May 15, 2017 By FTI Consulting
As multinational companies in China embrace Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat to connect with their stakeholders, a new content distribution app is taking China by storm. Toutiao, or “Today’s Headline”, an algorithm-based news aggregation platform, has fast become the top mobile news app in China. The Company uses artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver personalised-content feeds for users based on their browsing behaviour, as well as data collected from their social networking accounts such as Weibo and WeChat. Articles and videos on Toutiao are uploaded from over 300,000 Toutiaohao (Toutiao account) creators and around 10,000 media partners, ranging from China’s official press agency Xinhua News, to independent media outlet Caixin, to top financial commentator Wu Xiaobo.
With over 138 million monthly active users as of January 2017, Toutiao is China’s tenth most-used app. Each user also spends an average of 76 minutes per day on the platform, second only to Tencent’s WeChat.
In a content-saturated media world, audiences are becoming more and more fragmented in Asia. There are more than 150,000 articles and videos published on Toutiao each day, making it tough for businesses to get their messages across to the right targets. However, the use of machine learning to analyse reading habits can make content recommendations more accurate each time when a user engages with the app.
In delivering news stories to users with relevant interests, Toutiao has made it easier for businesses to organically expand their reach on the platform, particularly benefiting the lesser-known companies. On the other hand, news from corporate accounts on WeChat only appears on newsfeeds once they have been searched, identified and added by the user.
Toutiao’s wide-ranging and user-based approach could help establish itself as a credible rival, but for now WeChat is still regarded as the leading communications channel for both domestic and foreign companies in delivering corporate messages in China.
LINE, Japan’s most popular messaging app, has announced that it attracted a whopping 13 million new monthly active users (MAU) in the four-month period between December 2016 and March 2017. Now with nearly 60 million total MAUs, the increase represented growth of more than a quarter of its user base. The surge has been largely attributed to the launch of a News Tab on the app that delivers the day’s biggest news story in a simple and visually-compelling format through pictures and short titles.
The News Tab has also been added in LINE TODAY (LINE’s messaging app-based news distribution service) for users in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia as of March 2017, leading to an increase of 31 million MAUs since December 2016.
The focus on news distribution has been taken seriously by LINE Corporation, separating content into three main channels. LINE NEWS DIGEST distributes news digests three times a day, LINE NEWS Magazine serves as a magazine for the smartphone era, and the LINE Account Media Platform brings content from 172 media partners together in the one place.
LINE’s effort to achieve its ‘Smart Portal’ strategy is yet another example of already-successful messaging apps in Asia redefining their value proposition for users. In delivering news in a number of ways, LINE is evolving in a similar way to how Tencent’s WeChat has become the ubiquitous app for Chinese smartphone users. In what is a seemingly tangential approach to maintaining their leadership, communication apps in Asia are becoming portals for users to spend more and more of their time being engaged with news, games, messaging, life services and more.
In stark contrast to social networks in the West that have traditionally struggled to establish themselves as credible platforms for curated news, app ‘portals’ are becoming increasingly popular for smartphone users in Asia as they start to rely on them for numerous purposes. One of these reasons may be their choice to deliver news in easily digestible and visual ways, catering to the wavering attention span of readers in the digital age.
The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China is planning to launch its own online encyclopaedia in 2018 to compete against Wikipedia. However, unlike Wikipedia’s open-edit policy, China has employed over 20,000 scholars from state-owned universities and research institutions to write articles covering over 100 disciplines. The project will include entries on political leaders as well as the history of the Communist Party. The final content will be approved by China’s propaganda chiefs.
The Chinese government has long-kept tight reins on the dissemination of online content, with foreign websites such as Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia being either partially or fully blocked. Efforts to control access to certain information from the West showcase the Government’s desire to ‘guide and lead’ public opinion. The site will compete with private sector rivals Baidu Baike and Qihoo 360 which can both be edited by users.
China’s strict internet censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, has hampered foreign companies’ ability to conduct business in the country. Popular business tools such as Gmail, as well as prominent news outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The New York Times remain inaccessible, making it tough for multinational companies to deliver effective communications both internally and externally. The creation of a national encyclopaedia to satiate China’s increasing appetite for information may look like an offer of an olive branch by the Chinese Government. However, the likelihood that all content will be state-approved shows their grip on the reins won’t be loosening in the near future.
Although mainland Chinese readers can still access the blocked sites through virtual private networks (VPNs), businesses should adopt a localised communications strategy in order to get their message across effectively in China. Communications professionals must also acknowledge that PR and government affairs are often closely connected in China. Engagement with local and state-controlled media can be complex and often requires a more comprehensive understanding of the Government’s objectives and motivations, as well as a thorough understanding of the background of each publication.