How Douyin became one of China’s top micro-video apps in 500 days
If you’re on Chinese social media like WeChat and Weibo, you’ve probably stumbled upon a 15-second video of your twenty-something friend that goes like this:
Such videos are massively produced on Douyin, a music production and social network app that’s regarded as a clone of its US counterpart Musical.ly. Launched in September 2016, Douyin lets users choose a song, record themselves miming and dancing to the tune, add various filters and speed options like time lapse and slow motion, and then share the final work on the app or to other social platforms.
“I don’t take selfies anymore, I just make a Douyin video because Douyin is cool,” says Erin Huang, a Shenzhen-raised, Singapore-educated 21-year-old who’s one of the earliest influencers on the platform.
Backed by parent Bytedance – which acquired Musical.ly last year – Douyin has climbed to become China’s second-largest short-video app focused on user-generated content (UGC) in terms of unique downloads. It trails behind Tencent-backed Kuaishou and beats the likes of Meitu’s Meipai and Weibo-backed Miaopai. Douyin now has 32.5 million users and was adding an average of 1 million users per day during the last six months, according to big data company Jiguang.
A proven app idea
When Douyin rolled out, China’s mobile users already had a dozen short-video apps to toy with. People were creating and consuming more micro videos via their phones than ever, thanks to cheaper data charges and rising demand for bite-size content. Between 2013 and 2016, the market saw a 302 percent jump to reach 153 million users. That’s about one in every 10 Chinese.
I don’t take selfies anymore, I just make a Douyin video because Douyin is cool.
These short-form video apps all have their own edge. Some stream professionally generated clips, like Bytedance’s other video platform Xigua. Others focus on UGC, like Douyin, Meipai, and Kuaishou.
While Kuaishou’s easy-to-use interface attracts mostly male, smaller city dwellers who indulge in making funny sketches, Douyin started out by eyeing the same user group as Meipai’s: mostly young, urban females.
However, instead of offering eye-enlarging and face-slimming tools – features you’d find on the Meipai app – Douyin chose to adopt something that Musical.ly has proven to be popular among young US users. The lip-sync and dance videos that people create on Douyin, according to Huang, are not like the throwaway clips on other video platforms. They require a level of body coordination and musical talent to turn out well, and they can make nobodies feel like stars.
“Not everyone can pull off these stunts. I often spend hours practicing for a 15-second clip. My followers would make comments like, ‘This is so cool. How can you do that?’” Huang adds.
Douyin has succeeded in capturing its target market. Today, a whopping 80 percent of the app’s users are under the age of 30, 66.4 percent are female, and over 40 percent live in first- and second-tier cities, Jiguang data shows.
Attracting effective influencers
On top of having performance chops, many Douyin influencers also have an affluent background that can be apparent in their output. They often dress fashionably or appear in exotic locales – a sign that they are living or studying abroad, which explains why some of them can mime perfectly to English-language hits.
“They are like role models to China’s young people. [They] come from the upper class and live in big cities or overseas,” observes Fabian Bern, founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency UpLab.Asia. “Douyin was very smart in using these influencers who young people look up to.”
To find these idols in the first place, Douyin did what other Bytedance apps do: offer lofty perks. Back in 2015, Bytedance’s news app Toutiao announced a minimum of roughly US$1,600 monthly salary for 1,000 of its contracted creators. Douyin’s influencers are equally well-treated.
“Douyin’s pay was way better than other short-video apps,” Huang recalls. She first started making lip-syncing videos on Musical.ly while living in Singapore, but was soon discovered by Douyin and invited to join as a contracted creator.
Once these newly minted stars are on board, Douyin pampers them with an assortment of perks. Contracted creators get much more exposure on the app than ordinary users do and can potentially grow their audience from 10,000 followers to 1 million in as little as 60 days. The app also tries to instill a sense of belonging in these stars by offering exclusive parties, monthly presents, and the chance to be part of its product iteration process.
Huang, for instance, participated in changing the app’s name from A.me to Douyin – or “shaking music” in Chinese – a more graphic depiction of the musical movements vital to the software.
Marketers attribute Douyin’s rise to its aggressive advertising stunts. From self-serve karaoke kiosks in big malls to smash-hit reality shows like Street Dance of China, Douyin is present wherever the Chinese youth fixes their attention.
A more “sneaky” tactic, Bern suggests, is the Douyin watermark that stays on all its videos when they get shared to other social platforms. Meipai also watermarks all its videos, but what makes Douyin stand out are the passionate lip-syncs and meticulously assembled motion effects.
“Even if the watermark is cut off, you would still recognize Douyin’s style,” Bern adds.
The cross-platform tactic worked until Weibo recently blocked the music video app. While the hostility from the social media giant has “affected user experience” on Douyin, commented Bytedance last month, it’s a sign that the young app has grown so big that other Chinese titans have started taking notice.
From a cool kids club to the public square
“Douyin’s user stickiness reflects its ‘Bytedance gene’,” says Samin Sha, a mobile analyst at China Channel. That’s the AI algorithm that feeds users with what they want and has made Toutiao the third most-used app in China last year.
Even if the watermark is cut off, you would still recognize Douyin’s style.
And Douyin has already started to cash in on its loyal users through in-stream advertising and taking a cut from influencers’ virtual gift revenues. While these are standard monetizing streams for China’s short-form video apps, Douyin was quick to implement them. Kuaishou didn’t start testing advertising until 2016 – five years into its operation. Part of it could be Bytedance’s vow to net US$10 billion in revenue by 2020, or it could be that Douyin is just a more coveted brand.
“Kuaishou has been around for a while, but you rarely see it partnering with big brands. I think the major reason is that most of Kuaishou’s content is really mundane [or] sometimes bizarre,” says Maggie Wang, senior vice president of AdMaster.
The Chinese government has also repeatedly slammed short-video apps, including Kuaishou and its Bytedance rival Huoshan, amid the country’s content cleansing efforts in recent months.
“Big brands are sensitive to what they associate themselves with,” Wang adds.
But Douyin seems to be going after content similar to that featured on Kuaishou. Already, Douyin’s trending content has gone beyond that related to music into what Huang calls the “lower-quality” arena, like a video of someone wolfing down a bowl of noodles. Huang and her influencer clique lament the app’s pivot away from its “cool” vibe. They are also getting less promotion from Douyin as the app now wants a diverse range of content.
“Youth is indeed Douyin’s earliest core user… But on the product level, we think that Douyin is actually more universal,” Douyin’s general manager Zhang Nan told media last month.
To that end, Douyin has changed its slogan to be more inclusive: “Record the good life.” The catchline is reminiscent of Kuaishou’s, “Record the world, record yourself.” In fact, the two apps now share a substantial overlapping audience: 43.1 percent of Douyin users are also on Kuaishou, according to Jiguang.
“Of course, there are still a lot of trendy people and things on Douyin. They are an important part to Douyin’s ‘good life’. But we want users to appreciate people across ages, geographies, and genders. Their content is equally beautiful and moving,” explains Zhang.
“If Douyin wants to beat Kuaishou, I believe it could,” concludes Sha.
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