A Look at Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese Sister App

This article is republished as part of an editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Méta-Media. ©2020, all rights reserved.

By Diana Liu, France Télévisions, MediaLab

TikTok, the short-form video-sharing app that’s racked up phenomenal growth recently, is still in its infancy in the West. On the other hand, its Chinese version, known as Douyin, has already reached a certain level of maturity. Douyin boasts 400 million daily active users (DAUs) ― up 60 percent year-over-year, as stated in Bytedance’s latest annual report. According to eMarketer, 67.9 percent of China’s social media users and 59 percent of those with smartphones are now on Douyin. “Douyin is China’s YouTube,” says Beijing Source Point Interaction Technology digital content strategist Kelvin Zhao.

Here’s a peek into Douyin’s world: its diversified contents, its professional use, and its place in the short-form video sector.

What’s driving the Chinese TikTok?

Douyin was launched in China in September 2016. The app lets users create and upload clips synchronized to music tracks. Its playful editing tools, intuitive swipe-based interface, and addictive recommendation algorithm are credited with its massive success. Its slogan? “Filming the good life.”

In its early days, users were mainly young people. But today, Douyin’s 400 million DAUs come from all age groups. In 2019, 460,000 families used Douyin to take family portraits, 3.08 million to make parent-child videos, and 7.09 million to share their wedding photos and videos. “Users include the young, the middle-aged, and the elderly,” says LiuYu, a journalist and radio host at Beijing Radio Group. “In my own family, my father, mother, uncle, and aunt are all users. My mother even makes videos.”

A diverse range of content

Unlike TikTok, known mainly for its funny or performance-driven videos created by young people, Douyin bills itself “China’s largest platform for knowledge, arts, and cultural heritage.”

Last year, 14.89 million knowledge-based videos were shared on the app, with the most popular categories being cooking, language learning, school subjects, and work-related training. Douyin also highlights the role of the app in promoting China’s artistic heritage, through special filters for the Beijing Opera or its plan for the arts in partnership with creators and academics.

There’s a wide variety of content generated by Douyin’s 400 million users. The most popular videos vary depending on the generation: for example, the 1960s generation prefers to create dance videos and watch wedding ones. A big difference compared to the West, where dance videos are the domain of teenagers.

And what about public issues like the coronavirus crisis? It’s a sensitive subject according to Kelvin Zhao, but public controversy is not necessarily in the spirit of Douyin. “People talk about it [the coronavirus], but in a lighter, more amusing way. They show what they’re doing at home when they’re bored.”

A professionalized platform

The appeal of the app is obvious: the average user spends 48.5 minutes on it daily, and the length of the videos has even been extended to one minute (five for the most well-known creators) in order to encourage higher quality content. While TikTok’s monetization strategy is still in its early stages, the impact of Douyin’s strategy is starting to pay off.

“Video production on Douyin has evolved from user-generated content to professionally created content, involving companies as well as collaboration with the platform,” LiuYu says.

To support the content monetization process, Douyin has integrated e-commerce functionalities that allow users to purchase products shown in a video.

The best-known influencers can earn impressive advertising revenue. An account with three to five million subscribers can fetch between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan [CAD$9,800 to CAD$19,700, approximately) for a single short video.

Most major media companies already have accounts on the platform according to LiuYu, including CCTV, China’s main public television channel. And even if Douyin is far from being the social network of reference for communicating with the public, Kelvin Zhao says that it remains a great complement to major platforms like WeChat or Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. “Douyin has changed public communications expectations on social media. WeChat and Weibo have always been very text and photo oriented. Video is a simpler and more immediate format ― users can easily catch up by viewing short-form videos. Many consumers are already in the habit of using Douyin.”

A rapidly expanding format

By 2019, China’s short-form video industry had 857 million users, with research indicating that consumers will be spending more time watching short-form rather than long-form content in the future. And while Douyin dominates short-form video, Kuaishou, the second most popular platform, with 200 million active users, is pushing to break through. Together, the two brands account for 54.2 percent of the Chinese market for short-form video apps. With other platforms, including Xigua Video and Huoshan Video, this thriving industry is clearly in full-growth mode.

What are the lessons for TikTok?

China is quickly understanding that the Instagram era (photo sharing) is fading, and the TikTok/Douyin era (short-form video sharing) is dawning. In a culture where both information and entertainment are consumed in an ephemeral and personalized way, TikTok is well positioned to diversify its content ecosystem, one of the keys to capturing a wider audience.

But the short-form video market is fragmenting. Big Tech is trying to make up for lost time by focusing on educational videos. In January, Google launched Tangi, an educational short-form video platform dedicated to art, cooking, and do-it-yourself projects. Facebook has just launched Hobbi, an app that allows users to share their hobbies using photos and videos. And don’t forget Byte, Vine’s reboot of its former short-form video platform in an effort to compete with TikTok by offering more monetization options to creators.

Content is still king, which is why TikTok must carefully cultivate win-win relationships with creators, especially those diversifying and professionalizing content. Last year, TikTok set up a special team to make it easier for conventional media to use the platform. It’s also experimenting with monetization options for publishers.

TikTok will never be the same as Douyin, and that’s a good thing. Currently under investigation by U.S. authorities, TikTok must adapt to the cultural differences of its global users and ensure the safety and freedom of expression of all. 2020 will be a defining year for the platform. Stay tuned.

Méta-Media is France Télévisions' collective blog that focus on the evolution of traditional media, new media and journalism.
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