Relationship Between User Growth and Content Algorithms - Douyin vs Kuaishou

How differences in their content AI strategies affected the speed of growth for two of China's biggest apps.

China’s Kuaishou mobile app (known as ‘Kwai’ in the international market) started off in short form video sharing in November 2012. Douyin (the Chinese version of Tik Tok), was released in September 2016, almost four years later. But by early 2019, with about 250 million Daily Active Users (DAU), Douyin had already exceeded Kuaishou in user base.

How did Douyin overtake a four year head start in such a short time? 

It owes in part to the differences in their overall business strategy — Kuaishou was often said to be more laid back and focused on product excellence; whereas Douyin was very aggressive on growth and marketing. 

However, lessons can also be learned from the early differences between how they programmed their content AI algorithms. While this is carefully guarded proprietary information, in the year 2019 when Douyin overtook Kuaishou and nearly doubled its user base within a year, many industry observers in China did a thorough comparison between the two apps and uncovered the following. 

Equality and relationship based sharing

Kuaishou’s founding mantra was to provide an equal opportunity platform for folks in rural areas to be heard and seen —due to the humble backgrounds of both founders. 

And because of that, when a creator first publishes his video, the content will be primarily pushed to users who are his followers or those who have expressed interest in the subject matter. 

However, whether this content gets more exposure is heavily dependent on the engagement rates within the first 24 hours. And once a piece of content shows stagnation in engagement rates, the app starts to reduce its exposure to free up slots for newer content. 

One article postulates that Kuaishou maintains a cap on how much viral content are served to any users at 30%. The rest of the 70% are reserved for mid to long tail content. This ensures that the platform is not dominated by big wig creators who have an algorithm advantage in initial engagement rates due to their large followings. 

But at the same time it also means that top creators spend a longer period to build up their following compared to Douyin — which has no qualms about milking ‘one-hit wonders’ and creating sudden fame for even a new creator. 

Response sampling and popularity based sharing

Compared to Kuaishou, Douyin focuses a lot more on serving up viral videos. A big follower base is not an automatic guarantee of views, and vice versa. 

How Douyin does this is via an initial sampling set made up of users who have historically responded well to the video’s genre, as well as the creator’s fan base. Studies have shown that only about 10% of a creator’s follower base will see his new video initially. 

Using this method, new content on Douyin has a chance of proving its popularity within an initial window period of up to one week. If the engagement metrics proves its worth, then Douyin will make a second push to a new set of users with the aim of making it viral. 

Success begets success in Douyin, as the app loves pushing popular videos to a broad audience and increasing that reach as its popularity grows. This makes the odds of sudden success more likely in Douyin.

However, like most crowd creator based platforms, Douyin’s algorithm is also suspected to favor creators who can put out quality content regularly and consistently achieve follower growth and engagements. 

Social and socialist app vs meritocratic and populist approach 

In short, Kuaishou emphasizes serving content from people you actually follow, making it more of a relationship building app. It also tries to set aside a certain amount of content serving capacity for all users and new content to ensure a more equitable platform. 

This approach is a reflection of its founders’ goal of making the platform more ‘socialist’ in nature and looking after the underdogs from rural areas with less resources and opportunities. 

In contrast, Douyin could be said to be a ‘capitalist’ app in its very nature. It’s a meritocratic system where everyone has an opportunity to rise to the top when you start out. But once you are up there and have the resources to maintain an edge, you would also have gained a strong advantage at staying up there. 

Users are also more likely to find content recommendations from big wig creators and flavors of the moment than in Kuaishou.

These differences have led some observers to point out that despite Douyin capturing a higher portion of affluent, city dwellers, Kuaishou has a better conversion rate for live streaming e-commerce. This could be due to the fact that in the latter, the trust level and relationship between creators and followers are stronger. In contrast, Douyin provides impersonal, quick gratification entertainment value since it heavily prioritizes content with mass appeal. 

That said, now that both apps have burnt tens of billions on user acquisition and dominated China’s live streaming and short form video market, they are converging in their use of creators who are ‘Key Opinion Leaders’ to drive e-commerce. 

This is a natural next step. As I oft say, “Having hundreds of millions of users is pointless if you can’t effectively monetize it.” In fact, it could become the rock that sinks you to the bottom because of the huge maintenance cost in both infrastructure and user experience expectations.