Douyin is a short video and livestreaming app that is often referred to as the Chinese version of TikTok. Since they are both products from the same company -- ByteDance -- this description is not inaccurate. But it is also misleading, for at one year older, Douyin is a much more advanced app than TikTok, packed with significantly more features and monetization capabilities.
At 600mm DAU in just mainland China alone, it ranks just behind much older, more established apps like Instagram and is more than twice as large as Snapchat. Revenue wise, the app is rumored to contribute over half of ByteDance’s estimated $37Bn in sales for 2020, meaning that it is probably not far behind YouTube. In terms of time spent, Douyin clocks in at over 80 minutes a day for active users. Unlike these other apps, however, Douyin was only launched in September 2016 and is not even five years old.
In this article, we help you understand the history and key features of Douyin. Wherever relevant, we give you the reasoning and context behind the app’s most important functionalities while highlighting the ones that we think could eventually make it into TikTok. Finally, we end with some concluding remarks about lessons we can learn from Douyin, its design, and business model.
Before we dive in, check out the interactive Douyin prototype we built to emulate the real app experience 👇 (you currently can't download Douyin in the US)
Douyin’s origin story is as unlikely as it is inevitable. To understand the tailwinds that propelled it to the top requires us to go back in time to the early 2010s, when improving infrastructure and innovations in user behavior created an ideal environment for a wave of user-generated short video companies.
To give you a flavor of the era, consider the following milestones:
• China becomes largest smartphone market in the world in 2011
• 30% or 300mm of China’s 1.3 Bn mobile users are 4G subscribers by 2015
• In 2012, China’s first livestreaming company YY goes public on a tipping business model and has 60mm MAU
While ByteDance is now China’s most valuable private company at $180Bn, it had humble beginnings and struggled to raise money. That’s because very few investors believed in the company’s core insight, which was that instead of the traditional model of search, where the user finds the content, it would turn this model on its head and have the content “find the user” instead. To do so, it would recommend an endless feed of personalized content to the user by relying on a machine learning recommendation algorithm.
Its first success, a news app called Toutiao, was a massive win. Users found it highly engaging and advertisers flocked to the app. ByteDance, however, was not content to have just one hit product. From the very beginning, it did not shy away from experimentation.
In fact, its nickname is “Super App Factory,” and it’s known for launching new apps and venturing fearlessly, some may even say recklessly, into new business lines.
User-generated video was one such experiment. As we list above, the tailwinds of massive growing smartphone user base and interest in video creation were obvious to the company. However, it still hesitated to jump in. Not only was video an expensive endeavor, but by 2016, there were already dozens of well-funded short video and livestreaming apps, and eventual nemesis Kuaishou was already in the tens of millions DAU.
Fortunately, after much debate, the management team decided that the opportunity was simply too big to pass up, and launched not one but three major video projects that year, of which Douyin was actually the least favored. A small team led by Kelly Zhang, now the CEO of ByteDance China, began working on the product in early 2016 and released it that September.
According to a 2018 speech by Kelly, the team settled on four main characteristics for the app:
• Full screen, HD video: this was surprisingly rare at the time because of its cost.
• Music: it allowed creators to be much more expressive.
• Special effects filters: such apps dominated appstore rankings at the time.
• Personalized recommendations: the essence of ByteDance.
While these features seem standard today, they were novel for the time. The product was not a hit straight out of the gate -- the team tirelessly iterated on it for 6 months before their first viral hit. Throughout it all, they relied heavily on early user feedback in a process of co-creation. The team learned to make the video recording process as simple as possible, and did everything they could to solve the problems of not just how to make a video, but also what to make.
For example, instead of dances, which can be difficult to perform, the Douyin team worked with an early user to create “gesture dances,” which were far simpler and consisted of basic hand movements, creating many viral hits that way. They also created campaigns with unexpected partners, such as adding edgy filters to famous classical art pieces, which surprised and delighted their users. And of course, they focused on music, hiring experienced professionals to create some of the earliest viral sounds on the app.
Of course, Douyin’s product team, while highly attuned to their user needs, could not have succeeded without the assistance from the rest of ByteDance's infrastructure.
1. The Shared Services Platform - Like many other Chinese and global internet businesses, ByteDance utilizes a shared service platform whereby technology and operations can be re-used for different products as needed (recommendation engines, video classification, and augmented reality capabilities). Douyin was also able to leverage existing user interest graphs from ByteDance’s other Chinese apps: what a user reads in Toutiao (news app) can directly affect the content recommended to her in Douyin.
2. Superior Classification - Accurate and superior video classification was key to content diversification beyond popular categories like lip-syncing and dance. Through rich and specific metadata, niche content recommendations can find appropriate users. For Douyin, this metadata was largely gathered through the user interest graph and augmented by the efforts of many human data labelers at wages significantly lower than in the US.
3. Zhu Wenjia - The current rumored global R&D head for TikTok and considered to be one of its most talented algorithm engineers, was hired from Baidu in 2015 where he was an architect. In 2017, he led his team through a major upgrade to Douyin’s backend infrastructure that led to user numbers and engagement spikes at previously unseen levels. This new infrastructure paradigm still powers TikTok and Douyin to this day.
Ever the optimistic globalist, CEO Zhang Yiming had predicted that by 2021, over half of the company’s users would come from outside of China. In an effort to achieve that, ByteDance launched the international version of Douyin, TikTok, in late 2017. If the app had not been banned in India, one of its fastest growing markets, in mid-2020, he may well have been right.
However, Douyin, being one year older and a product of a different competitive landscape, continues to diverge substantially from TikTok in product features. While we acknowledge that some of these differences may in fact indicate future updates to TikTok as it “catches up” to its older sibling, others are probably unique to the Chinese market and may never materialize. Below, we seek to describe and contextualize some of the most important differences in:
• Messaging & Social
• Local Services
First, Douyin’s video content differs from that of TikTok in several important ways. Beginning in late 2019, Douyin began allowing content that can be up to a maximum of 15 minutes in length, significantly greater than the 60 seconds currently allowed on TikTok. This is at least in part due to the absence of a super dominant middle-length video platform such as YouTube in China. Douyin also has significantly more PUGC (professional user generated content) than TikTok.
In other words, many of the more popular Douyin accounts are from skilled teams using professional equipment resulting in a much more highly produced video, as opposed to the West, which is still dominated by rough cuts from solo creators. This can be explained by lower production costs in China, a greater willingness on the part of brands to sponsor mobile video content, and cultural preference.
Another consequence is the much greater number of horizontal videos on Douyin. Where TikTok’s 60 second limit is highly optimized for memes, Douyin’s longer time limit allows for different types of video that may include PGC source material, such as the movie synopsis we see on YouTube, or full on scenes.
While advertising continues to be Douyin’s largest source of revenue, livestreaming is playing an increasingly significant role. As of late 2020, about 85% of Douyin users view livestreams. The existence of advanced livestreaming functions is also a key difference between Douyin and TikTok. Unlike in the West, livestreaming has become a mainstream activity in China, counting over 500mm views as of 2020. Livestreams can be roughly divided into three main types: entertainment, gaming and e-commerce.
Basic monetization is the same. Entertainment typically consists of a streamer performing a sort of talent, such as singing, dancing, telling jokes, while gaming is just like Twitch. Entertainment and gaming livestreamers make money by earning tips from their audience in the form of virtual goods. For example, one Douyin coin is 10 cents RMB or about one and a half cents USD. On average, livestreamers can expect to take home about half the tips they make. The other is split between Douyin, who takes the lion’s share, and the MCN (multi-channel network), if the livestreamer belongs to one. MCNs act like talent agencies and may help train the livestreamer, solicit sponsorships, negotiate promotional traffic, or any variety of related tasks. These are features that largely exist in TikTok.
Better livestreaming awareness and in-product entry points. Unlike in TikTok, however, which currently only shows livestreams if you happen to chance upon a creator with an active stream, Douyin has that as well as multiple other entry points for livestreaming. For example, if you click into your “Follow” feed, ongoing livestreams are displayed at the top. Even if you decide not to view them and swipe up, a permanent floating number and arrow indicating the number of ongoing livestreams will remain on your screen.
Additionally, at the top left, there is a “Livestream” icon that also leads you to livestreams, although this is not dependent on your follow list. Clicking on “More Livestreams” opens up a dual-panel screen on the right that allows you to browse streams by category, including pure audio rooms, which do not exist in TikTok. Some streams may indicate a red packet icon indicating whether or not the stream includes cash equivalent giveaways, as these are popular promotional methods to acquire viewers. A search function is also available, and it is also on this screen that you can start your own livestream. Presumably, when livestreaming becomes more popular on TikTok, it will also be more visible like it is on Douyin.
Robust e-commerce features. In particular, Douyin has beefed up its capabilities in e-commerce streaming in the last two years. E-commerce livestreams can highlight the product in a “picture-in-picture” mode to spur more sales. A shopping cart icon pulls up all the goods available for purchase. Even outside of livestreaming, creator profiles now can display mini shops of goods that can be purchased directly in-app. These storefronts can feature goods unique to the creator, or merchandise linked from other shops and brands. Short video creations featuring a specific item can also display that item as a shoppable link so that the creator can get credit for the sale. After purchasing an item, the entire flow of tracking, reviewing or returning your purchase is available within Douyin.
Boost virality with advertising tools. Finally, Douyin also has another tool for creators that has yet to launch fully in TikTok, although it is being beta tested in regions such as Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. Dou+ is an internal advertising system where users can pay to promote their videos on an impression basis. They can also choose the demographics of the target audience. Advertising content is not eligible for Dou+. Interestingly, you can also spend money to promote someone else’s video, not just your own. Generally, the system is unable to make your video go very viral, but can give your content a steady boost.
Livestreaming in Douyin is much more advanced and gamified versus in TikTok, where the only interaction currently available is basic tipping.
Fan Status-as-a-Service. If we consider the number of followers and total likes as a way to measure the creator’s relative importance and influence within the Douyin ecosystem, you may be surprised to find that a parallel system for demonstrating status exists for viewers, especially within the context of livestreams.
For example, there is a leveling up mechanism based on how much money one spends within the app. A user’s level number and other special status designations are always prominently displayed in front of their name in chat. Higher levels unlock a "splashier" entrance -- instead of getting buried in the chat feed, their entrance is emphasized by their name flying in from the right and staying for a few seconds on top of the chat. This not only introduces them to the rest of the audience and fulfills their desire for attention, but also efficiently introduces them to the livestreamer, who now knows that there is a new “whale” in the room.
Leaderboards for top fans. In addition to status and effects, Douyin also uses multiple leaderboards to encourage more transactions. For example, there are Top 100 leaderboards for both entertainment and shopping livestreams, sitewide and by location. Streamers who are currently ranked will display the ranking below their name. When a user clicks on the leaderboard, they are shown how many virtual coins the streamer needs to either appear on the leaderboard or overtake the spot directly ahead of them. It is a way of motivating the user to assist their streamer. The top 3 viewers by contribution in the session are also displayed, with how many virtual coins they have spent thus far displayed in real time. Clicking through, the viewer can also see the rest of the gifters and how they rank in the session, with a similar nudge of the number of coins they would need to gift to overtake the person ahead of them.
Within the livestream itself, the streamer can also request specific combinations of gifts from viewers. Viewers who help the streamers in their goals are displayed in the window. Each streamer also has their own “fan community” that you can join where you can accumulate fan-specific status and level up within the community for, you guessed it, even more unique digital badges and items. As you can see, everything is based on the spirit of competition and climbing the various ranking ladders to make progress and achieve status.
Missions for creators. Thirdly, Douyin has also built a gamified system to bolster creator monetization. Like Douyin, TikTok already has the Creator Marketplace for brands to connect with influencers in sponsored campaigns, but it does not yet have Douyin’s in-app mission based system for creators. In the app’s Creator Mission Center, creators can choose to make sponsored content based on select criteria for a cash or traffic reward. Top submissions and their associated rewards are often included in the posting in a leaderboard format for others to derive inspiration.
In addition, Douyin has an overarching incentive program where livestreamers are given rewards for streaming a set amount of time per day for a number of days in a row, or within a specified period. Completion earns the streamer bonuses that are typically equivalent to cash.
Search also differs quite drastically between platforms. TikTok’s search features land you in an empty search bar and upon entering a term you can see all related content to specific TikTok content: individual TikToks, users, videos, sounds and hashtags. Furthermore, you can filter the results via time, relevance, and most liked.
Leaderboards as discovery. Douyin on the other hand features multiple leaderboards of top trending topics below the search box in a display format similar to Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. For hot topics, it is not just one video that is displayed, but a curated collection of videos that you can swipe through. This same mechanism also shows up if you happen to be recommended a “hot topic” short video in your Recommended feed and click on the topic.
In addition to top trending topics, the four other leaderboards are: most popular celebrities, livestreamers, trending music that’s being leveraged in all the content, and the most engaged with brands. Lastly, Douyin’s search enables you to connect the offline to online worlds via its QR codes feature.
Mini Missions for Fans. For those fans who want to support their idols to top the celebrity leaderboard, they can do daily missions in the form of watching and liking videos, commenting and forwarding, creating videos with the celebrity as hashtag, or even paying to boost views for the celebrity’s videos.
Again, as you might have expected, fan activity is ranked in a leaderboard for all to see. The reason to spend on a celebrity is purely out of altruistic fandom. The list, which is updated weekly, gives bragging rights to the celebrity of course, and additional exposure in the form of free DOU+ traffic.
Robust messaging features in response to competition with WeChat. As of March, 2021, Douyin remains incompatible with WeChat, China’s largest messaging app and social network with more than 1.1 billion monthly active users. Douyin videos need to be downloaded to one’s phone and then shared as a separate file within WeChat, or shared with a special code that gets through WeChat’s filter for supposedly malicious content.
The two products have been locked in an ongoing battle since 2018, and ByteDance’s lawsuit against Tencent for monopolistic practices is still ongoing. In the US, this would be as if Douyin videos cannot be shared to your Facebook, Instagram or whatever social network of your choice. As a result, Douyin has significantly more social functionality within the app than TikTok, as ByteDance tries to sidestep the WeChat blockade and create its own social network.
In Douyin, in addition to text messaging, you can also voice and video call your in-app contacts. You can also open group chats and group video chats. Since TikTok does not have the problem of not being able to be shared to other social networks in the West, it may not add as many messaging and social features as Douyin currently provides.
“Points-of-Interest” driven e-commerce and content. In February, 2021, it was reported that in some cities in China, Douyin has begun testing features for local services. ByteDance has made a three-year effort to have their own, accurate POI (points of interest) system, and videos can be tagged with an associated POI. In the past, clicking on the POI will simply show you more videos with the same tag. However, for POIs that offer ticketing and want to be integrated into the Douyin system, they can now offer ticket sales in app.
In addition, under your “Local” feed, which is currently absent in TikTok, certain cities now display groupons for restaurants. Since food is one of Douyin’s most popular categories and short videos are excellent for showcasing a dining experience, it is only natural that Douyin try to integrate further with the restaurants that their creators are already driving a lot of offline traffic to.
We have attempted to address most of the important differences between Douyin and TikTok as well as given you the reasoning behind them. There are a few brief takeaways that we would like to leave you with as you consider whether or not to integrate these learnings into your own product.
1. Chinese apps tend to focus on extending the user journey instead of doing one or even a few things super well. As we have seen, while Douyin found massive success with its short video product, it has relentlessly expanded into livestreaming, e-commerce, messaging and perhaps now into local services. There are many reasons for this, such as lack of interoperability with another top platform like WeChat, resulting in repetitive features. We also pointed out its shared services platform that allows for easy re-use of key technical and business building blocks, speeding up development and deployment. In addition, there simply exists a major impetus to monetize, as is made obvious by the many livestreaming entry points within the app.
2. Chinese apps in general are designed around microtransactions and e-commerce. This is just a historical artifact due to the way the ecosystem developed. Therefore, Chinese users are more amenable to some of Douyin’s features and design choices than users in other geographies. Even though Douyin actually derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising, unlike its nemesis Kuaishou, we can see clearly that its more recent and advanced changes primarily arise from livestreaming, which is based on transactions.
3. Gamification, especially in the explicit display of status and in leaderboards, is very different from most Western apps. Yet this mechanism is very common in China and hardly unique to Douyin. In fact, they exist in one format or another in most social apps in China because, once again, they are extraordinarily effective at driving monetization. Of course, they are so effective precisely because they utilize basic psychological concepts. Some of the features, such as the in-app fan clubs, build community by giving viewers a sense of belonging and purpose. Other tactics, such as leaderboards, are meant to motivate users to spend either money or time on their favorite streamer or cause. While these can generate great results, it is important to note that these fall under the category of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, and may not be as healthy for the user or creator over the long term, whether it be from overspending or anxiety over one’s status.
We thank you for reading our analysis of Douyin, and hope that you learned as much as we did. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments, and help us by sharing this page. If you want to express your support, tip us here! ❤️
Rui Ma & Patricia Mou
Sources: "Bytedance Growth Stages, Super App Factory, and Interest Graph" charts from Attention Factory by Matt Brennan
Because you can only download Douyin in China, we've created an interactive Douyin prototype that you can click through as if you were in the actual app. It comes complete with translations and coverage of all of Douyin's major features.
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