Meng Mandarin Diary #1: Long update 18 months later

It’s been one and a half years since I posted my first diary entry about Meng Mandarin (which was still called Meng Fourth back in the day), now we are a rapidly growing page about Chinese with 12k followers on Instagram as of today. Recently because I was struggling through the mixture of online exams at Chinese university, looking for an internship as well as a place to live at, spending Christmas with girlfriend and her lovely family, I took a two weeks break from working on the page and before restarting I want to finally make an update and write down everything that happened to the page until today and what awaits it in the future. I hope to keep it short though, there is a lot to share. 🙂

Reflections on the original pre-launch diary

We expanded from being a one-trick pony focusing on one aspect of the language into a more versatile Chinese learning resource with a changing variety of posts. But the core remains the same – I work on posts that I would like to use myself as a Chinese learner and enjoy working on too. Original project was initially planned to run for a year but we ran out of possible/fitting material already after a half of the year and the project stopped there without a plan for the future. Overqualified candidate to assist me in the first project run ended up not participating at all due to personal reasons and our team ended up being built only of people I know personally and am friends with, no strangers, last-minute solution. Contrary to what I wrote in the first diary, working with friends can go very well too, as long as it’s managed well, in my opinion. Our “Instagram stories” became an independent tool for Chinese teaching and practice, instead of only using it to repeat material we teach in our posts. I also stepped away from the idea that I will pay everyone who helps the project since it is not even remotely affordable for me at this moment. We run on pure volunteer enthusiasm ever since March and our only real cost is ads we run on Instagram – which has been paid by our sponsorship deal in the last three months. More about it later.

Learn new skills, be independent, use licensed software

For the first posts we had I was dependent on Sascha for making every image we used, she even made our original logo, big shout out for that. Being this much dependent on others was fine for the most time, yet I felt uncomfortable and not in control of my own project. I felt like I could do the same task too given the resources and more dedication from my side. I was doing the editing of audio materials to improve its quality, also the final video for instagram, both on pirated or free software, at least 10 years old and not convenient to use at all, but that’s all I could have at the time. Things changed when I got myself an Adobe kit for a student price, most of the Adobe programmes for only 20 euros a month was a good deal. As a result I got better software for all the stuff I needed it for, Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere Rush, more convenient and time efficient. And also got access to Photoshop and InDesign – now I could start trying to take over designing of our posts. Ever since then every post of @mengmandarin was designed by me and it felt good, also more unrestricted and independent. While it looked shaky at the start, I started liking the result more every next post. Adding to that, I also learnt new valuable work skills for my future career by using these programmes all the time, every day.

Self-doubt, mistakes and burn-out

Most people compliment me after finding out that our page is actually run by someone who is not a native speaker but merely another learner. I’m proud we manage to leave such an impression on people, even on Chinese native speakers. Nevertheless, the core of the problem remains, I often feel not qualified to run the page, I start doubting new post ideas or even the simplest quizzes we post. It had led to various language mistakes in the past which felt embarrassing and could have been easily avoided. Sometimes it is mere human mistakes because of not paying attention or an overseen misclick. Dictionaries on Pleco or other resources often have faulty example sentences which need an additional control. I learnt to ask for help more and double check everything even when I feel confident about it. Yet, Chinese has many layers of difficulty. Mistakes still happen, too bad. Some aspects of 梦中文 become a routine very fast and feel tiresome to deal with, even if it really only takes no more than an hour a day to get done, sometimes. The burn-out from this occasionally makes me leave the page non-supervised for days, or even weeks. These periods teach me the value of discipline.

But, also a burning passion

I really love working on this page. I often end up thinking about it every time I am free from obligations, be it during routine part-time work tasks, before sleep, or during lonely walks through the city. I watch Italian TV or the latest K-pop trends and I get ideas from there. I keep working up new ideas in my head and planning the near future of Meng non-stop. The fast rise of the page in the past months also brought many new followers and an amount of feedback has also increased tremendously. Target audience who enjoys our work consequently motivates us too. The more the merrier. But what really helped me get past the emptiness of early page phases is the team that works with me on new projects. I know the page would just stop existing if I stopped working on it. But without all the helpers who not only bring their valuable input, but also their own passion for the page and unique ideas and perspectives, I would also not be able to continue. My biggest thanks goes to Ma Xige, Lyu Jing and recently Selina Yiting. Not only have they been a reliable help this year but their fresh ideas were there to bounce off and lead towards something new. There were many other people who also gave their own individual input, sometimes even an intention was a big boost for my page’s virtual self-esteem. Everyone who is involved with the page, be it even just a follower, all are important and add oil to my burning passion. (加油)

Shaping up project’s mission and goals

One thing hasn’t changed and it will not – our materials, our exclusive resources for learning Chinese will always be free for everyone, not under a paywall. Even though it makes potential monetization harder I also see all the motivated learners across the globe who simply cannot afford additional expenses for their education. Our goal therefore will even more be about expanding our repertoire into more width and depth, so that we cover as many language aspects as possible. Important is, of course, to have our own identity and make efforts to create unique and engaging material which nobody else has done before. We are also having another project coming soon which might eventually go beyond Chinese language one day. Back in March when our first series of posts ended, it really took me months to come up with something, with the direction and the vision for the future of the page. Firstly we changed the name and logo to our current ones, to emphasize the new direction – it is not just Chinese tones, it is everything now. Secondly, Ma Xige joining the team was the game changer because she had many ideas right off the bat, and it gave me enough to believe in the new all-rounded Meng. Thirdly, was just the time I needed to confidently make new post designs within Adobe kit. And here we are today. Confident to realize any ideas.

Small indie company with very few employees

Not even a company, more like an illegal assembly of passionate students. This is where our main limitations lie, all of us are busy students and earn nothing from this endeavour. Some projects we want to do require lots of time and sometimes more than from only one person. Planning is always challenging, sometimes we need to meet to record audio material since I am the only one with a professional dedicated microphone for that purpose. Basically none of us live in the same city at the moment either which also adds another spoon of difficulty. More distanced digital work during pandemic. This year, for the most part, I will have to combine full time work at the new place while running a page as usual, that will be challenging and I’m still uncertain to what degree it will affect me. I also decided to run a yearly recruitment campaign at our university, but for that it will have to wait another 10 months first. I hope that all our current members stay with Meng at least until then.

Lessons from our marketing adventures

It is fair to be ashamed of how I started promoting the page in late 2020, but it worked to a certain extent and we are excused due to our inexperience and desperation. Follow-for-follow worked to boost the numbers (slowly but surely), but it was a boring routine with quite many followers who were just unfollowing your page since they didn’t really care about our content. (Not to mention it is simply not a noble method!) Spamming different Facebook pages about Chinese did something but not really, while the most effective method was talking to my Chinese teacher at university and asking her to promote my page among students. I was one of her best students so she was quick to agree. Simple lesson is – connections and relationships do the most – it can be your real life teacher, it can be another big instagram figure who also does Chinese content. My only problem about doing the latter is I don’t feel ethically well about asking other content creators to promote us. Built-in ads system of Instagram did a lot of work for us for the small expenses of 1 Euro per day (on average) and was the main source of our new followers this last year, we went from 800 to 12600 since starting using that. We also did other activities like giveaways and live streaming but it is hard to tell how much those did to us in particular, since Instagram analysis tools are too limited in their functionality. From my own perspective the first giveaway was a big waste of money while the second one was a big win. More interaction for no money, while the first giveaway was the opposite. Execution of the giveaway made the difference. In November we also got sponsored for the first time by Shanghai-based Chinese-learning app Super Chinese, it covered our ads expenses for roughly 3 months and that’s a huge victory in my opinion. I am hoping for more good deals in the next year.

Meng in 2022 (with a spoon of hope)

Taking some time off the page always brings me back with new ideas, fresh views, creative plans for the new start. We will once again rebuild our quizzes in stories, but also launch a new variety of content. We also plan to relaunch our original first series about tone pairs but with new design, since most of our current followers missed that time when we posted those. Also we have a new stand-alone project in our mind which will be parallel to the main thing, focused on connecting language learners with each other. We plan to expand to Youtube, maybe WeChat, maybe Facebook (in some form). Eventually we also want to work with actual Chinese teachers and offer them a platform to find new students, maybe it will be realized in 2022. My hope is that Meng in this new year will be better than in the past one. I am already proud of what this page has achieved and I hope it is only the beginning.

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