A Thorough Guide to Influencing on Douyin - For Individuals and Businesses (2020)
Douyin has grown into one of the most popular social platforms in China and its popularity translates into opportunities for many people. For the platform, it means more advertising revenue; for different brands—more advertising opportunities. And for the users with millions of followers, it's a chance to make some money.
It’s been a while since I wrote the blog post discussing marketing on Douyin, and I’ve received many enquiries from people interested in building their audience from scratch and capitalising on their accounts. So, I will be sharing with you some advice on how to build up your account, and the technicalities behind account verification and the setting up of an e-commerce feature.
The content here is relevant for both aspiring influencers or key opinion leaders (KOLs, as they are known in China) as well as brands who are seeking to spread their reach to Douyin and/or work with influencers.
You can start with the video below for a short summary of the most relevant in-app features, and then continue to the blog post for more in-depth learning.
Is Douyin the same as TikTok?
If you read any Western articles about Chinese apps or media, then you’ve probably heard of the “Chinese Tiktok”. This is not entirely correct, and there’s a reason why we stick to the Chinese name “Douyin” in all of our narratives. Douyin and TikTok are two separate apps owned by the same company, ByteDance. TikTok is an international app that is aimed at a Western audience, while Douyin is aimed entirely at users in mainland China. Although the apps are similar in their format, Douyin overall is more complex; offering many more features to a userbase that is quite different from TikTok’s.
While users of both apps tend to be ‘inspired’ by each other’s content, you can see different trends and content being produced in general. On the whole, TikTok’s userbase is much younger. Despite seeing many celebrities on there, it is pretty clear that it is an app for Zillennials. Meanwhile, Douyin’s userbase ranges from children to young adults to middle-aged users.
As of January 2020, Douyin had 400 million daily active users (DAU), an increase of 60% compared to the same time last year (source).
Setup and Verification of a Douyin Account
First things first, let’s set up an account for you. To do that you need an active phone number to receive a verification code. The phone number is attached to the account, so it’s important to make sure that it’s the phone you’re going to be using for a while as you might need to receive more codes later.
Both Mainland and overseas numbers are accepted. In the event that you have both, it’s always a good idea to use your Mainland number as it may make some things easier for you in the future.
To download Douyin (not TikTok!), you need to change your app store location to China. On the iPhone, you should be able to access the app in English. For Android devices, the app is only available in Chinese and can be downloaded from non-Google locations such as the Huawei app store and Baidu.
That was the easy part. The verification is where things start to get a bit more complicated.
There are two main types of verification on Douyin:
- Influencer Personal Verification (yellow “V”)
- Business Verification (blue “V”)
But first: Identity Verification (实名认证)
Any user can go through Identity Verification; this is basically proving you are a real person and it requires a Mainland ID. It makes the account more secure, and enables additional features such as pinning videos, as well as operating an account via a PC app. It is also the first step to enabling the Douyin Store. However, you will need a minimum of 1,000 followers and 10 published videos to access this e-commerce feature.
Influencer Personal Verification
- For the general public, online influencers and leading professionals.
- Requirements: a minimum of 1 video published, 10,000 followers, and a phone number linked to the account. Or, you can use your Weibo account to verify Douyin (if you have influencer status there already).
- Identity Verification required (see below).
- Free of charge.
- Benefits: helps build trust among users, better personalization of the account, marketing tools such as analytics and advertising options (other than DOU+); it also allows you to add a website, a H5 page or Taobao storefront, and contact information to the account.
- Requirements: mainland Chinese business licence (营业执照), application letter (template available in-app or here). ICP licence required if you want to link your official website to the account.
- Max. of 2 accounts may be verified with one business licence.
- The cost of verification is 600 CNY and has to be renewed yearly.
- Organizations such as media outlets, social communities or institutions related to the government must submit additional certificates.
- Schools outside of mainland China are not eligible for verification.
Unfortunately, without a mainland Chinese ID or a Chinese business licence you are not able to complete the verification. (The musician account requires a different type of verification.) Hong Kong and Macau IDs won’t work either. But, as we have seen with Weibo and WeCat, this may well change in the future.
If you’re only looking for more exposure—the verification is not completely necessary. You can choose to add your Douyin account information to your official website or other verified channels such as Weibo or WeChat.
However, if you want to become an influencer and work with brands, or add an official website and/or e-commerce to your account—you need to have it all verified.
Many foreign influencers verify their accounts with an ID of their Chinese spouses, friends or the people that hire them through an agency (MCN). However, one document can only verify one account and once verified, you cannot change the ID. Obviously, this could cause issues later on if you fall out of grace with the person who lent you their ID, or you terminate your contract with an agency.
Building Up Following on Douyin
No matter if you manage a brand or a personal account, there are some things to pay attention to in order to make sure your content is actually seen by the users. Douyin’s algorithm works in a way that makes it tough for new users to maximise their reach. This means that if you’re a new account, your content (no matter how good) will not be shown to anyone. The users fortunate enough to have set up their accounts at least a year ago, had a much easier start.
We’ve actually worked with influencers from Norway who hit the 200,000 followers benchmark in just five months; treating it as fun and posting some silly videos. Now, Ruben and Jon have over 1.5 million fans who interact with them on two Douyin accounts, as well as Weibo and WeChat. They even had the opportunity to work with Alipay, and started at least three trending series on Douyin that were widely copied by other users. As “Douyin stars” they were also included in Changjiang weekly magazine.
However, even though some of their videos have hit 2 million likes, they have found it difficult generating the same amount of traffic on all of their videos. So, what is the solution?
A $1,500 class in Shenzhen teaches influencer-wannabes that the key to success on Douyin is to take a lesson from ancient Chinese scholars; a period of history where students paid homage to their masters by emulating and coping their work. “We don’t need to take the risk of coming up with entirely original content ideas,” is one of the things they teach during the class. In a nutshell, all you have to do is observe the most popular accounts and reuse their ideas. [Source: SCMP]
Well… if you’re on Douyin long enough as a user, you must have noticed the repetitive nature of the content. If a trend takes off, people reshoot very similar ideas that receive thousands of likes, and then all of a sudden: it’s finished. If you’re late to the party, you won’t get any views at all.
When Ruben and Jon first reached out to us, they said they had actually reused some of the trends from the sibling-app TikTok, and then followed the trends on the Douyin. Back then, there weren't too many foreigners on Douyin, which meant that they received a lot more attention. I’m sorry to say it may not work anymore as the number of foreigners on the platform has increased dramatically over the past year.
Of course, there are still some distinctive features that may help you distinguish yourself from the crowd. For example, mixed-race couples and their babies have been trending continuously. Similar to foreigners who have mastered the mythical skill of spotless spoken Chinese. Or even better yet, they are able to speak a Chinese dialect. The best example is Gaby, a girl from Moldova, whose account is just a diary of her stories in China. The thing that makes her unique is that she speaks the dialect of Chongqing, and even the locals cannot tell her apart from native speakers when she speaks to them over a phone.
But… what about people who don’t happen to have a Chinese spouse handy? Or those who don't speak any Chinese? Don't worry. There are plenty of other talents or topics that could bring you to the attention of a wider audience.
Adapt the content to Chinese users
Forgetting who your audience is - that's a common mistake made by foreigners on Douyin (and other platforms), and I have also been guilty of this mistake. Our team actually did a little A/B testing. We took the same source material, agreed on the concept, and edited two versions of a video. I edited one video, and the other was done by one of our Chinese social marketers. We then promoted both of them via DOU+. My video attracted 400 likes, and hers: 4,000.
My point is that culturally, there can be a big difference between what’s considered ‘amusing” in the West, and in China. So, what you find interesting and funny does not necessarily have to appeal to Chinese users. There are a number of Western accounts on Douyin that do not understand the cultural differences when it comes to humour. It’s therefore important to spend some time observing your audience to see what type of content is trending. Also, add subtitles to make your ideas easier for the Chinese audience to understand. Do not just repost videos from your Western social media accounts.
“Sometimes I just don’t understand what the video is about, and they speak a language I don’t understand,” said Nara when I asked about foreigners on Douyin. But at the same time, she’s a big fan of Bart (巴哥) who does covers of Chinese songs in English, and the other way around. So, not everybody is doomed!
Develop your own style
There are 400 million daily active users on Douyin, and even if they’re not all content creators, the competition for the user’s attention is still strong. Not to mention the fact that professional video and filmmakers have already moved on to the platform too.
Make sure you find something that will define your style and become your own distinctive theme. It may be something you’re good at shown from a different angle, or a variety of topics shot in a similar way. There could be a signature move, person or accessory included in your videos. If you’re a brand, you may want to focus on one of your employees. If you’re a school, why not shoot videos using your mascot’s perspective? Let your audience bond with you, and easily identify your content while they’re scrolling through their timeline.
A series of videos united by the same concept or theme is also a good idea. Once you settle on a main theme, you don’t need to stick with it forever. But you can shoot a series of short episodes that will keep the audience waiting for the next installment in the series. Outside of the regular TV show-like series that are now published on Douyin, regular users also decide to keep their audience engaged by creating multiple episodes.
Don’t worry if you can’t think of a theme right away. Take your time, try different ideas and see what takes off. Take “Italian Bonnie” (意大利伯妮) as an example. She started posting various dancing challenges and videos of her wearing anime cosplay outfits and traditional Chinese clothing. Now, working with an MCN agency (more on that below), she publishes short series of videos and one these features her and a fruit vendor who gave her the nickname “the mango stand girl.”
Act on trending topics, hashtags, and challenges
Although it shouldn’t be your main theme, it’s good—especially at the beginning—to participate in trending topics and challenges. This is a way the platform controls the direction of the traffic. By participating in these challenges you feed the algorithm, which can directly improve the number of views your videos receive.
Keeping up-to-date with the current topics and trends will help you learn which content is getting the most attention.
We've already discussed how your content doesn't need to be completely original. However, I suggest you add your own personal touch to the videos; otherwise, it can become repetitive and boring. And if you manage to surprise viewers, it will translate to likes and new followers.
Brands and schools should be pickier when it comes to challenges and topics they decide to participate in because they want to stick to a certain branding and image. But remember that Douyin is your chance to show a different side of your company/institution. You can introduce your employees, or get your students involved in the creation of the videos. Reputable news outlets and government institutions in China use Douyin to show a more relaxed side to the people that support them.
P.S. Remember to use no more than 1–2 hashtags in the caption of the video.
[ Watch the video to learn how to navigate the app and find trending topics and challenges. ]
Interact with other accounts
If you’re managing a brand account, it’s good to let your customers and followers on other platforms know that you’re on Douyin. Adding the information on your other social accounts is a good start, but you should also search for—and start interacting with—user accounts that fit your target group. For example, comment on their content and be creative with your responses.
Shooting similar videos, tagging influencers, and engaging with their content through comments and reactions are good ways of getting attention. The popular accounts may interact back with you. If you get creative with the ‘reaction’, your video may even become more popular than the original. This could be the beginning of a new trend.
Moreover, if you often interact with accounts that have a similar target audience, Douyin’s algorithms will place you into certain groups based on your selections. From then on, Douyin will categorise and display your content accordingly.
Promote your videos to the right audience
Let’s not forget about paid advertising, where you pay the platform to show your videos to more users. You can go as low as 50 CNY/video, which (on average) should give you around 2,500 extra views.
But! It means your video's distribution is not completely random. This will ensure that it reaches a more relevant group of users—the ones who are likely to ‘react’ to your videos. You can actually choose the goal of the promotion: Do you want to gain more followers? Do you want to attract more views? Are you a small business that wants to reach the users in the local area?
There are some options when it comes to choosing the desired audience. You may choose the target viewers based on age, sex, location and interests (similar to other social platforms). However, you can also choose to target users of other accounts. For example, if I am a foreign girl then I may expect my target audience to be similar to that of Italian Bonnie. Or, if you’re a university and you want to attract Chinese students, you can target the followers of Chinese students who already live abroad.
Or you can also trust the platform and their analytical skills, and have the ads distributed based on data-driven recommendations.
After 2–24 hours of promotion, you will get an aggregated report that will also give a bit of an overview of your audience’s profile.
Pro tip: if you work with a brand, and you charge a commission based on sales or interactions, you may want to spend a bit of your budget on promoting the video to the right audience to receive better results.
Remember that no matter how much money you invest, it’s not going to help the number of interactions if your content is weak or unsuitable for the audience. The quality of your content is always the most important part.
Monetising an Influencer Account on Douyin
You've spent months working hard: creating carefully placed content, following and capitalising on the newest trends, and paying for right advertisements to boost your Douyin profile. But...how do you turn this into a revenue stream?
Affiliate program through Douyin Store
Long story short, it means you add an e-commerce feature (Douyin Store) to your account and choose products from the base available on the platform. You can add them to your videos, and your personal store (for purchases) will also be visible to your followers in your bio. Each time someone buys products via your personal page, you will receive a paid commission. Each product has a different level of earnings based on its price and the brand’s generosity.
You need to be careful with the products you choose. If you promote fake goods or something of poor-quality, your credibility might be called into question by your followers.
One major drawback here: to enable the e-commerce feature you need to complete Identity Verification.
Working with brands
Similar to other social media platforms in and outside of China, influencers may work with companies promoting their services, products and brands. However, it's not as easy as just saying: "Here are my WeChat details, now pay me."
Douyin wants to have control over the products being promoted and have their own share of the money being exchanged. Therefore, there are only two options for KOLs when it comes to wanting to work with brands. Trying to bypass either of these will probably result in your account being blocked. If there’s a company that you encountered elsewhere, ask them to submit a task for you through the Starmap platform.
Option one - Starmap.
Douyin has its own platform called Starmap, which links influencers to brands. Only influencers can sign up, so the question is: what does it take to become an influencer? The answer: 100,000 followers. And in order to set up a Starmap account, you need to submit a phone number and the details of your Alipay account, so you can withdraw your earnings from Douyin later on.
After you sign up with Starmap, your account data will be available to brands that may be interested in working with you. This data includes an analysis of your content, the demographics of your followers, and the interaction rate, etc. You will be basically included in a big catalogue of Douyin influencers that allows brands to find the most suitable ambassador for their products.
You need to decide on the price range for the videos you create. You might choose to set a flat fee, or a basic fee plus commission (you need Douyin Store enabled). If you fit the requirements of the brand, you will receive the notification of a ‘task’, which may be delivered to you, or multiple influencers, In the case of it being the latter, you then have to apply and explain why you are the most suitable candidate for the task.
Although you may discuss the details of the cooperation elsewhere, the submission of the video and payment must go through the Starmap platform.
Remember: You do not want to be associated with fake or low-quality products. To avoid this, be careful about accepting all of the offers you receive.
Advantages: you have more freedom choosing the cooperation you want to be involved in, and after the task is completed you can retire from your influencer job.
Disadvantages: it may be difficult for brands to find you among the thousands of other influencers, and you are competing with other KOLs. You will need a Mainland ID to verify your account; a communicative level of Chinese or a Chinese assistant is also necessary.
Option two - MCNs.
Your other option is signing a contract with an MCN (a Multi Channel Network). They're a commercialised influencer ecosystem, or—to put it simply—a Douyin-affiliated agencies that will manage you, your content, and your accounts. This may seem nice, but it's actually a lot more complicated than it sounds.
If you already have quite a large follower base, there’s a big chance you have been contacted by an MCN who wants to sign with you. Be careful though, as the industry is booming, there are a lot of shady agencies that may leave you high-and-dry, and even confiscate your account. There are far too many horror stories of influencers who lost their carefully built accounts to MCN agencies. All the contracts with MCNs should be analysed thoroughly. Some of the pitfalls to look out for are: long cooperation periods (up to 5 years), very high contract-cancellation rates or violation fines (over one million CNY), and the taking over the ownership of your account.
Pro tip: see if the MCN you’re talking to offers a test period of 1–3 months. It will give you enough time to decide if it’s worth signing with them for a longer time.
But it doesn’t mean all MCNs are all bad guys! It is just worth looking into the terms of contract, their flexibility, what other influencers they work with (are they also foreigners, how it works for them?), how long they have been on the market, and what they offer in terms of commission. Some contracts we reviewed would leave as little as 30% of the revenue to the content creator themselves. While, in our experience, you can earn as much as 50-60%.
If you’re based in China, you may consider becoming a full-time influencer. This way, the MCN will hire you and your account, and you will have a regular day-time job with a crew available to shoot the videos you star in. There’s also a possibility that you will be collaborating and cross-promoting with other influencers who are signed to the same MCN. You may also be asked to attend some events, such as Tmall Global Influencer Incubator. But let’s not jump ahead.
If you’re based abroad, MCNs act more like managers. They will help you secure advertisers, both on Douyin and other accounts you own (such as Weibo). They handle the legal part for you, but you will not receive much help in terms of the content creation. In this case, before you sign the contract, you need to negotiate the revenue sharing as they won’t be as involved with you as they are with local influencers. Moreover, make sure the company is able to transfer the earnings abroad to your overseas bank account. You will need to handle the taxes yourself.
Apart from revenue sharing, MCNs also offer the option of earning a base salary with a small commission. Everything is calculated from the net profit after tax deductions. MCNs will first cover the costs incurred on their side, such as the promotion of your content via DOU+, for example.
Advantages: MCNs will verify the account for you; more advertising opportunities; less fuss for you; especially advantageous for KOLs based in China.
Disadvantages: finding a trustworthy MCN may be tricky; long contract periods; much less freedom.
Working with Influencers - for Brands
For the companies that want to promote their brand and products on Douyin—there are a few options. To read more on this topic, click here for a blog post that covers marketing on Douyin. In this next part, I will focus on the technicalities of working with influencers.
If you would like to work with Douyin KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), here are your options:
- Posting a task on the Starmap platform;
- Contacting an MCN agency;
- Adding your product to Douyin’s product base;
- Working with a marketing agency like ours.
To work with an influencer without any go-betweens (which is the cheapest option), a company can set up a business account on Starmap, Douyin’s influencer hub. For this, a Chinese business licence is required.
Starmap gives you access to thousands (if not millions) of influencers of many kinds; covering different types of content, various audiences and of course—prices. You have access to their back-end data which gives you insights into their follower base, types of content, interaction rates, etc. Each KOL intro includes a deep analysis of the account and their prices. The platform also offers a great search assistant that compares data and helps you find the KOL that is most suitable for your project. It will also help you compare the follower bases of various influencers so that you do not advertise to the same user multiple times. Or, depending on your goal, you might want to do the opposite and make sure that one user is exposed to your product on more than one occasion.
After you choose the most suitable KOL, you can send them a direct invitation to work with you. Another option is to advertise your task to multiple KOLs; they will send you their applications and you may choose the ones you like most (similar to Freelancer.com).
The task should include a brief description of your product and your industry, dates of promotion and other requirements. You may choose to take complete control over the content, or you can specify things like: the background music, the shooting environment, and the video filters you would like the KOL to use. Some companies give the KOL more creative freedom. It's entirely up to you. It is worth remembering that most influencers charge a basic fee, and the platform will charge you an additional 5% fee once the transaction with the influencer has been completed.
Remember: The whole cooperation process should take place through the Starmap platform.
Another option is working with an MCN (Multi Channel Network) agency. An MCN is a company that manages many KOLs. You share your requirements with the MCN and they provide you with an excel file (usually) of the accounts that are the best fit for your projects. The good part is that it is not limited to Douyin accounts, so you can choose influencers that are able to promote your brand on other platforms too.
If there’s a particular account that you want to work with, you may check if they have any business contacts added in their bio, or if they have a link to the Starmap platform.
Once you choose the influencers you want to work with, it's a good idea to discuss with them how they will promote your product. An obvious way would be talking about your brand or your product directly, or the inclusion of your logo in the video. You can also include a CTA (Call-to-action) such as a click-through to the Douyin Store and to your H5 page (or mini-program) on Douyin or your brand account.
To allow users to purchase your products within the Douyin app directly, you either have to add products from your existing Taobao or JD.com store, or set up a mini-store with Douyin (available for businesses with a mainland China business entity).
And last but not least, you can work with a marketing agency like us so that you do not have to deal with any of this directly. We plan and execute influencer campaigns for our clients and incorporate them into other marketing efforts in China and elsewhere.
Whether you're an influencer looking to monetise their Douyin profile or a business looking to employ the scope and the charm of local (or international) influencers, I hope this article has given you some ideas about the options that are currently available to you.