Top 5 Chinese Live Streaming Platforms You Need to Know in 2018

Top 5 platforms, from the left: Huajiao, Yizhibo, Inke, YY, Momo

Anyone interested in the global live streaming industry must study the Asian markets, China in particular. The Chinese live streaming industry is enormous in terms of both users and demographics, and Chinese streaming companies are on the forefront when it comes to new streaming technology, gamification and monetization methods, and product design.

There are four main categories of streaming platforms in China: entertainment, gaming, e-commerce, and education. In this article I’ll introduce the top five platforms in the entertainment category; Momo, Huajiao, YY, Yizhibo, and Inke. As a former live streamer and frequent user of these platforms, I will mix some of my personal perspectives and insights.

If you’d prefer to listen to this article, check out the corresponding podcast here.

But first, a bit of background on the China market

While we in the West think of live streaming as a fairly recent trend, PC live streaming has been around in China since at least 2006, YY was an early mover and the big player in those days.

Late 2015, early 2016 (around the same time that Meerkat and Periscope had their moment of glory in the US) China’s mobile live streaming industry took off and later that year there were over 200 apps offering live streaming. It was the most popular form of social media in China and “live streamer” became accepted as a perfectly normal occupation in many parts of the country.

The industry cooled off a bit in late 2017 and has seen significant consolidation. 2018 has been a big year for short video platforms in China so much of the media’s attention has turned there, but live streaming is still going strong, in fact several Chinese streaming platforms have gone public this year.

Even with the growth of live streaming in other parts of the world, a Deloitte report titled “Live thrives in an online world” shared that China is likely to remain the largest market for live streaming in 2018, with forecast revenue of $4.4 billion, a 32 percent increase over 2017, 86 percent higher than in 2016. Viewers are likely to reach 456 million.

And now on to the platforms. We’ll kick things off with Momo.

Screenshot of Momo features menu (left) and live streaming home page (right)

Momo 陌陌

Though Momo (NASDAQ: MOMO) is first and foremost a social networking and dating platform, it is also one of the breakout success stories of China’s massive mobile live streaming industry.

Momo didn’t always have live streaming, they added the feature in late 2015, but at first it was limited to official shows hosted by the platform. In April 2016, they opened up the service to all the users of the platform so that anyone could apply to become a broadcaster. Revenue really took off after this launch.

A look at the numbers:

On August 22nd Momo released its unaudited financial results for the second quarter of 2018.

  • Total net revenues were $494.3 million in the second quarter of 2018, a 58% increase YOY
  • Live video service revenues continued its growth momentum and the total live video service revenues were $411.0 million in the second quarter of 2018, also a 58% increase YOY
  • The rapid growth in live video revenues was contributed by the increase in the quarterly paying users (4.6 million in Q2 2018) as well as the increase in the average revenues per paying user per quarter
  • MAU on the Momo app were 108.0 million in June 2018, compared to 91.3 million in June 2017

Noteworthy features:

Unlike other pure-play live streaming apps, Momo is a social networking and dating app, meaning that it has a wide variety of features and community building activities that those other apps don’t have, for example topic-based discussion groups, voice-only streaming chat rooms, and a timeline where users can post photos and videos. This is also a key reason for its sustained success, because users are there for the friendships and social entertainment, not only the live streaming.

When I was getting started as a broadcaster on Momo I appreciated the multitude of functions outside of live streaming that allowed me to get in front of new users and grow my live streaming audience. For example, I could join a discussion group and then some of those people in the group might come watch me stream. Or I could upload a short video to the short video tab and users could find me that way. Momo also provided a lot of ways to interact with my followers when I wasn’t streaming. I could create 500 member fan groups for my top fans, and post status updates on my timeline.

Momo also constantly comes out with new culturally or seasonally relevant gifts that, as a streamer, were fun to interact with.

Downsides:

Momo didn’t, still doesn’t, have a great reputation. Despite re-branding and PR campaigns, many people in China still see them as a sketchy hookup app. It’s the type of platform lots people use privately but don’t talk about publicly.

To this day, despite all Momo’s success as a streaming platform, many people who don’t use the app don’t know it has streaming and still very much think of it as a social networking and dating app.

As for functions and design, Momo could benefit from providing better data tracking for streamers. They offer very little, making it difficult for streamers to measure progress.

Screenshots of Huajiao opening page (left) and popular streamer receiving interactive gifts while chatting with other live streamers (right)

Huajiao 花椒

Launched in June 2015, Huajiao is a standalone, pure-play live streaming app. They made a name for themselves early in the live streaming boom by investing heavily in advertising, even hiring one of China’s biggest actresses, Fan Bingbing, to be their ‘Chief Experience Officer’ (aka spokesperson) and stream on the app.

Over the past couple of years, as the market has cooled down and consolidated, they have been able to maintain steady growth and are currently considered to be one of the top platforms in China. In July of this year, Beijing Mijinghefeng Technology, the operator of Huajiao bought another popular Chinese live streaming platform, 6 rooms or 6.cn, however, the two platforms will continue to operate separately. Huajiao is currently a private company, but there are rumors that they plan to IPO in Hong Kong later this year.

A look at the numbers:

  • Huajiao posted an operating revenue of $346.6 million in 2017
  • User base of around 140 million (as of late 2017)

Noteworthy features:

In general, the app’s format and features are pretty standard. Where they stand out is their innovative contests and shows which keep the live streaming content novel and help introduce new streamers to a larger audience.

Huajiao is very attractive to top streamers because they give streamers a much higher cut of their gift earnings than other Chinese platforms. Whereas most platforms give streamers 30–45% of the gift’s value, Huajiao gave me a whopping 70%, which I understood to be typical. This may have changed since I live streamed on the platform, but as far as I know, that’s the amount being given.

Huajiao is also investing in the future. Virtual reality content is viewed by some as the next big thing for live streaming, which will enable a truly immersive user experience. While society is still a long way out before mass adoption of VR content, Huajiao is ready to become the leader in this trend, and has released VR Zone, a 3D live streaming platform.

Downsides:

The app’s format and features lack originality causing them to rely heavily on talent and advertising. Though they have added a short video feature, Huajiao is still a pure-play streaming app and may have trouble retaining users in the long term.

Screenshots: Many YY broadcasters still prefer to use the desktop version to stream in landscape mode (left); YY streamers using the PK battle function to compete against each other for the most points (right)

YY

One of China’s earliest live streaming platforms, YY (NASDAQ: YY) essentially paved the way for China’s streaming boom launching its core product YY Client, a PC-based free software that allows users to create individual channels for online live group activities back in July 2008.

To increase the accessibility and usage of YY Client, they introduced a mobile application, Mobile YY, in September 2010 and a browser-based version of their services in October 2012. Both of these were aimed at viewers, streamers still needed to use the PC software in order to actually stream.

Then, to accelerate monetization, a year later in October 2013 they introduced virtual item purchase functions on Mobile YY.

When the mobile live streaming trend enveloped China 2015, YY upgraded their app to offer mobile streaming capability in order to keep up with the hundreds of new mobile-only competitors.

A look at the numbers:

Here are some highlights from the second quarter of 2018.

  • Net revenues increased 44.6% YOY to $570.2 million
  • Mobile live streaming monthly active users increased by 21.3% YOY to 80.2 million
  • Total live streaming paying users increased by 21.1% YOY to 6.9 million

Downsides:

Because it went public so long ago, YY is frequently discussed in western media. However, while they are still a key player, they appear to be coasting on their legacy and haven’t done much to innovate in recent years. It is difficult to find any noteworthy features.

Though I haven’t been able to find user demographic data, what we can infer from using the app, and speaking to other users and streamers, is that YY is generally more popular among users in 3rd, 4th, and lower tier cities in China. The majority of users are male, and skew slightly older. It is definitely not a considered a trendy app and younger users prefer platforms like Yizhibo and Inke.

Screenshot of Yizhibo home page (left) and advertisement for celebrity live stream (right)

Yizhibo 一直播

Yizhibo launched relatively late in the game in May 2016, but has proven to be a major force in the current Chinese information-sharing ecosystem; in 2017, the app ranked #1 in user acquisition among competing platforms.

It is the live-streaming app of choice for Chinese millennials, largely due to their integration with Chinese largest social media platform Weibo. In 2016, Yizhibo and Weibo established a collaborative partnership for content creation as well as circulation.

Weibo and Yizhibo accounts are automatically integrated, users can view (and host) Yizhibo live streams within Weibo without installing any new applications. When a streamer gets new followers on Yizhibo those new followers will also automatically follow their Weibo account. And whenever a broadcaster streams on Yizhibo, the stream will be shared to their Weibo homepage and alert all of their fans. The partnership appears to be beneficial for both parties, in late September 2018, Weibo was reported to have acquired Yizhibo.

A look at the numbers:

While I was unable to find official user numbers for Yizhibo, by the end of 2017, Weibo reported 392 million monthly active users (MAU) and 172 million daily active users (DAU), so you can get an idea of the audience they have been able to drive to Yizhibo.

Noteworthy features:

Because of Yizhibo’s integration with Weibo, it is the most popular platform for Chinese celebrities to stream on and for brands to run campaigns on.

It is extremely common, almost a given, for celebrities and brands in China to have a Weibo account, (just like they would open an Instagram account here in the West) so the platform integration makes it convenient to use Yizhibo to stream to their Weibo followers.

Since it attracts so many brands and celebrities, marketing campaign fees are also a large revenue source for Yizhibo, likely to a much greater extent than other streaming platforms.

Another reason why brands prefer Yizhibo are their demographics, which are largely skewed toward China’s young adults. Unlike most of China’s live streaming apps, Yizhibo viewers are predominantly female, many of whom reside in first and second-tier cities. Spending power is mid-level or higher, making the live-streaming app an ideal environment for influencer or content marketing.

A couple other things I noticed when streaming on Yizhibo:

  • I loved the integration with Weibo, it felt like I was killing two birds with one stone and I was able to dramatically grow my Weibo follower numbers.
  • The viewer numbers were typically much higher than other apps
  • The audience felt a bit more educated and worldly, which was nice because it made it easier to relate to my viewers

Downsides:

While the viewer numbers were high, I also got the feeling there were a lot of bots. This is a very common practice on Chinese social media platforms to make them look more active than they really are.

While I might have liked interacting with the viewers more, Yizhibo viewers were also much less likely to send me gifts. Streamers on Yizhibo can’t rely on gifts alone and need to earn money from brand sponsored streams as well.

Screenshots: Inke home page (left); group stream with all male streamers (right)

Inke 映客

Inke launched in May 2015 with the slogan that anyone could become a streaming star. The app itself is pretty generic, as China’s other live streaming apps have unrolled new features, Inke has been quick to add them to their product, including virtual gifts, battles, and now group streaming.

Inke has been included in this list because they are generally regarded as one of China’s top streaming platforms. They’ve also been in the press quite a bit recently due to their Hong Kong IPO. Personally I have never been a fan of the platform. They lack originality and I surmise they have only become as big as they are thanks to a massive marketing budget.

A look at the numbers:

Downsides:

I’m a little dubious of the IPO and Inke’s long-term forecast. A report published by Arun George on Smart Karma sums it up nicely, “Inke is the only listed live streaming platform which reported a revenue decline in 2017. Inke’s average monthly paying users (MPUs) declined from 2.62 million in 2Q16 to 0.65 million in 4Q17. Inke places the blame squarely on factors such as an industry-wide slowdown and increasing market fragmentation. However, competitors YY and Momo’s average MPUs increased from 2Q16 to 4Q17. Inke has the lowest profitability among listed live streaming peers which reflects its lower scale and higher streamer payouts.”

Whether it’s due to features, size, reputation, or other factors, these five platforms stand out as leaders in China’s entertainment live streaming space.

But that’s not all. In a future article I will discuss Kuaishou, Douyin, and Bilibili, three of China’s largest video apps that also include live streaming features; Douyu and Huya, China’s most popular video game streaming platforms; and Taobao Live and JD Live, leaders in China’s e-commerce live streaming trend.