How Toutiao Is Stealing WeChat's User Base

How Bytedance’s Toutiao Is Stealing WeChat’s User Base

While almost every person has heard of WeChat, you’ll find far fewer have heard about Jinri Toutiao. It’s one of the hottest new social media/news platforms in China. Created by Bytedance, the company behind 2018’s smash social media success Tik Tok. While less recognized internationally, Jinri Toutiao, has become one of the most popular digital platforms in China in recent years.

So What is Jinri Toutiao (今日头条)

Jinri Toutiao (more commonly referred to as just Toutiao) is a news aggregator. Created way back in 2012 that has been picking up steam in recent years. The translation of the platform’s name roughly translates to “Today’s Headlines”. This gives us a good idea in itself on the positioning of the platform in China’s digital landscape. I bet you’re wondering, if it’s just a news aggregator how can it possibly compete for users with China’s super-app, WeChat?

If you’re not familiar with WeChat it might seem like these platforms are completely different and shouldn’t really compete directly. However, if you know a bit more than average, you’ll know that typical user behavior on WeChat includes reading news and stories published on the platform. So it’s not so much that Toutiao is stealing users away from WeChat completely. But with many users now choosing Toutiao as their go-to news platform it’s been having a dramatic effect on the amount of time users spend on WeChat. It’s easy to see how this platform could be affecting WeChat’s numbers just by its growth.

As of Q3 2018. Source: Dragon Social

While WeChat still dominates the majority of user activity on the average Chinese’s user’s phone, Toutiao’s share is growing rapidly. This presents a challenge for WeChat. Almost all of its monetization efforts for the app tie directly in with users consuming content on the platform.

Share of User Mobile Time Spent by Companies
Share of User Mobile Time Spent by Companies

So How Does Toutiao Differentiate Itself?

Toutiao differentiates itself from other content-serving platforms by relying strictly on AI to make recommendations to users on what to read. Unlike other platforms which take strong cues from what a users’ friends share, Toutiao only recommends articles based on individual user behavior. This user behavior includes the articles you click on, the time of day you typically read articles, how long you spend reading each article, which articles you dismiss, and how you scroll through articles.

So it boils down to how the user is able to access content. On WeChat users are limited in their ability to discover new content. They need to either directly search for new content or have it shared to them by someone in their list of contacts. If you’re looking for something specifically catered to you, you’ll need to go out and find accounts that match your interest to follow. With Toutiao on the other hand, all you need to do is browse for a while and it will create a profile tailor-made to your interests.

It might not look special, but Toutiao has powerful AI guiding its content suggestions!

So I bet you’re wondering, where does all this content come from? As of Q3 2018, Toutiao had over 1.1 million publisher accounts registered on the platform! These publishers include media organizations, government institutions, individual websites/bloggers, and companies. According to thepaper.cn over half a million stories are published on Toutiao every day!

The platform provides a way for content creators to post their content. It wouldn’t survive long without quality content creators. It’s created several programs to reward creators for their work. For example, 100 high-quality articles are selected per day and given a reward of RMB 300. While on a monthly basis, 20 articles are selected and given a reward of RMB 5,000. Aside from just rewarding publishers, Toutiao has also initiated schemes that reward content “curators,” users who report false or inappropriate content on the platform, likely a reaction to its removal from app stores in April 2018 for hosting “inappropriate content.”

Toutiao’s content creators are also allowed to dictate terms for advertising on their content. They are capable of featuring different advertising formats and positions in their content and can receive a share of revenue for clicks & views of advertisements on their content. Finally, they can earn money through the “appreciate” feature which allows users to tip creators with cash directly. The chance to make some real cash apparently sounds a lot better to many publishers than a couple of likes on WeChat. The result is that many creators are switching over to Toutiao.

How Can Marketers Use Jinri Toutiao?

While Toutiao might be stealing some screen time away from WeChat, that doesn’t mean you should skip over WeChat. Both these platforms have a place in any marketers digital strategy in China. While WeChat might not be the best platform disseminating news, it’s become an essential part of doing business in China. Businesses are expected to have a WeChat official account, which acts as a customer service hub, website, and information center for prospective customers all-in-one.

Toutiao does offer some enticing features for marketers who want to get their name out there though. Since Toutiao serves articles to users based on their interests your articles will almost exclusively reach a receptive audience on the platform. Which means that views/reach on the platform is highly targeted. Toutiao has also begun offering social features. Users can share articles they like under a separate tab. That gives publishers the chance to go viral both socially and through the Toutiao Algorithm. Becoming a registered publisher with Toutiao is a simple and easy way to open your business to the possibility of going viral. Becoming registered on the platform should be on every business planning to enter China’s checklist.

In terms of advertising, Toutiao is essentially one giant newsfeed. Given the increasing popularity of newsfeeds its no surprise that Toutiao offers this ad format. This is likely the most popular advertisement that the platform offers. But with the popularity of its’ other apps, Bytedance has created a pretty comprehensive ad network with a variety of formats. This network covers Douyin (Tik Tok), Xigua Video (A competitor to Tencent Video/Youku), Toutiao, and a range of other publishers. Making it quite attractive to many marketers.

In terms of cost, advertising in Toutiao is quite reasonable as compared to WeChat. With the cost per click on most formats ranging between RMB 0.2-1.0. So if you’re looking to make a big splash and reach a large user base, Toutiao would be a better choice. With WeChat advertising costs ranging between RMB 2-5 CPC and performance based advertising being quite limited, Toutiao is certainly better from a cost perspective.

What’s Been the reaction from WeChat creator’s Tencent?

So far, Tencent doesn’t seem to be worried about it. It did recognize the potential in news aggregators and chose to back its own aggregator Qutoutiao (趣头条), which translates to “fun headlines”. The platform has done so well in a crowded market that it chose to IPO in late 2018.

In February 2019, Tencent also rejected the application of Toutiao to open a mini-program on WeChat. Mini-programs are essentially small app like programs that run within the WeChat ecosystem. While Tencent claimed that the application had been rejected due to Toutiao failing to hand in the required documents on time. Many are speculating that this was a calculated move to deal with a competitor. It also removed a range of competing apps at the same time, including NetEase Cloud Music, DiDi, and JD.com. I find this move quite perplexing as this would have been a way for users to still access Toutiao without leaving the WeChat ecosystem. Essentially solving WeChat’s problem.

Tencent also made significant changes to WeChat at the end of 2018, releasing its latest version of the app, WeChat 7.0. In this version of the app, they added several features to help content travel further and allow readers to access content easier. This can be seen in its addition of the “Wow” feature. Anytime a user likes an article it’s instantly shown in the top stories section of the user’s contacts. The Top stories section in itself is also a relatively new addition. It allows WeChat to use its own algorithm to suggest news to users. It’s likely we’ll continue to see new features get added to the WeChat platform to improve how users access content. Under the current system, it’s hard to imagine WeChat remaining the top destination for content readers in China. So many new competitors are rising to challenge them.

The Top Stories Feature on WeChat

Thoughts for the Future

For the near future it seems like there is room in the market for both of these platforms. Both offer unique features and offer enough to keep users interested and engaged. WeChat continues to dominate screen time for mobile users. But it is disconcerting that Toutiao has been able to make so much headway. Tencent will likely be doing everything it can to stop the drain of users from WeChat to Toutiao. It will be interesting to see what features they add to WeChat to keep it competitive in the contest to win the most screen time on Chinese users’ smartphones.

One platform has done the impossible in China, steal user's away from WeChat. Learn more about Jinri Toutiao the top news aggregator app in China.
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Tony DeGennaro
Tony DeGennaro is an expert in China Social Media. Tony is a passionate marketer with interests in social media, marketing analytics, and search engine optimization. He specializes in Chinese Social Media and Advertising. After getting his MBA with a concentration in Marketing at CUHK he became one of the founding partners of Dragon Social in Hong Kong.
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