Oka first became famous after a batch of stickers featuring her irresistible grin circulated in a small community on the Chinese super-app WeChat. Now, with four YouTube videos with 1 million views each, she is undoubtedly an influencer, if not a minor celebrity, with an active presence on the Chinese video platform Bilibili and microblogging platform Weibo, as well as Instagram and YouTube.
Mundane as they may seem, Oka’s daily antics — from scurrying through a snowdrift to falling asleep during a massage and rubbing her owner’s leg when wanting to be petted — captivate some 300,000 followers on Bilibili.
If you haven’t already guessed, Oka is a puppy. Specifically, a 4-year-old red Shiba Inu with a penchant for odorous objects, balls, and temper tantrums, says owner Susan, who asked to be identified by her first name.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Shiba_Oka (@oka.shibainu)
A post shared by Shiba_Oka (@oka.shibainu)
Oka’s little sister Chako, a black and tan Shiba Inu, regularly costars with Oka on her social media channel.
The duo racks up likes and views just by being themselves. With more than 2.8 million views, the most-watched video on ‘Oka the Shiba Inu,’ their YouTube channel, depicts the brattish duo fighting over snacks — a surprisingly simple topic.
Meanwhile, the most-viewed video on their Bilibili channel is titled ‘Pretend to Pet Your Dog Challenge’ — further proof that people gravitate towards fun and mindless content.
“When we started making videos, we wanted to document Oka and Chako’s daily life. And I think this is what their fans love to see — their true and natural selves,” says Susan.
Upon moving to Canada for their studies, Susan and her husband fell in love with the Great White North. The ‘nomadic’ international students initially hesitated to raise their own pets despite being animal lovers. After all, moving across borders with a ‘fur baby’ in tow always proves a hassle with customs.
“The uncertain factors that existed when we were on student visas and applying for permanent residency discouraged us from raising one [a pet],” explains Susan. “We didn’t want to become remiss pet parents.”
Students are often vilified for abandoning their pets after leaving campus grounds. Even Susan urges people to “give [raising pets] a second thought” and “to take into consideration one’s economic and living conditions” beforehand.
After settling into a more stable life in Ontario, Canada, Susan and her partner finally felt comfortable with the idea of having pets. Both their Shiba Inus were born in 2018, the same year Susan launched the YouTube channel, ‘Oka the Shiba Inu.’
“After Oka became a family member, we created an assortment of Oka-based memes and stickers,” shares Susan. “They soon won the hearts of my friends, who constantly check in on Oka.”
She adds that she didn’t want to bombard kindred spirits on WeChat with tons of daily photos. But after posting a video of Oka online “on a whim,” she started sharing more content across various social media platforms.
At first, Susan moonlighted as Oka’s agent and social media manager while working in the marketing industry. But things changed after giving birth to her first child Jayden in 2020. Since the introduction of the fifth member of their family, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom and a full-time YouTuber.
She is certainly not the first person to turn an amateur interest in creating pet videos into a full-fledged career.
Loni Edwards, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, adopted French bulldog Chloe after striking out on her own; being an entrepreneur is a lonely business, said Edwards in an interview with Vox, and she sought companionship.
After posting Chloe’s photos on Instagram and accumulating a large fanbase, Edwards began receiving invitations to parties, where she discovered a niche community of pet influencers.
Edwards now runs The Dog Agency, a pet marketing organization — the first of its kind.
While Oka certainly boasts a large fan base, the Shiba Inu comes nowhere close to some of Chinese social media’s A-list pet influencers in terms of numbers.
Cats make for some of Bilibili’s top content, and ‘花花与三猫CatLive,’ with its 3 million followers, is a prime example.
Meanwhile, a Scottish fold named Erdou is the most popular pet influencer on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, with nearly 40 million followers. In the second spot is golden retriever Danhuang, with more than 20 million followers.
Erdou is the most popular pet influencer on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. Screengrab via Douyin
Like their human counterparts, these A-list pets — or at least their owners — benefit from having millions of fans. Many pet influencers even have Taobao ecommerce stores selling pet care accessories, some of which are personally branded.
Other means of monetization include product placement and live ecommerce, hallmarks of China’s livestreaming industry and digital economy. Brands seeking partnership and KOL marketing often engage with pet influencers (or more like their owners), who then take to social media to peddle their pet products.
Brands find the best KOLs for their products and vice versa via multi-channel networks (MCN).
Dongdong Liu is the founder of Denke Video, one of a few niche MCNs dedicated to pets in China. He tells RADII that there are some significant ways pet MCNs can provide support to influencers: Sharing tactics for amassing followers, aiding content strategy, facilitating KOL marketing, and providing live commerce assistance.
Assuredly, making a famous pet celebrity is by no means a breeze. Seeing as each social media platform manifests itself in a unique ecosystem, aspiring influencers must create content that precisely fits the bill.
For instance, Douyin tends to accommodate scripted videos that anthropomorphize pets with short but concise plots, twists, story arcs, et cetera. On the other hand, Bilibili is better for realistic depictions of the daily lives of pet influencers and their owners.
Liu points out that where pet influencers are concerned, the linchpin of attaining popularity is establishing a strong ‘persona.’ Viewers seek to be entertained by a colorful personality, whether it is an arrogant and lazy ragdoll cat or an athletic border collie that runs human errands.
Given how much attention is pumped into packaging and promoting canine and feline celebrities online, is it even surprising that the pet economy in China is ballooning? In 2021, the pet industry’s market worth reached 249 billion RMB (more than 37 billion USD) — more than a 20% increase from the previous year, reported a white paper published by leading pet industrial research group Pethadoop.
The report also shows that pet consumer goods, which include food, accessories, nutritional supplements, and styling, heavily rely on ecommerce, with the majority of purchases being made online.
“When pet influencers manage to garner a large fanbase, we also encourage pet owners to be on the camera from time to time since, ultimately, they will be the one to conduct live commerce,” Li adds.
Nonetheless, what Susan chooses to depict on her channels are snapshots of her two Shiba Inus’ daily lives, with barely any script or narrative.
“Many viewers feel like they also live with the two and are somehow their ‘owners’ as well,” shares Susan.
“For those who are curious about living with Shiba Inus, they gain a sense of belonging [through watching the videos],” she says. “And for those who don’t have pets, they delight in raising pets’ virtually.’”
Not only does interacting with pets in real life positively impact mental well-being, but online interactions also significantly reduce stress. Scientific studies show that being immersed in pet videos can boost viewers’ satisfaction with their lives while decreasing anxiety.
“Even before we raised pets, I used to save photos of adorable cats and dogs on my phone, which would cheer me up when I was down,” Susan shares.
Disheartened by China’s intense work culture and dwindling job market, Chinese youth have turned to pet videos as a distraction to take the edge off their stresses.
According to the aforementioned Pethadoop white paper, 46.3% of pet owners in China were born after 1990. While not all youths are pet owners, they are very much the driving force behind the surge in the pet industry.
Denke Video’s Liu notes, “Some urban youth in China might not have the capability to accommodate pets, so ‘cloud pet raising’ — or following the trajectory of a pet influencer through videos — can create the quasi-experience of raising one.”
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Cover image designed by Haedi Yue; photo courtesy of Oka the Shiba Inu
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