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Douyin: Dethroning WeChat

by Tom Pattinson
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Tom Pattinson speaks to Arnold Ma of digital marketing agency Qumin about the hot new social media platform all businesses in China need to be aware of

Anyone doing business with China in recent years has been aware of the importance of WeChat, a one-stop-shop of social media allowing chats, promotions, shopping and payments to all be done on this single platform. And its importance can’t be understated for most businesses in China. However, its popularity and prevalence has led some companies to forget everything else and replace a broad marketing plan with a simple WeChat plan.

According to Arnold Ma of Qumin, WeChat should be regarded as more of an operating platform than a social media channel. And when it comes to social, there’s a new kid on the block. That kid is Douyin – a short video app, that was initially popularised by people lip-synching along to famous songs. Users then started showing off other talents, performing comedy sketches and entertaining more generally; Douyin was soon mostly made up of user generated entertainment content.

Over a billion videos are viewed every day by the 350 million Daily Active Users on Douyin in China – not bad for a company that was developed by a team of 8 over 200 days. Today more than half of its users are under 25 years old, making it predominantly Millennials and Gen Z users who are active on the site.

Many of the Western early social media platforms were desktop-based sites that have been adapted to mobile. But China – without a long history of desktop internet – leapt straight to mobile. It has hence been able to develop apps that are more suited to mobile, bypassing that desktop legacy that so many western sites have stuck with. Douyin’s format of videos being presented in full portrait mode (as opposed to the horizontal mode that is more suitable for desktop viewing) has really captured a youth audience who are used to swiping, scrolling and short form content.

Today, only 15 percent of teens now post to their WeChat moments feed says Ma. “When social media go mainstream, they lose the youth,” he explains. “We can see how Facebook lost the youth when they went from niche to mainstream and we now are seeing the same with WeChat.”

Douyin’s video only platform has come at the right time. This is particularly true in China, where Chinese people spend a combined 600 million hours a day watching short videos on their phone. Ma argues that Douyin is leading the way in third generation social media. First generation – the MySpaces of this world – made users dive into and out of other users’ pages or blogs. The second generation of social media platforms such as Facebook aggregate a feed that allowed people to see all of their network’s content by scrolling down one page. But the third generation Douyin-style platform is content rather than network led. Artificial Intelligence algorithms present the user with content that will be most suited to them, regardless of whether they “follow” the content producer or not.

Users can then like and comment on the content. More likes and views cause the algorithms to present the content to those users who favour those categories and positions it in front of more users.

Therefore, even content from accounts with a relatively small number of followers can get seen by huge numbers of people if the content they produce is suitably interesting and has “thumb-stopping” power.

For businesses this presents an interesting opportunity. Unlike sites like WeChat or Instagram where users must already be following a business account to view their content, with Douyin, the content might be presented to them whether they follow the account or not. Obviously, this enables the size of the reach of the business to be much wider. Furthermore, the more content produced and the more it is viewed, the higher up the rankings that user becomes. Therefore, Douyin starts doing the promotion on behalf of that business.

And of course, in-app shopping is available, allowing people to buy clothing worn or items featured in the content. “I was watching a video the other day of this man picking fresh chillies in rural China, chopping up meat, preparing freshly ground spices and herbs then cooking everything on a huge wok over a wood burning stove” explains Ma. “My mouth was watering as I watched this. I said to myself, I wish I could eat this now. And then in the bottom corner a button popped up to enable the user to buy that exact chilli and beef sauce. In China, you could order that at lunch time and have it with rice in the evening! This is not an ad, it’s the perfect and seamless integration of content and commerce that the likes of Facebook have struggled to crack for years.” he says.

Adverts, according to Ma are getting smarter. Companies don’t need to have followers and reach users specifically targeted by the platform’s AI. A combination of organic branded content and paid for ads (to boost reach) offer two different (and low cost) approaches, and real time insights can be garnered on products from users’ comments and reactions.

Douyin has a sister site in the West called TikTok (which is also owned by the Chinese company Bytedance) but Ma is quick to point out they are not the same. “Douyin is less silly than TikTok,” he explains. “It’s more useful and more creative and is hungry for quality content.” He argues that it will bring back the rise of the creative rather than the commentator. “Sites like Instagram brought about the rise of the social influencer who were mostly nothing more than commentators. Foodies who took pictures of their meals or fashionistas taking pictures of a handbag,” he says. “With Douyin we will see the rise of the social creator – actual chefs preparing the meal or designers making fashion items.”

For British brands looking to keep their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, a presence on Douyin might well be an incredibly cost-effective way to tap into China’s youth market.

 

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