Editor’s note: This originally appeared on China Tech Insights, an English research unit affiliated to Tencent’s Online Media Group.
In March 2017, internet conglomerate Tencent announced a USD 350 million investment in Kwai (or Kuaishou in Chinese pinyin), a picture and video sharing social app that the WSJ describes as capturing “what life is like outside [of] China’s biggest cities”. With 400 million users in total and as many as 40 million daily active users, Kwai is believed by many to be the fourth largest social app after WeChat, Weibo and QQ. Tencent’s March investment has placed this rising app’s valuation at about USD 3 billion.
China Tech Insights takes a deep look at the app and summarizes several lessons from an app considered to be unique in the social space in China.
First-tier cities are only a very small portion of the Chinese market. Kwai targets a wide audience group including those from untapped lower-tier cities; (This is equally applicable for countries with a similar developmental pattern ie. India and Indonesia.)
Kwai does not use celebrities or KOL’s to attract traffic; it aims to build a place where everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard;
It uses algorithms, and algorithms only, to recommend videos, which means it is the users who determine what is good content;
Less is more – Kwai aims to build a super easy-to-use app by limiting new features.
China’s most controversial social platform
A short-video was sent to one of my WeChat group chats. In the video, a bunch of young men are holding onto a rigid tree branch tightly, flexing the branch once, twice and then a final third time. The third time, they suddenly let go of the branch simultaneously except for one man, who gets slingshotted into the air like a stone. The crowd bursts into laughter.
This short-video, and many other short-videos like it, making the rounds in group chats on WeChat and trending on Weibo, originally appeared on Kwai. Videos like these are apparently carefully planned by creators to attract eyeballs and raise attention through silly stunts. They get a whole lot worse.
Last year, a user with the ID “Gourmet Sister Feng”- who claims to be retired, single and childless – uploaded videos of herself gulping down unusual things like light bulbs, goldfish and cacti, explaining to audiences that this was one of her hobbies. The videos quickly brought her a surge of followers expanding her audience to more than 100,000. It was later reported by state media that these videos were deliberately filmed by the woman and her son for attention’s sake, and what she was eating was in fact synthetic substitutes.
Crude and silly content like this has generated controversy, with media outlets commonly depicting Kwai as “vulgar”and “unrefined”. It is regarded as pandering to less educated small town dwellers and villagers, closing the door on the cosmopolitan Chinese. However, after spending several days and nights on Kwai, browsing all kinds of video on the “explore” page, I have found most media reports are not telling the whole story.
A large user base and an effective algorithm-only recommending strategy allow hundreds of thousands of viewers to intuitively view a single video. Lured by an unparalleled opportunity to acquire instant fame, people like Sister Feng emerge, some of whom only use Kwai solely as a means to profit from their huge fanbase. But like I said, this is not all about Kwai.
The other side of the story
What kind of videos are most users on Kwai posting? What distinguishes it from the other video apps apart from the hype? I will illustrate with some examples.
There is a user on Kwai that I have been following since I came across one of her recommended videos in the “explore” channel. She is a thirty-something-year-old mother that makes a living working the land in a mountain village in the Southeastern Chinese province of Yunnan. During the day, she works the farm with her husband. At noon, they have a quick and simple lunch on-site. Sometimes they even dig up fresh veggies grown in the field, light up a fire and cook their meal outdoors. In the afternoon, after returning home from the farm, she prepares dinner and shows audiences what she’s made for dinner through short-videos. At round 9 p.m. after tucking her son in bed, the couple chat with their friends live streaming through Kwai.
This is the daily life of a villager living in China’s countryside, and that’s all her videos are about. Somehow seemingly dull rural everydayness has attracted more than 250,000 users to follow her account, and her videos receive clicks varying from tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands. Apparently several viewers have become friends of the couple. The couple chats like old friends with their viewers over live streams, no performance necessary. “You are wearing a down jacket in May, is your place cold?” A viewer asks. “Yes, it is a bit cold in the mountains, especially at night,” answers the wife. “Can you film a video to show us how you cook Sichuan spicy fish like you did the other day?” “Sis, you are so industrious. These days, there are hardly any women so capable of doing farm work.” “Get yourself WIFI. Its costly live streaming over phone data!” These are just some examples of the kinds of conversations that are had during a typical live stream.
For the couple, posting videos on Kwai is not a means to attract traffic, instant fame or even monetize. It has just become a daily routine to say hello to their 250,000 fans. “Thanks Kwai! Thanks for providing such a great platform for us to make so many friends from different places!” The short bio of their account ID reads.
She is just one of many sharing her daily life on Kwai. There is a girl who goes by the alias “the story of a fat girl” who exclusively posts her morning diet-breakfast creations every day and has been doing this for more than 200 days; there are rural migrant workers filming their day-to-day work and life; there are men doing outdoor angling and troll fishing and there are full-time moms showcasing how to cook home-style dishes, the list goes on and on.
Different from many other short-video and live streaming platforms, Kwai is not primarily dominated by celebrity accounts, KOLs or internet influencers. As far as I have observed, in terms of variety of content, Kwai is largely unembellished, making it an authentic place for the vast amount of average Chinese who want to express and share.
Lessons to be learnt from Kwai’s success
Before Kwai pivoted to a social video app, it had accumulated around 500,000 users, first, as a popular GIF maker. However, when Kwai decided to replace its GIF transforming function with a video uploading tab, the app saw an instant dive in active users. The pivot did not work well at the beginning; 2013 was too early for video sharing, with the market largely immature. Kwai did not see a stable climbing trend of active users until early 2014, when the short-video industry saw its first boom in China.
It is true that favorable circumstances beginning with 2014, including the popularization of WIFI and mobile phones and a cost reduction in mobile data, have helped Kwai to get ahead. But there are other reasons found within the company itself, particularly product and operation strategies, that explain its success today. Here are five lessons drawn from Kwai that explain its phenomenal and unique rising pattern.
1.First-tier cities are only a very small portion of the Chinese market
Kwai differs itself from the other social video and live streaming platforms in that Kwai is more dominated by users from less-developed areas and rural China.
According to data from QuestMobile, Kwai registered Daily Active Users of 36.82 million in March 2017(data from other third-parties claim more than 40 million). Four first tier cities saw a total DAU count of around 10 million, according to Su. This means at least 73% of users on Kwai were from outside first-tier cities. “This is largely thanks to the demographic structure of today’s China. Only around 7% of China lives in its first-tier mega cities. Thus it is reasonable that most users should come from lower-tier cities.”Su Hua, CEO of Kwai explained in a speech delivered in April.
Users from China’s vast lower-tier cities and rural places are a group that have been long untapped by many internet services. However, with the betterment of infrastructure and the widespread adoption of smartphones, this group has become a more viable target for internet companies. The largest social media entity in China, Sina Weibo, saw a revival in the latter half of 2016, pivoting from the ‘elite’-centered community towards the untapped grassroots crowd derived from smaller cities and younger age groups. Toutiao, the news app aggregator that many claim poses a threat to major online news portals, has seen explosive growth of late, another example of the benefits seen serving this group of people.
This lesson can be applied to other developing markets like India and Indonesia. Places with infrastructure similar to that of China’s several years ago and importantly countries with huge, yet underserved user groups from less-developed cities and rural places. Chinese media reports that Kwai has a technology team in Singapore and plans to launch its product in India and Indonesia. The app now also has an English-language version for the international market.
In the beginning Kwai may not have intended to target lower-tier cities. This was to some extent, decided by its early users when it was still a GIF app. However its product and operation strategies, since the pivot to a social app, have been centered around how to serve these users well.
2. Leaving users alone helps build a place where users are willing to express themselves
In 2014, when the first war broke out in the battle for short-video supremacy, Kwai’s rivals, Meipai, owned by photo app maker Meitu, and Miaopai, backed by social network Weibo, all initiated traffic-attracting strategies centered around introducing celebrities, and other people of certain influence to their platforms.
However this is where Kwai differentiates itself. Kwai has not applied any celebrity-centered strategies. It doesn’t tilt resources to users with huge fanbases; it doesn’t design hierarchy icons to tag users; it doesn’t rank users; employees are not allowed to get in touch with users who have huge fanbases; and it doesn’t approach popular live streamers on its platform to sign on as contractors.
All of the above strategies point in one direction: Kwai wants to create a platform with a light and casual atmosphere, a platform where each of us would be willing to dare to express ourselves and share videos of our lives. “We try not to bother users. We don’t want users to sense our existence. We want them to believe that the content on our platform is real and is not schemed up deliberately. This way, they’re more likely to want to share their own lives and interact,”said Su in an interview.
3. The algorithm decides what is good content
The company claims there is no human team meddling with the content recommendation system on the platform. Instead, they rely only on the algorithm to make personalized recommendations. But how does the algorithm work?
CEO Su Hua is a top algorithm engineer and serial entrepreneur. He began teaching himself how to code at age 12. After dropping out of Tsinghua University while studying for a PhD, he spent a two-year stint at Google. According to Su, the essence of automatic recommendation is the degree to which machines can perceive the rules. Algorithms are designed to understand video content, user characteristics, and user behaviours, including content browsing and interaction histories. Based on an understanding of all these things, a model can be built to match content with users. The more users accumulated, the more data and the more precise the recommendation. The company has been focused on optimizing its intelligent matching.
Through the algorithm recommendation mechanism, every user and video has the chance to be exposed to the “explore”feed, even if a user has only one follower. The more “likes” a video receives, the bigger the chance a video will be chosen by the machine. The algorithm recommends videos by analyzing what users have clicked, watched or liked before, populating a user’s“explore” channel according to their previous preferences.
4. Less is more – keep it simple and focused
Compared with mainstream social apps, Kwai is super simple and clean. First, there are only three channels on the homepage, “Follow”, “Explore” and “Nearby”. In the upper corner of both sides is a navigation drawer and a little camera icon that enables users to start recording or uploading videos. The camera icon won’t appear on the page until a user has signed in.
With a simple design, it makes it easy for those who are not smartphone savvy to use the app. The app hasn’t changed the three main tabs over the past few years, while minor changes and app optimizations have been continuously implemented in every update. The reasoning behind it is to keep the things that users have become used to.
Kwai also cuts or weakens certain functions which are deemed indispensable by mainstream social apps. For instance, Kwai doesn’t have a repost function, which it says encourages users to focus on creating original content. The app also hides its private messaging function, firstly to encourage users to share more and record more, rather than spend a lot of time chatting on the platform; but also because the company knows users can transfer to other mature social networks (QQ and WeChat), which makes private messaging an unnecessary function.
The company interestingly has not made an independent column for live streaming. The team finds this is not a good way to record and share daily life, but rather serves as a good supplement to user interactions. Kwai has made live streaming an auxiliary function by authorizing only around 10% of users to live stream. Another rule that demonstrates the company’s restrained approach has it that a user can at most follow 20 people within a 24 hour time frame.
To summarize, Kwai is the best representative that rises by attending to the need of the small- and medium-sized cities and rural places in China. Not only Kwai, many other internet companies value more and more this market and are benefiting from tapping this market. For one, this is a market where users’ adoption of online services is growing alongside the development of smartphone market. Besides, lower tier cities in China are also experiencing a consumption upgrading trend that online entertainment and culture consumption becomes more and more urgent a need.