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China’s Hottest New Social Media App

Douyin, an addictive video app with 300 million active users, has fashion and beauty brands wondering whether they should get in on the action.
Screenshots of videos on Douyin | Collage by BoF
By
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China — If asked to name the most popular iPhone app on earth, colossal international platforms like YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook may seem likely contenders. Even though all of these figured in the top five most downloaded non-game iOS apps in the first quarter of this year, the top spot was actually taken by a newcomer from China.

Douyin — also known as “Tik Tok” in its international version, popular in markets such as Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand — was launched by Beijing-based Bytedance in 2016 as a Music.ly clone for disseminating lip-syncing videos with clever effects. But in just 21 months, the app has hooked hundreds of millions of young people in China.

Its success in China helped make it the most downloaded non-game iOS app on the planet for the first three months of 2018, according to data from US research firm Sensor Tower. Douyin clocked up more than 45 million downloads over that period.

“It’s come from virtually nowhere to be quite big,” says Michael Norris, research manager at Resonance China's consumer insights, naming and brand strategy team, Smart, adding that Douyin’s 150 million daily active users puts it on par with Chinese search giant Baidu for users. According to Douyin, that figure rises to 300 million when you extend the scope to monthly active users.

“Less than two years to be able to achieve that scale, that’s really, really quick. We’ve now got a lot of brands coming to us and talking about this idea of WeChat, Weibo and Douyin as the formation of their social media presence, which is an interesting shift.”

From its lip-syncing roots, Douyin has grown to become a more diverse, Vine-like centre of short-video entertainment. It is also worth mentioning that Bytedance bought out competitor Music.ly last year, combining the two apps into one product.

Today, Douyin’s short, 15-second videos attract content of all kinds, from the very basic, classic internet clickbait — pretty girls pouting at their phone camera, cute kids, and animals — to more sophisticated, scripted efforts.

As well as attracting star influencers from other platforms — including Papi Jiang, doyenne of China's online video KOLs with a laundry list of brand affiliations and now almost 16 million Douyin followers — Douyin has spawned a new generation of key opinion leaders.

Feeding a youth addiction

The androgynous look and short, platinum hair of @Tender_Huang_Meng is one that has cut through the Douyin noise, with more than four million fans obsessed with her skincare regime and noting the high-low mix of brands she styles for lip-syncing videos.

With more than six million fans, the humorous personal styling videos of @Yang_Gong_Zi_Yao_Shang_Jin — many starring his wife, a Douyin star in her own right — are clean and easy-to-follow examples of how entertaining information can be delivered via Douyin.

The Chinese edition of Grazia doesn’t have an independent app, relying instead on platforms, including Weibo, WeChat and now Douyin, to disseminate content. For Grazia, celebrity videos in particular have proven popular, especially when a simple message is delivered from a beautiful face with appropriate musical accompaniment.

I think Douyin is magic; people say it's like a demon, but it basically makes people addicted.

Ye Menghui (also known by the English name Maxine Ye) is the social media executive chief editor at Grazia China. While she believes that Douyin’s hold on its audience is powerful, she says its long-term value as a messenger is still impossible to determine.

“I think Douyin is magic; people say it’s like a demon, but it basically makes people addicted by combining music, shortness, sharpness, a combination of funny, interesting content, and continuousness,” she explains.

“Weibo is a microblog; it’s good for connecting and sharing information, but for young people Weibo is lacking. Douyin has divided public opinion. Lots of official sources say Douyin influences this generation of young people because of its addictive nature, makes them waste a lot of time, but I tend to think if they weren’t wasting time on Douyin [those inclined to while away hours on the app] would be wasting time on something else [anyway].”

Distinct from giant video hosting services like Alibaba’s Youku Tudou, iQiyi and Tencent Video, short-video apps are abound in China from Kuaishou to Meipai. But as Ye alludes, the difference between Douyin and some of its competitors is the fact that clicking has become almost entirely unnecessary in order for its millennial and Gen-Z audience to fall into a black hole of meme-tainment. With no pause or play buttons, videos automatically play as the user scrolls by them.

Wait and see approach

Interesting for fashion executives is the fact that Douyin’s audience is skewed more toward young women. According to data released in February from Jiguang, a mobile big data service provider, more than 43 per cent of Douyin users live in first-tier cities, with almost 53 percent of users aged 24 or under and 66.4 percent female.

In a country where millennial consumers are said to be driving a revival in consumer spending, particularly for the luxury sector, this is a mightily attractive demographic breakdown for many brands. As a relatively new app, however, these demographics are still evolving rapidly.

“Whether Douyin fizzles out or becomes the next Weibo, which in my mind could go either way, it is the place to be [right now]. The amount of interaction and popularity and how the platform is being used…by users, who are target consumers of certain brands, it’s hot, it’s super-hot. So, to not be there is to neglect the attention of a massive portion of the market,” says Elijah Whaley, chief marketing officer of ParkLu, a marketplace connecting consumer brands with influencers in China.

To this point, most fashion brands have taken a “wait and see” attitude to the app. It’s an understandable position, particularly in a market such as China, where platforms rise and fall with extraordinary regularity and the nature of Douyin’s user-generated content is likely to bring scrutiny from regulators.

Douyin owner Bytedance has seen its other major product, a news app called Jinri Toutiao (the name translates to “Daily Headlines” in English), fall foul of regulators numerous times already and Douyin has been careful to self-censor content that could be deemed as “subversive.”

The most high-profile example was the increasingly bizarre meme-fication of beloved children’s character Peppa Pig, who on Douyin saw her image increasingly sexualised or gangster-ised until the platform wiped videos featuring the hashtag #peppapig entirely for a period in April. While this may sound comical outside China, it shows how seemingly innocuous content can run the risk of sabotaging a brand’s marketing efforts.

For those willing to take the risk, there are several ways in which brands can engage with Douyin, with varying levels of control over brand messaging and content.

Risk to reward ratio

An official campaign run in conjunction with Douyin itself and incorporating the app’s popular “challenge” function (where users contribute video of themselves undertaking a set task or incorporating a particular activity, catchphrase and/or hashtag) has the ability to attract an incredible number of eyeballs, but is also prohibitively expensive. ParkLu estimates a current starting cost of 250,000 yuan, or approximately $37,600 at current exchange, with prices continuing to rise precipitously.

Every time a brand wants to play on Douyin with its own account, it's trying to win the internet lottery.

Michael Kors is one brand that has experimented with an official campaign on Douyin, launching a catwalk style "challenge" last November in conjunction with a major event in Shanghai, with a spokesman reporting positive results.

“We were thrilled to be the first luxury brand to launch on Douyin,” he said. “The platform gave us an opportunity to spread awareness and build excitement in anticipation of Michael’s trip to China while also highlighting our Michael Kors "The Walk" campaign and garnering user-generated content in support of our ‘Michael Kors — The Walk Shanghai’ activation.”

According to Michael Norris, however, official campaigns and accompanying “challenges” can be a risky proposition.

“It sounds very appealing from a marketing standpoint, but the volume of content, the geographic spread of people that are posting content and their different backgrounds and perspectives on what is and what is not appropriate, makes it very difficult for brands to control. I think that’s where the danger to brands comes from,” he says.

Adidas Neo was another early adopter of Douyin and its fortunes on the platform are instructive for others thinking of leaping into the hot seat. While their first forays garnered high engagement in excess of 250,000 “likes,” later videos struggle to hit 2,000 “likes.”

This is largely because Douyin doesn’t work on the same kind of algorithm as a platform like YouTube, which saves preferences to better target videos at individual users. On Douyin, by contrast, even if you follow a brand or influencer, their videos are not guaranteed to show up in your feed.

“It’s kind of like, every time a brand wants to play on Douyin with its own account, it’s trying to win the internet lottery, but each time it has to buy a ticket. There is no accumulated experience or accumulated benefit from doing really well in the past on Douyin,” Norris says.

Closer scrutiny needed

Another alternative is for brands to work with individual influencers on the platform, which can be cheaper, but also an increasingly expensive proposition. To this point, it is also free of the restrictive rules on influencer marketing that have hit platforms such as Weibo (where, if content is flagged as being brand-associated, brands are meant to pay both the platform as well as the influencer disseminating it).

“Right now, influencer campaigns and influencer collaborations are encouraged by the platform and the only thing that Douyin is asking KOLs that collaborate with brands is just to give them a heads up. They don’t ask for payment or anything special, so right now it’s a really great place for brands and KOLs to collaborate,” Whaley explains.

“I think the only real challenge is because of the format of the video, the brands need to work with the KOLs closely to make sure the content is really on-brand and does send the brand’s message properly.”

Sources familiar with brand partnerships on Douyin estimate that KOLs with more than a million followers on the platform have a starting price of 20,000 renminbi ($3,000) for collaborations.

The other thing brands should be aware of, according to Whaley, is that the platform is “crazy full of bots.” This is fake traffic that is used as a strategy, he claims, to attract influencers from other platforms with a history of content creation (vital for a platform reliant on user-generated content) to migrate to Douyin. A spokesperson from Douyin was not available for comment.

“I believe Douyin recognises 'This is a content producer and KOL from another social network' and [therefore] will give them a baseline of a couple 100,000 followers as an encouragement mechanism to make new content creators think, ‘Oh, this is really hot, I am being really successful on here. And so I’m going to continue to produce content,’” Whaley explains.

While Norris warns that Douyin isn’t necessarily for everyone, especially luxury or aspirational brands (“there’s only so much aspiration you can capture in 15 seconds,” he observes), he does see potential for streetwear — particularly sneakers, which have seen sales at the premium end take off in China recently — as well as beauty categories.

“For brands at the higher end, it may be difficult to make a case that it’s as important as a digital experience on WeChat, for example,” he says.

“I’m more cautious, I’m happy to be the dissenting voice in the room. I wouldn’t be banking on Douyin as the forestay of my social media strategy in China, especially at the higher end of price points, brand values and aspirations.”

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