This week, TechNode’s translation column looks at Chinese video site Bilibili, as a Chinese analyst traces its development from a source for anime to a thriving community of homebrew video stars. This translation is abridged, and made by permission of the author. TechNode has not independently verified the claims made by this article.

This article was co-authored by Erik Stahle.

Most longform video content is pretty cookie cutter in China. Leading streaming video websites Youku, Iqiyi, and Tencent Video have the same middle-market target customers, and in turn produce boatloads of lowest-common-denominator content. Hemmed in by regulations and conservative producers, original content for these platforms tends to stick to tired tropes like cop procedurals and gaokao dramas (the Chinese equivalent of Adam Sandler Netflix movies and The Kissing Booth). One new hit show—like the past few years’ hip hop, dance, and pop star competitions —instantly spawns copycats across the other two platforms.

By contrast, the Bilibili video community has a distinct personality. Founded in 2010, it initially functioned as a platform filled with pirate videos of Japanese anime.

But Liu Yan Fei, a Shanghai-based product manager, author, and consultant, writes that it has blossomed into a home for user-generated medium- and long-form content—what he calls the Youtube of China. Today, on Bilibili, you can learn to cook, watch Chinese stand up and beatboxing, and even study with Coursera-style lectures on continental philosophy. Liu writes that its low-budget sensibility encourages people to experiment—and creates an environment in which a high school teacher with a chalk board can be a star.

If you speak Chinese and want a taste of the Bilibili sensibility (outside of its core anime offerings), check out this hysterical low-budget “The Office”-style show called “Building C, Office 802.” Another favorite of mine is down to earth chef Wang Gang available, here on Bilibili or in English on Youtube (just turn on closed captioning). The cinematography takes its time—think The Great British Bake-Off if it was set in rural Sichuan. His videos with his uncle butchering pigs and cooking bamboo rats are priceless, and I trust the man’s views on the future of Beyond Meat in China

Bilibili still books over half of its revenue from a single grindy mobile card game called Fate/Grand Order and hasn’t allowed video content creators to monetize like they can on Youtube. But unlike TikTok, Bilibili has a user base intensely loyal to its platform and provides creators with more reliable view counts than other Chinese user-generated content platforms. 

With so much of Chinese culture run by norms of “enforced normalcy,” Bilibili is the rare platform where sarcasm, nonconformist niches, and ever so slightly edgy content has a home. 

Bilibili is becoming Chinese YouTube

Liu Yan Fei Yu, Dec. 18, 2019

These past few years, Bilibili has become a representative zone for otaku, as well as Gen Z. It’s like HuPu for exercise lovers, DouBan for literature and arts lovers, and Zhihu… you get the point. Bilibili’s current changes are open for all to see.

Thinking back to the most recent news I have heard about Bilibili, this made me notice an important point:

  • While people are telling others to watch professional user generated content (PUGC) no one is talking about the three large Netflix-like sites [which themselves have UGC channels] (iQiyi, Youku, Tencent Video); they are all links to Bilibili.

This tells us that Bilibili has already been successful in breaking into the circle of other media groups.

This graphic plots Bilibili’s audience by age and audience, showing it moving up from a core user base of college students to young professionals, and from its core content of anime to more serious stuff like teaching materials, as well as lighter videos like variety shows and tv programs. (Image credit: Liu Yan Fei)

Bilibili’s expansion is coming from two different dimensions (pictured above). The first is a growing user community, where is attracting an older audience (as shown in the image above). Other than using new topics and content to attract older users, the more important point is adapting content to original users, which are beginning to enter middle age and changing their content preferences.

The second is subject expansion. Anime, music, dance routines, autotune remix, vlogs… this is all material that young people like, which can make it difficult to switch to more serious content. However, in these past two years, Bilibili has put out endless new content, and it has a huge number of viewers to boot. I have seen many bullet comments stating, “I’m unexpectedly on Bilibili to study!”

I believe that this has a lot to do with Bilibili’s PUGC environment. The three major sites have lots of copyrighted and self-produced, large-scale content that compete against each other, while most people on Douyin, Kuaishou, and even Taobao live streaming battle in short form content. Creators of videos in between these two major types have ended up putting their content on Bilibili.

Bilibili’s creation bonus

For content creators, Bilibili has some pretty significant pluses:

Low production costs

The low barrier to entry for short video content cannot go unnoticed as a factor in Douyin’s fast expansion. In fact, as Douyin’s name implies, it was originally a music platform, due to the extremely low barriers to creating content. Funnier and more entertaining content is something that needs time and a greater understanding of viewer demand to produce, something that can only be learned day by day.

Bilibili’s video content is generally of much higher quality than that of Douyin, as videos are a bit longer. However, the easiest tool for creating Bilibili content is also a phone. (To make the video a quality a bit higher, one can also run it through the computer first.)

bilibili story of chuanr life on a skewer
Bilibili-produced food documentary ‘Life on a Skewer’ was a bit (Image credit: Liu Yan Fei)

[Translator: Bilibili also produces its own television shows, which of late have been some of the most novel and innovative on offer in China.] “Life on a Skewer” [a Bilibili-produced show available here on Youtube—it’s a wonderfully produced paean to kebabs across China] is a show which many of the main sites were unwilling to invest in. They saw it as too crude, and that the food was too low-class. Only Bilibili dared to invest—and in the end viewers dared to watch, even enjoying it very much! This is a great illustration of the gap in consumer expectations.

bilibili necromancer financial
Bilibili channel Necromancer financial. (Image credit: Liu Yan Fei)

Of course, performance arts still need a production cast, and the very popular “Necromancer Financial” is typical of PUGC. The imagery of the show is a hodge-podge of images and videos collected from the internet. However, the core content is not the imagery, but it is rather the text information. This is essentially similar to the “powerpoint-ization” of video explanations and Wechat public account articles.

For low production values, it’s hard to beat Bilibili star teacher Li Yongle. (Image credit: Liu Yan Fei)

Consider the videos from famous teacher Li Yongle, where the whole video is just writing on a blackboard, sometimes even without any sound. Of course, this makes the production costs even cheaper. However, users don’t seem to care at all about this. I did not see a single person asking why this video is not the same quality as a BBC documentary. On the contrary, most people commenting said that this video brought them fond memories of high school.

The leniency of users’ expectations for production content give creators more leeway to try things with lower costs.

Lastly, I recently spoke with a friend about why not as much professional user generated content has become popular. We felt that one point was the most important: In the past, users were watching videos on their computers, where large screens and comfortable watching environments set the expectations for videos high. However, today almost everyone is watching videos on their phones. With this comes smaller screens, more fragmented viewing periods, and shorter attention spans. Therefore, viewers’ expectations for quality has declined.

Healthy communities

When speaking of health, one has no choice but to bring up Zhihu [the Chinese Quora equivalent]. 

In my own point of view, content communities suffer from an impossible trinity: the platform earning a lot of money, having satisfied users, and top creators getting appropriately compensated. These three are very difficult to balance.

Zhihu’s situation is not that they are only missing one of these three points, but rather, that they are missing all three of these. Essentially, due to differences between users, creators, and leaders at Zhihu itself, none of these are able to link. And at the same time, the company is not able to earn money. It really is curious.

By comparison, Bilibili’s environment has many friendly relationships. First, the relationship between the company and creators is quite good. 

Next, the relationship between creators and users is usually rather good. There is a high amount of stickiness for users, and mean-spirited bullet comments are amongst the lowest level on the entire internet [but not always—consider the harassment of Fang Kecheng for alleged Hong Kong independence sympathies]. 

Another point is user stickiness.

Why does Kuaishou have more commercialization opportunities than Douyin among live streaming platforms? This is because Kuaishou focuses on people, while Douyin focuses much more on content. Looking at user stickiness, Kuaishou blows Douyin out of the water.

Although the production cost of longer videos is much higher, user stickiness is absolutely essential for short video production. 

The sea of serious content

There are many successful examples of Copy to China. However, most of the products copying Youtube were not successful. I don’t think it’s because the products weren’t good: for example, Tudou is still excellent to this day. The important issue is that the market wasn’t mature enough, and the habit of watching serious content on PC hadn’t been cultivated yet.

Today Bilibili has a large amount of serious content, whether it is finance or science, there are videos being put up all the time. Although the reasons behind the market changes are numerous and unclear, the dream of “YouTube of China” is being realized today by Bilibili. 

Why bring up YouTube? If you ask our friends at YouTube you will then know, as most of the popular topics on Bilibili had already achieved success on YouTube. Even the cover page for creators’ pages is the same

As Yujun, a famous adviser to Didi Chuxing, has always said, users are a mass of demands. The meaning here is, when you acquire a consumer, you have actually only acquired a portion of the user’s demand. Therefore, when using this point of view in customer acquisition, you find a new way to define value. Even if your user numbers don’t change, if you satisfy more of customers’ demands, you are still creating value for the company.

On this point, Bilibili is a model case. 

At the beginning, users only wanted cartoon video content, but Bilibili produced lifestyle content, then entertainment, and even serious video content from the start. However, I believe the current amount of video content will not be able to keep up with the huge potential for user demand growth. While users may only currently have one topic of interest on Bilibili, in the future it could easily become five; demand growth is exponential. Even with so many topics, the excellent content you can find will not come close to that of YouTube.

Jordan Schneider is a freelancer based in Beijing and the host of the ChinaEconTalk podcast.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.