to the education system’s over-reliance on rote memorization.
The same problem troubled Hsieh Hsiang-fan. Although he spent a period of time in Australia on a working holiday, he still felt his English was not good enough, but could not find a suitable internet platform to improve his abilities.
When Chan Yi-wei, who worked at a US-based multinational, and Chan’s girlfriend Lai Fu-rong told him that they shared the same problem, they proposed using the free videos on YouTube to create a platform for English learners. Seeing that this idea had potential, Hsieh decided to take this gamble.
Now COO of VoiceTube, Hsieh remarks, “We believe ‘re-learning’ is crucial in improving one’s English abilities, and people will watch the same video multiple times only if it’s something they find interesting. YouTube has a huge number of videos on every subject imaginable, which can be shared and embedded with no licensing fees, and the site also allows captions to be added. This is the greatest free resource for English learners, and formed a constant source of nourishment when we were founding our company.”
VoiceTube’s language learning tools: repeating individual sentences, changing replay speed, linking to dictionaries
The idea of using videos to teach and learn English is far from new, but VoiceTube sets itself apart by concentrating on practical daily speech across a multitude of categories: TED talks, BBC and CNN news, English in business, movies and drama, music, and day-to-day English. In addition, the interface puts a strong emphasis on user experience, being designed entirely with English learners in mind.
Hsieh outlines what VoiceTube has to offer: “In addition to the basic function of embedding Chinese and English subtitles, we also put videos into separate categories for beginners, intermediate learners, and advanced speakers. We have additional language-learning tools as well: as well as Chinese and English text, we also list key vocabulary featured in the video, and allow each individual sentence to be repeated and played back at a slower speed, so that users can hear every word more clearly and also speak along.
Furthermore, clicking on any word or phrase produces a pronunciation, translation and definition, and users can even record themselves and compare their pronunciation with the pronunciation in the video. We have here a compendium of everything an English learner needs, all within the same interface.”
Partnership with schools and media outlets increases exposure
Hsieh continues, “The greatest challenge when we started was to get our name out. In order to promote VoiceTube, I wrote a ton of emails every day in search of partnerships. Very often I’d only get one response for every 50 emails I wrote. I’d visit three dozen schools and organizations every month, hoping that teachers could bring traffic to our site.
We also partnered with media companies, where we would produce content about English learning for them, and at the same time increasing exposure for VoiceTube.” The team also went on television shows, and to competitions and exhibitions. This “zero cost” approach proved to be effective, bringing more and more users to VoiceTube.
Crowdsourcing videos and translations
In addition to their “zero-cost exposure” approach, VoiceTube has also kept their costs low through zero-cost crowdsourcing. Any user can upload videos they are interested in to VoiceTube, not only increasing users’ attachment to the website, but also enriching the site’s video content. Moreover, VoiceTube also enlists the help of volunteers in translating videos.
Hsieh explains, “We upload an average of 20 to 30 videos every day, and our English expert employees choose roughly five that they think deserve translations. Many students who major in translation often lack opportunities to practice, and they’ve found an outlet to flex their muscles in our translation community, where our employees also provide guidance. Our translators gain experience in their profession, and we benefit from their product, which in turn benefits more users.”
VoiceTube saw exponential growth in 2015, two years after the company was founded: as word-of-mouth spread their entertaining English-learning content, even Taiwanese pop stars and celebrities such as Jolin Tsai, Amber Kuo and Liu Hsuan shared the website with their fans, which skyrocketed VoiceTube to the top of internet search engines even without active keyword promotion, and membership surged as a result.
Expansion into Japan and Southeast Asia
VoiceTube’s large member base brought in an equally large amount of advertisement revenue. Riding on this wave of steady growth and success, VoiceTube brought out customized English learning programs to increase revenue, and began to turn attention to markets abroad.
Says Hsieh, “Even without us actively promoting VoiceTube, we saw the number of Japanese users steadily increasing. Since the Japanese are avid YouTube users, and market studies indicate a high demand in Japan for English, we chose Japan as our first foray into the foreign market.
We launched a Japanese version of our website and a Japanese mobile app this April, and we now have 3,000 videos uploaded in Japan. However, the Japanese are usually reluctant in accepting new things from abroad, so VoiceTube still has quite a few challenges ahead in the Japanese market.”
In addition to Japan, VoiceTube has targeted Southeast Asia for expansion next year, hoping to bring in revenue through teaching foreigners English.