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TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

Douyu, China’s Twitch backed by Tencent, files for a $500M U.S. IPO

Douyu, a Chinese live streaming service focused on video games, has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as it prepares to raise up to $500 million on the NYSE less than a year after its archrival floated on the same stock market.

Wuhan-based Douyu, whose name translates as “fighting fish”, is the second Twitch -like service backed by Tencent to go public in the United States. Its direct competitor Huya, who has a similarly fierce name “tiger’s teeth” and also counts Tencent as a major investor, raised $180 million from its NYSE listing last May.

It’s not surprising for Tencent to hedge its bets in esports streaming, given the giant relies heavily on video games to make money. For example, Tencent can use some of its portfolio companies’ ad slots to get the word out about its new releases. Indeed, Douyu’s filing shows it received a hefty 27.48 million yuan ($4.09 million) in advertising fees from Tencent last year.

As Douyu warns in its prospectus, its alliance with Tencent can be tenuous.

“Tencent may devote resources or attention to the other companies it has an interest in, including our direct or indirect competitors. As a result, we may not fully realize the benefits we expect from the strategic cooperation with Tencent. Failure to realize the intended benefits from the strategic cooperation with Tencent, or potential restrictions on our collaboration with other parties, could materially and adversely affect our business and results of operations.”

But there are nuances in the giant’s ties to China’s top two live streaming services that could mean more affinity between Tencent and Douyu. The social media and gaming behemoth is currently Douyu’s largest shareholder with a 40.1 percent stake owned through its wholly-owned subsidiary Nectarine. Over at Huya, Tencent is the second-largest stakeholder behind YY, the pioneer in China’s live streaming sector that had spun off Huya.

When it comes to the financial terms, the rivaling pair is in a head-on race. In 2018, Douyu doubled its net revenues to $531.5 million. Huya held an edge as it earned $678.3 million in the same period, also doubling the amount from a year ago.

Huya may have learned a few things about monetizing live streaming from 14-year-old YY as it managed to pull in more revenues despite owning a smaller user base. While Douyu claimed 153.5 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter, Huya had 116.6 million.

How the two make money also diverge slightly. In the fourth quarter, 86 percent of Douyu’s revenues originated from virtual items that users tipped to their favorite streaming hosts, with the remaining earnings derived from advertising and more. By contrast, Huya relied almost exclusively on live streaming gifts, which made up 95.3 percent of total revenues.

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Screenshot of a Douyu live streaming session 

As Douyu grows its coffers to spend on content as well as technologies following the impending IPO, competition in China’s live streaming landscape is set to heat up. Just earlier this month, Huya raised $327 million in a secondary offering to invest in content and R&D. Like many other businesses anchored in content, Huya and Douyu depend tremendously on quality creators to keep users loyal. Both have offered sizable checks to live streaming hosts, promising to grow the internet celebrities into bigger stars.

And they’ve extended the battlefield outside China as emerging media forms, most exemplified by short video services Douyin (TikTok’s China version) and Kuaishou, threaten to steal people’s eyeball time away. Both bite-size video apps now enjoy a much bigger user base than their live streaming counterparts.

“We intend to further explore overseas markets to expand our user base through both organic expansion and selective investments,” noted Douyu in its IPO filing.

In a similar move, Huya’s overseas expansion is also well underway. “In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets. We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond,” said Huya chief executive Rongjie Dong in the company’s Q4 earnings report.

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

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PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

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PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”