In the last two newsletters we’ve covered both the strengths and constraints of the two most talked-about Bytedance offerings, short-video platform Douyin and its overseas version TikTok. 

For an in-depth perspective, we’ve turned to the group that perhaps knows the platform the best: influencers. In this issue, TechNode’s Beijing correspondents Sheng Wei and Cassidy McDonald interview Liu Qikun, a Douyin celebrity who also works as an agent, as well as his bespectacled friend and “apprentice” Liu Yicun (no relation). 

Video stars

Getting deep with a Douyin celebrity

“About half a year after I encountered Douyin, I quit my banking job and came to Beijing to make short videos.”

In 2018 Liu Qikun left Hulun Buir, Inner Mongolia to pursue a career as a Douyin star.

Like many short-video celebrities, Liu participates in the app’s video challenges to gain followers. In his first hit, he lip-synced Keith Ape’s “It G Ma.” After reaching 1 million fans, Liu began receiving invitations from Douyin to attend offline events with other influencers and to partner with potential advertisers. Now, two years after that first video, he has nearly 3 million followers.

In focus / ByteDance #3

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TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.

Through “Xingtu” or “Star Tour,” Douyin’s official commercial platform for influencers that launched last year, Liu receives and manages offers from companies. In addition, Liu says, Bytedance staff introduced him to advertising opportunities with car information app Dongchedi, which operates under the company’s Jinri Toutiao brand.

To access Xingtu, however, Liu had to agree to not publish any of his Douyin content on other platforms.

“With Douyin and other apps, the difference is that on Douyin the content can grow viewers more quickly. There is more content and categories of content. To put it another way, there are more users …”

Nevertheless, Liu considers his full-time Douyin-based career to be relatively rare. He’s also noticed a significant drop in his income from videos over the last year or so. Due to the growing number of influencers, individual celebrities now earn less on average, he said.

In August, Liu began working in the talent management department of a multi-channel network (MCN), which matches influencers with companies that seek their services. He advises Douyin celebrities with followings of 1 million to 10 million on how to shape their content and attract more advertising gigs.

In Liu’s opinion, the lifespan of an average “pan-entertainment” influencer without a specialty—such as makeup tutorials, for instance—is only six or seven months. “Audiences will suffer aesthetic fatigue,” he told TechNode. Liu himself switches up his style every three months or so based on trends; his repertoire includes slapstick humor, imitations of children, as well as scripted/subtitled stories, all 15 seconds or less.

“If you haven’t put out a major hit for a long time, they might forget about you.”

At the MCN where Liu works, influencers often take on other internet tech-related employment or treat the app as a hobby.

Still, Liu believes that Douyin’s business is a “sustainable thing, as long as the internet is around.” Just like YouTube elsewhere in the world, Douyin and similar platforms are bringing influencers and audience members closer together.

“Before, you wouldn’t see what other people’s lives are like, but now you can see it on your phone.”

Check also a bonus video: The ‘master-apprentice’ Douyin comedy duo.

Deep dive

Dissecting Bytedance’s corporate structure

On April 4, The Information compiled a series of statistics on Bytedance’s 40,000-strong workforce and company structure.

In 2018, it turns out, the company’s headcount doubled to exceed that of Facebook. In addition, Bytedance employees are reportedly difficult to poach; they’re paid more than the industry average in China, one Didi executive told The Information.

Ad sales and content monitoring staff each make up a quarter of Bytedance’s workforce.

Liu Jiehao, an analyst at research group iiMedia, told TechNode that Bytedance’s massive workforce makes sense given its current priorities. “The pursuit of revenue and valuation will be greater than the pursuit of profit” as the company gears up for a much-anticipated IPO, Liu said.

As a result, while other Chinese internet tech enterprises face layoffs and restructuring, Bytedance is still seeing “rapid growth.”

Liu points out that while Bytedance now employs more people than Facebook, average productivity still lags well behind the US titan. Despite a troubled year, Facebook pulled in $55 billion in earnings in 2018 while Bytedance barely made its roughly $7.4 billion revenue goal, Bloomberg reported.

Tencent, which employed 54,000 people as of last December, fell between the two in terms of 2018 revenue (measured in billions of dollars).

“When Bytedance’s growth enters the mature stage, it needs to pay more attention to input-output ratio and generation of actual profit,” Liu said.

But retaining thousands of content-monitoring personnel, at least for the time being, may be a necessity. “Artificial intelligence technology can reduce pressure for monitoring to a certain extent,” Liu said, but humans are still needed to check for vulgar and potentially harmful content across Bytedance’s still-growing ecosystem of apps.

Interview by Wei Sheng and Cassidy McDonald

Bailey Hu

Bailey Hu is based in China’s hardware capital, Shenzhen. Her interests include local maker culture, grassroots innovation and how tech shapes society, as well as vice versa.

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com