Internet & Tech, Talking Point

China’s got talent

Short original videos are the hot new thing on China’s internet. Why so?


Jiang Yilei’s rapid rise to stardom seemingly came out of nowhere. It started in 2015 when the trained actress began posting short videos on social media. The Shanghai-native ranted about subjects as diverse as her nagging parents and dieting.

And suddenly, her videos went viral. Now one of China’s most recognised online celebrities, Papi Jiang – to use her internet moniker – has accumulated 44 million followers across multiple platforms.

Loyal fans say her fast-talking satirical videos, which usually last no more than five minutes (with the 30 year-old cursing intermittently), are not only fun and entertaining to watch but also ideal for those who are short on time.

Most of her content pokes fun at modern life in China. For instance, one of her most watched videos sees the comedian make fun of people who become terribly annoying once they begin a relationship. In another series of popular videos, she parodies women who speak Shanghai’s regional dialect but mix in English and an occasional Japanese phrase to seem cosmopolitan.

And as her following grew, advertisers took note. In 2016, Papi set the record for selling the highest paid internet ad in China. An e-commerce start-up in Shanghai specialising in sales of beauty products won an auction to pay Rmb22 million ($3 million) – more than 100 times the starting price – to place an ad for the first time on a Papi Jiang video.

Papi’s type of content is common on YouTube – though as WiC readers will be aware, that service is blocked in China. The Chinese market, of course, has its own formidable group of video streaming sites. However, till recently they largely focused on streaming TV dramas, films and (in Netflix-style) a few originally-made shows.

But as China’s social media becomes increasingly mobile-driven, ‘short videos’, which are primarily made for viewing on mobile devices, have seen their popularity soar over the past year. Papi Jiang is far from the only beneficiary of this trend. “If 2016 was the year of livestreaming, 2017 is the year of short video,” Sohu Finance, a portal, declares.

So who are the biggest viewers of short videos?

The number of people that regularly watch these short videos – usually less than 15 minutes in length – has reached 131 million, or one out of five of China’s 770 million 4G mobile subscribers. Consulting firm iMedia Research reckons that figure could reach 242 million by the end of this year.

Most of the audience belong to the post-90s generation. According to Beijing-based research firm Analysys, users under the age of 30 make up 51.4% of the total, while users aged between 31 and 40 are at 27.8%. Women also make up 61.6% of the total number of the format’s viewers.

Footage about beauty, comedy and food tends to be most popular. Less mainstream genres like documentary can also reach a receptive audience. Yang Yang, a documentary maker in Beijing, told WiC about her switch from traditional TV media to making short videos for the internet. Yang, who used to work at the state broadcaster CCTV, said she was attracted by the medium’s increasing reach and influence.

“The popularity of short videos in recent years shows me the internet’s potential. Compared with traditional TV programming, short video allows for more freedom in content selection [i.e. less censorship]. Short videos are also more suitable for today’s audience: the amount of time needed to watch a video is short so they can finish a story within a few minutes. But because the amount of time is limited, we can only tell one story, express one point of view, and focus on one character. That, to me, is something I really enjoy.”

Where do people watch the videos?

At the moment, the majority of users – around 60% – watch short videos that are embedded in social media platforms like WeChat and Sina Weibo, or popular news apps such as Toutiao Video. These platforms already have millions of viewers so videos recommended on them can generate huge amounts of traffic.

There are also mobile apps, such as Kuaishou, Miaopai and Meipai, designed for the new market. Short videos uploaded on those platforms can be shared via WeChat and Weibo too. But these apps also offer users video shooting tools, effect settings, and formats to film and edit. They are chiefly designed for ordinary people who want to share their personal lives online. Together such mobile apps distribute around a quarter of all short video traffic.

Kuaishou, in particular, is the market leader in the mobile arena. With 400 million users in total and as many as 50 million daily active users, the video app is the third largest social app behind WeChat and QQ, says Sohu. The app is most popular in third-tier cities and remote rural areas, where entertainment options are scarcer.

Who are the biggest stars?

Another leading name in original short video is Miss Yeah. She became an internet sensation after posting videos that show her creating elaborate meals in the workplace, using office supplies. Some of her most popular five-minute segments shows her grilling beef at her desk on an old tile and frying crepes on her CPU. Already, Miss Yeah’s short films have accumulated over 1 billion views across all the different platforms.

And then there is Chen Xiang, who has found internet fame with his comedy channel Half Past Six with Chen Xiang, which has surpassed 6 billion views cumulatively. With over 3 million followers on Miaopai alone, the director, who sometimes stars in his own skits, has struck a chord with viewers by again (like Papi) finding humour in everyday life. His videos are also very short, sometimes lasting no more than a minute.

Over the past decade or so most Chinese internet celebrities have proved to be one-hit wonders. But now the sector has morphed into an industry chain that is dedicated to sustaining success. For instance, Miss Yeah admits that she has a team of five to help her brainstorm and create content every week.

Similarly, Papi Jiang now lends her star power via Papitube, which allows other emerging comedians to submit videos through her channel across different video and social platforms.

“The biggest problem surrounding Papi Jiang is that her whole empire is based on one brand – Papi Jiang – so if she ever has writer’s block, the whole company would come to a crippling halt. So launching Papitube helps mitigate that risk,” Tencent Finance explains.

To nurture the next viral hit, all the internet majors have shown willingness to invest in the new market. In 2016, Toutiao, a leading news aggregating app, announced it would offer up to Rmb1 billion in subsidies to makers of high-quality original short videos. Similarly, Alibaba has been trying to transform Tudou from a traditional drama-based video streaming site to an online channel dedicated to short videos, budgeting Rmb2 billion to attract filmmakers to the site. More recently, Kuaishou raised $350 million in a funding round that was led by internet giant Tencent.

“Short videos have surpassed text and images to become the most important form of information on Toutiao,” said Toutiao’s chief executive Zhang Yiming.

With that many views, the commercial potential must be huge?

Despite the remarkable rise of short videos, Chinese firms are still placing the majority of their advertising dollars against traditional, longer videos, like drama series or game shows, on video streaming sites like Youku and iQiyi. The ad strategy for most mobile short video apps is not as developed – which means monetisation of the product is still in its infancy.

There are alternative ideas for how producers can cash in. Meipai, which has 160 million active monthly users, now encourages viewers to buy virtual gifts (to be converted into real money) to reward content contributors. It also allows producers to embed product links to their videos so viewers can shop while they watch, says Jiemian, a news portal.

For the time being, these efforts are not reaping profits. Meipai, which is owned by Meitu, the Hong Kong-listed maker of the selfie app, reported a net loss of Rmb540 million in 2016 even though total revenue went up 113% to Rmb1.5 billion.

Many content creators, unlike established celebrities such as Papi Jiang, have also been struggling to monetise their work.

In the past, online video sites tried to lure the biggest stars to publish on their platforms by offering ad revenue-share deals (similar to how YouTube now operates). However, such payment terms have largely become a thing of the past as more and more creators enter the market. “The problem today is that the increase in advertising spending [in short video] and the increase in content are not proportional,” Zhang Yi from iMedia told 21CN Business Herald. “Right now, creators rely mainly on subsidies. So unless advertising spending catches up and covers the subsidies, all this is not sustainable.”

Yang concurs: “The biggest problem facing the industry is its ability to monetise. The reality is that the company dies if it doesn’t make money.”

How about product placement deals? Since the core demographic for short videos users is young shoppers, they are usually more responsive to fast-moving consumer products like cosmetics, fashion and mobile games. Miss Yeah, for instance, partnered with a mobile game developer for one video, which shows her playing the game on her phone while she waits for her food to cook. In another video, Oreo cookies are featured prominently as a prop for the internet celebrity to turn into earrings.

Still, such deals are largely reserved for the most recognised filmmakers. Business generated by these top internet stars, including revenues from advertising and product placement, reached Rmb58 billion in 2016 – which was more than China’s box office in 2015, according to CBN Data. Such success stories have attracted a pantheon of telegenic 20-somethings to post their videos online too, but without the same returns from sponsors.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the industry has its detractors. “The rise of short video is largely thanks to the bubble that has formed in China’s internet business over the past two years. Once the bubble bursts, no one knows how long these companies [i.e. independent producers like Yang Yang] can sustain themselves without a viable commercialisation strategy,” one commentator wrote on Zhihu, a knowledge sharing site.

That said, as long as cash-rich giants like Tencent and Alibaba retain an interest in growing their market share, talented producers in this newer medium will enjoy subsidies. And successful formats will likely become valuable, sellable commodities – as has proven the case in the US. Witness the decision by Apple last July to buy the short video format Carpool Karaoke (whose episodes usually last less than 15 minutes), which the Daily Mail described as a “big payday” for its creator James Corden.

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