Vlogs may be hot in China but investors remain cool

7 min read
(Image credit: Bigstock/weedezign)

Amateur comedian and former online video producer Zhu Yi recently become a full-time vlogger.

Every week, the 28-year-old makes two or three short video blogs, or vlogs. While this type of video content originally appeared on US platform YouTube, they have become increasingly popular in China in the last year, with a number of Chinese websites hosting this new content genre. While there is no strict definition for what constitutes a vlog post, it’s widely agreed that the creator generally shares details of their personal life.

Online video platforms and tech giants alike are looking for “the next big thing,” and some see great potential for vlogging in China. Hoping to seize the initiative, websites such as Bilibili and Sina Weibo have begun rolling out incentive schemes to provide vloggers with additional exposure, advertising commissions, or even cash subsidies.

However, the capital markets in China are still on the fence, with little or no investment happening to date.

Zhu vlogs for Jiangbing, a short-video app developed by iQiyi, the online video unit of Chinese search engine giant Baidu. In his vlog entries, which typically last about one to two minutes, Zhu recounts the often-mundane details of his life. In one recent entry, he recounted a weekend trip to the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, where he discovered that the city was a paradise for snack lovers.

In his vlogs, Zhu Yi focuses more on his daily life than comedic situations. (Image credit: Jiangbing/Zhu Yi)

After short videos took the Chinese internet by storm in 2016, a batch of startups popped up to host the video clips, including Tencent-backed Kuaishou and Bytedance’s Douyin. The sector is now dominated by tech giants, with more than 90% of total short-video usage time concentrated across top five platforms, as indicated in a report from data and analytics institute Evergrande Think Tank.

Zhu first heard the term “vlog” a few months ago when he decided to quit his job as an online video producer.

He’d had a close brush with fame once before. Two years ago, he had been approached by Papi Jiang, a Shanghainese comedian and online celebrity whose racy monologues in a digitally altered voice have garnered her more than 30 million followers on Weibo. She had tried to sign Zhu as a member of her multichannel network, known as the Papitube.

“I turned down the offer because I wasn’t paid at the initial stage of the contract,” he said. When vlogging began to snowball in popularity during the second half of 2018, Zhu was determined to go for it. “I didn’t want to miss my chance at becoming famous—again,” he said.

Zhu’s vlogs currenly only attract a few hundred views each, which hardly makes him an online celebrity. As a newcomer to the vlogging scene, Zhu says he is still struggling to find a way to monetize his videos. Jiangbing pays him somewhere between RMB 100 and RMB 1,000 (around $14.90-$149) as a “subsidy” for each vlog that he uploads exclusively to their platform. These payments from Jiangbing are currently Zhu’s only source of income.

Zhu hopes that sponsors will find him once his channel becomes a hit. He is also optimistic about the prospect of selling snacks through e-commerce platforms after he attracts more followers.

“I’m a foodie myself. I’m sure my fans will be interested in this,” he said.

Enter the vlog

If vlogs are to become the next big thing for China’s internet, they will first have to overtake short video, which currently reigns supreme.

Douyin, which is known as TikTok outside of China, is among the most successful short-video apps in the country. It had 250 million daily active users as of the end of 2018, according to a report released by Bytedance.

Its biggest rival, Kuaishou, has a wide reach in China’s smaller cities, towns, and rural areas, with about 160 million daily active users, according to Tencent.

Short videos, which usually last from 15 seconds to a few minutes, are always jammed with background music and special effects, and most importantly, they make people laugh. Their appeal lies in providing a quick shot of immediate gratification.

Vlogs tend to employ more editing techniques and filters; they also last longer than short videos, ranging from a few minutes to more than 10 minutes in duration. They tend to have a more confessional tone, but some vlogs have an educational component; they appeal to audiences who trust the vlogger’s knowledge and experience.

Data from Baidu Index, a tool that tracks keyword search volume on the Baidu search engine, shows that the frequency of searches by Chinese internet users for the word “vlog” started rising in September 2018. By March 2019, the average daily search volume had increased 324%. The trend continues upward.

Last September, China’s Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo organized an online event encouraging users to upload vlogs to the platform. Users who posted more than four vlogs in 30 days could be verified as vloggers by Weibo to gain more exposure on the platform, according to Weibo Vlog, an official account that promotes such activity on the social media site.

Later in 2018, Bilibili, a video-streaming site popular with young netizens, launched a “30-day vlog challenge” to encourage people to share their life stories using the new format. Bilibili announced afterward that of the 22,016 people who took part, 8,729 completed the challenge.

“I don’t think there is any difference between the vlog in China and that on YouTube … They both have a core element: to express people’s images and their lifestyles,” said Wang Yibo, who began uploading his fitness vlogs to Bilibili in 2017.

Wang maintains several playlists on Bilibili, including one that teaches viewers how to make post-workout meals and one that shares fitness tutorials. But he reserves “vlog” hashtags to label videos that relate to his personal experiences.

While the content and approach to vlogging are similar in the US and China, the monetization paths are still very different.

Last year, Forbes estimated that the highest-paid YouTube vlogger, 7-year-old Ryan Kaji of Ryan Toysreview, earned $22 million in the 12 months leading up to June 1, 2018. About $21 million of his earnings appear to come from pre-roll advertising on his YouTube channels; the remaining $1 million comes from sponsored posts.

Logan Paul, another YouTuber on Forbes’ annual Highest-Paid YouTube Stars list, also earned most of his $14.5 million income in the same period from YouTube ads, according to Forbes.

Clearly, ad revenue generates most of the income for YouTube vloggers. Just 1,000 views on the video site will earn a creator somewhere between 25 cents and $4, according to YouTube channel statistics firm SocialBlade.

Vloggers in China, by contrast, cannot expect much revenue-sharing from video site advertising. Most video platforms do not pay creators based on their video clicks—and those that do, pay very little.

Chen Zhanwei, 25, operates a video channel named CatLive with his girlfriend, sharing stories about the four cats that live with them in Chengdu.

CatLive’s first video appeared online in April 2017. Since then, Chen Zhanwei has shared more than 100 videos that have attracted more than 10 million followers across multiple platforms, including Weibo, Bilibili, YouTube, and Bytedance’s Douyin and Xigua, an interest-based short-video aggregation app.

For the last two years, the videos on the CatLive channel have been very consistent: The cats are the protagonists; they jump around, play, and fight each other. Even though the content of his videos hasn’t changed, Chen tends to hashtag his new videos with the trendy new vlog label.

“It’s not only because platforms are promoting vlogs, but also because of sponsors’ demands,” said Chen. His sponsors include Chinese smartphone maker Huawei and the American ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs. In February and March, Chen says, these companies all specified that they only want vloggers to promote their products.

Chen did not reveal precisely how much Huawei paid him, but he said that the contract amount exceeded RMB 100,000 (just under $15,000).

According to Chen, for every 100,000 views that his videos amass on different sites, he gets paid RMB 300 from Bilibili, RMB 300 from Tencent’s online media platform Qiehao, and RMB 500 from Baidu’s equivalent, Baijiahao.

He earns around RMB 80,000 every month through these online platforms’ pay-per-click advertising revenue sharing, which only covers the cost of making the videos. A team of five people help him with shooting and editing videos.

He refused to reveal how much he earns from sponsored posts but indicated that it constitutes most of his income.

Can vlogs overtake short video?

Even though online video platforms are doing their best to promote vlogs, Chinese netizens have not yet fully embraced them. Short videos are decidedly more popular with online content audiences. A report by Chinese research firm iiMedia Research shows that the number of short-video users reached 501 million in 2018.

Chen Fei (unrelated to Chen Zhanwei), a blogger who covers the digital media industry at Technology Suo, told TechNode that vlogging is still a niche in China, and that it is far from becoming nationally popular because it lacks differentiated content and a clear path to monetization.

Back in 2017, when online video platforms began chasing short videos, considerable capital flooded into the sector. On March 23 of that year, Tencent injected $350 million into short-video app Kuaishou; Bytedance announced on May 16 that the company would invest RMB 1 billion in its short-video app Huoshan. Later that year, Bytedance acquired popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly for $1 billion, and subsequently rebranded it as TikTok.

By contrast, the vlog sector still lacks investment. Despite the nascent marketing efforts to promote the making and viewing of vlogs, none of the video platforms have yet invested real funds in it.

“Capital is always profit-oriented, and it’s unnecessary to invest in the sector before it can build a sustainable ‘production and consumption’ ecosystem,” said Chen Fei.

However, the value of vlogs consists in their potential to convey more information than short videos can, making them a perfect tool for advertising, said Sun Jing, an analyst at Changsha-based Fengmang Research Institute.

Moreover, adds Sun, viewers are less annoyed by advertisements in vlogs because they feel a stronger connection with vloggers, who share more personal information with their audience.

Prior to this year, Zhu the vlogger had been posting self-made comic vignettes imitating gags from actor Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s classic Hong Kong movies on his Weibo account. Each of these videos attracts a few thousand viewers. “That wasn’t enough to support me quitting my job,” he said.

As a full-time vlogger, Zhu has kept some of this comedic flair in his videos in the form of exaggerated facial expressions and voices, but he now tries to share more about his daily life instead of relying on gags and punch lines.

“My followers didn’t stick with me very much when I made comic videos, but now they do,” said Zhu, adding that what his audience likes most seems to be the feeling of connecting with him as a real person.