Douyin’s attempt to crack the short video code

3 min read
An advisory on Douyin advocates for a “healthy” livestream on April 12, 2019. Douyin bans content that are political and sexual in nature, and livestreamers found guilty could have their accounts banned permanently. (Image Credit: TechNode/Eugene Tang)
An advisory on Douyin advocates for a “healthy” livestream on April 12, 2019. Douyin bans content that are political and sexual in nature, and livestreamers found guilty could have their accounts banned permanently. (Image Credit: TechNode/Eugene Tang)

Short video app Douyin, known as TikTok overseas, has won over young people around the world since its 2016 debut. According to mobile research firm Sensor Tower, TikTok was the fourth most downloaded non-game app in 2018 and has already been downloaded around 80 million times in the US. What does the story of Douyin tell us about China’s digital media and their audience?

Douyin has a large base of young users: over 40% of users were aged 24–30 years as of June 2018, according to the company’s data (Chinese link). Chinese state television channel CCTV selected Douyin as the exclusive social media platform for its Spring Festival Gala this year, in an attempt to revive falling viewership and interact with the digitally native young audience.

Users want to have fun—but sometimes Douyin has to show them how. Videos are generally limited to 15 seconds. It offers a range of dazzling filters and stickers and preset background music to make compelling videos. Users can give “likes” and post comments on the videos and share the videos on other social media platforms, forming an interactive community where short video messages spread quickly.

But what sets Douyin apart is that it proactively prompts users to generate content, which helps sustain community momentum:

  • Douyin’s internal team and general users can initiate different “user challenges” by hashtagging activities such as a finger dance or singing at a specific location, inviting other users to post their own versions of videos with a specific theme;
  • Michael Kors was the first luxury brand to leverage this feature on Douyin with the “City Catwalk” hashtag challenge, which asked users to post 15-second videos of people walking a catwalk with the brand’s products. The campaign, which included Chinese celebrities Yang Mi and Mark Chao and three Douyin key opinion leaders, attracted about 30,000 users.

Digital content is being consumed differently—more bite-sized information, fragmented clips and faster consumption. But young audiences are also more receptive to new types of digital content—from community-based beauty sharing platform Xiaohongshu, livestreaming app Huya to short video app Douyin, digital media consumption in China has diversified.

This means Chinese audience will increasingly spend time on a more diverse range of mobile apps that accommodate their many entertainment needs. Digital media relies on a thriving user-generated content to succeed, which means users have a large influence over the fate of platforms, platforms, in turn, must cultivate distinctive audiences to maintain traffic. Key online influencers are a significant by-product of digital media as they help draw traffic to the platforms: a new economy underpinned by the KOL ecosystem is taking shape.

Brands are moving onto Douyin to target young consumers. As of December 2018, the app had over 250 million daily active users, allowing it to monetize its traffic through initiatives such as:

  • Corporate official accounts: Douyin invites brands to launch official accounts on its platform and launched the Blue V verification scheme for accredited corporate accounts on Douyin in June 2018. Douyin will provide a series of marketing, fan interaction, content production and data management services to Blue V-accredited brands which include Adidas Neo, Audi and Dior.
  • E-Commerce: Douyin has formed a partnership with Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce platform to redirect users to shops on Taobao. Content publishers with over one million followers on Douyin can add external links to Taobao to their accounts so that users can purchase any product featured in the videos on the spot.

However, it remains unclear if Douyin has constructed a solid revenue model although it has a strong traffic support and it appears the company is still exploring revenue options. Advertisements are not a strong presence in the app, although advertising is usually an important revenue component for digital media. Douyin may be planning to roll out paid membership services or derive revenues from livestreaming—or even gaming, as the company launched  in-app mini games in February?