Short-form video has no doubt captured the marketing world for its appeal among China’s youth, but if a series of recent deals by Alibaba and Tencent are anything to go by, it’s not over yet for Chinese long-form video content creators.
Last week, the e-commerce giant Tencent bought an eight percent stake in Bilibili, a long-form video hosting platform known mainly for its anime shows, games, and user-generated content. Bilibili, which boasts 93 million monthly active users, has been a platform to watch due to its highly active and engaged audience of Gen-Z consumers (Gen-Z and millennials make up more than 80 percent of its users) looking for and creating content on lifestyle, pop culture, gaming, technology and more. The partnership comes after an announcement in December that links Taobao’s e-commerce platform with Bilibili’s content creators.
“This (is) testament to Bilibili’s commercial potential and closely aligns us with China’s leading and most successful e-commerce platform,” said Chen Rui, chairman,and CEO of Bilibili, in a statement. “Through this collaboration, we will better incentivize the creativity of our young people.”
Meanwhile, Tencent is the biggest tech investor in what media outlets are calling “China’s Gen-Z darling.” With all this flutter around Bilibili at a time when Douyin and Xiaohongshu couldn’t be hotter, it’s easy to forget that long-form video once had its heyday with KOLs and brands (remember Youku streaming?).
Could it all mean Chinese long-form video content creators are making a comeback in social media circles?
The Rise and Fall of Youku’s UGC
It’s hard to imagine that in 2009, just three years after Youku’s launch in China, long-form video was a fairly new phenomenon among content creators, even on the YouTube-like Youku. A Wall Street Journal article dated in December of that year quoted Youku’s chief executive at the time, Victor Koo, as saying, “Online video[s] in China are based more on professional, long-form video than in the U.S. due to….the relative brief history of user-generated, short-form video here.” This fueled Youku’s shift to expanding into more professional, licensed video content, making it somewhat closer to a Hulu or Netflix than a YouTube.
But as video grew as a marketing medium in China, Youku became an attractive option for influencers and brands alike. Yet, brands that had marketed to consumers on Youku were beginning to pull out around 2016 to shift their focus on capturing the rise of shorter-form video and livestreaming apps. According to Gartner L2 intelligence group, the number of luxury brands maintaining an active channel on the platform in 2017 (which was then called Youku Tudou) dipped lower than what it was in 2014.
So what happened in between?
Youku was hailed as a boon for brands and marketers because they could set up official accounts on the platform to run marketing campaigns with KOL partners that could then be shared through Weibo, or even direct viewers to make purchases immediately through Taobao links (Youku is owned by Alibaba).
But from a content creator’s perspective, the outlook was not so bright, at least from a monetization standpoint. One commenter in a 2016 Reddit thread compared monetizing Youku videos with pre-roll ads to putting Adsense ads on a website “in that it is the absolute bottom rung of the monetization ladder.”
ParkLu’s chief marketing officer Elijah Whaley says it was difficult for even KOLs with large followings on platforms like Youku and iQiyi to monetize their content in a way that was lucrative, which is completely opposite YouTube’s model. “I remember you had to have something like 100,000 followers before you were even allowed to be accepted to Youku’s ad payment network,” Whaley says, he only managed to make a few $149 (RMB 1,000) over the course of a year — even with about one million followers. “There was no way at all it was sustainable.”
With the time and effort that it took to create long-form video and not seeing much return, Chinese long-form video content creators took the opportunity to try out newer, trendier platforms like Meipai and Miaopai, that still allowed five to 10-minute uploads. And many took their followers and viewers with them.
Shorter-form Video and Livestreaming
Around 2016, things really started looking down for Youku as viewers’ attention spans started to split into other forms of video. In 2016, what was now Youku Tudou lost $250 million (RMB 1.7 billion), as users started to turn to platforms like Miaopai, Meipai, and livestreaming platforms like Yizhibo.
In 2017, according to L2, Miaopai videos featuring luxury watch and jewelry brands saw an average of 73,700 more views than comparable videos on Youku, with fashion brand videos seeing nearly double that. Livestreaming also quickly grew in popularity — that year livestreaming attracted nearly half of China’s internet users.
For Chinese long-form video content creators, these newer platforms also had an added monetization bonus, allowing digital “red envelopes” or monetary gifts from viewers, which further incentivized KOLs to create content that would really appeal to the user.
Though, long-form video platforms have been competing for both audiences and content creators and as new regulations further shaped the video landscape, long-form video never completely went away. Weibo’s adoption of social video that allows for user-generated long-form content (through hosting links to Miaopai, Youku, and other platforms) is considered one of the only spaces where it thrives. In fact, many credited videos to Weibo’s comeback under WeChat’s shadow, as it now has blossomed into a platform that supports a wide variety of content mediums, from long-form video, to short-form, to live-streaming, to full articles. In December 2018, Weibo moved deeper into this space when it officially started allowing Chinese long-form video content creators to upload 1080p HD video.
The Case for Chinese Long-form Video Content Creators
“There’s definitely still life in long-form video,” says Whaley. “It’s more searchable and appealing if you want to learn something or have a fuller experience with a content creator.”
Simply put, those on the supporting side of the long-form video debate agree that a lengthy video allows content creators to tell a better, persuasive story and makes more time for the brand or KOL to create an emotional bond with the audience. A 2016 ad study from Google, for instance, suggests that different lengths of video can serve different purposes, with shorter video ads better for brand awareness and longer ones better for brand favorability.
Long-form’s success as a content medium ultimately comes down to a variety of factors, including how long the video is, what platform it’s on (Hootsuite suggests attention spans vary on different platforms and depending on the setting) and just how creative the content gets itself. This is true in marketing even if video isn’t involved: to illustrate, in 2017, the same year Chinese viewers’ attention spans seemed to be getting shorter, one digital marketing trend managed to keep viewers captivated for ages — that is, with an endless feed of illustrations that tell an engaging story. Only after a user scrolled on their phone to the very end of the strip would the brand’s message be revealed.
Production quality is also a factor — just as it was for Youku back in 2009. Weibo vloggers who have grown an audience with long videos featuring interviews, tutorials, and even style shoots, are putting in the time to create high-quality visuals. This fashion vlogger on Bilibili and Weibo shoots outfit try-ons and beauty demonstrations in her living room, but creative camera-work and editing make her 12 to 14-minute videos more polished for audiences.
Meanwhile, the growing influence of Bilibili over a coveted market, China’s Gen-Z consumers, who have a particular penchant for making purchases through social media, isn’t going unnoticed.
“The reality is Chinese long-form video content creators never died, they just changed and they will continue to change,” Whaley says. “Absolutely 100 percent there’s still demand long-form. It offers a value proposition that no other type of content can.”