China’s Bytedance is best known in the West for its hyper-engaging video platform TikTok. But the social media giant’s first major creation – the news aggregator Toutiao, or ‘headlines’ in Chinese – may be even more relevant to the future of publishing.
While most media struggle to keep audiences engaged for more than a dozen minutes daily, Toutiao users clock in an astounding 73.4 minutes per day, according to a 2020 survey. Perhaps even more impressive, 85% of users are below 35, a typically news-avoiding demographic in many countries.
What is Toutiao?
Toutiao, or more precisely Jinri Toutiao (Chinese for ‘today’s headlines’) is one of the most popular news distribution platforms in China. Founded in 2012 by Bytedance, it is the firm’s second biggest revenue generator after Douyin (the Chinese TikTok analog).
In 2020, it accounted for about 16% of revenue, or $5.6 billion, of Bytedance’s total revenue of $34.3 billion. (Thus playing a big role in pumping up Bytedance’s market valuation to the $250-300 billion range in private deals).
More importantly, it was the first creation to benefit from what would become Bytedance’s “secret sauce” – AI-powered, personalized recommendations (just like TikTok). Unlike classical engines that mostly rely on search history to recommend content, Toutaio aims to deliver without relying on signalled preferences.
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This engine has made Toutiao immensely popular. It was the 17th most popular app in China with over 300 million monthly active users, according to a Statista report from March 2021. That would be a 20% increase from 250M in 2019, as per market research firm iResearch data cited by CNBC in 2019.
More importantly, those users are highly engaged. The 73 minutes daily spent on Toutiao outdo WeChat (the super-app for messaging, payment, gaming, photo-sharing…), which manages to retain user attention for 60 minutes per day on average, or Facebook with 58 minutes, according to USwitch studies from 2020. Forget classical news publishers (even during the 2019 election, for example, UK users consumed just 16 minutes on average per week).
Overclocked AI-powered recommendations, creator bot
Toutiao uses machine learning to discover what content to recommend, then fine-tuning its output based on multiple factors. The AI system tracks and analyzes the following actions: what do you click on, your scroll depth, time spent on a story, the type of story you’re reading at a certain part of day and physical location, explains Shanghai-based marketing expert Larry Feng.
According to the Mathematics agency blog, the system uses natural language processing to measure if the content is trending, whether it’s long or short, and its timeliness (evergreen or a news). As time goes by, Toutiao’s AI algorithms offer you more and more relevant recommendations. It also doesn’t use your friends’ recommendations like Facebook, but focuses on individual preferences instead.
At its core Toutiao is about entertainment not social communication. While users can share their favourite pieces in a separate tab, the platform itself decides what you’d like to read or watch. There are multiple types of content: articles with videos and images, live streams, videos, answers and microblogs.
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Tait Lawton from Nanjing Marketing Group provides an example with the image below: “The screenshot contains a video about alien lifeforms, an article about the Mongolian economy, and an article about a Japanese film. These are all things I might actually want to check out.”
But this is not the only application of AI deployed by Toutiao. The firm generates content with its “Xiaomingbot” to create articles, voice-overs and even animated videos. This allows them to plug gaps where predicted interests cannot be matched with content and generate stories with greater speed. The bot-generated content first grabbed headlines during the 2016 Rio Olympics, when it created 450 articles over 2 weeks, and the tech has been evolving since.
More from The Fix: Artificial intelligence in journalism: Key insights and new solutions
How publishers earn on Toutiao
Multiple media organizations, government institutions, individual websites/bloggers, and companies are registered as the creators on Toutiao . About 200,000 articles and videos from around 4,000 Chinese news outlets were posted in 2017 on the platform, as TECHINASIA informed.
Toutiao has several rewards programs for creators, explained Tony Degennaro who writes for social influencer site nealschaffer.com. For instance, authors of top 100 high-quality articles get rewarded with 300 yuan daily (about $46).
On a monthly basis, Toutiao picks the best 20 articles and gives 5,000 yuan (about $780) to its creators. Aside from paying publishers, Toutiao also initiated rewarding users for reporting fake news in 2018.
Toutiao earns on advertising. Publishers can choose different advertising formats and slots on their pages and receive a share of revenue for clicks and views. Additionally, authors can get tips from the readers. These financial benefits played a big role in getting audiences to switch to Toutiao from WeChat, according to Degennaro.
Here you can find step-by-step instructions on creating a business account on Toutiao. However, on 10th of October 2021 I managed to install only the Android application package file (APK), but not the Toutiao app. It wasn’t available in the Play Store. In July 2021 Reuters reported that new creators haven’t been able to register since September 2020.
Under the eye of big government
Big government is currently the main challenge for Toutiao. Having recognised its power to influence popular opinion, China’s government has taken steps to bring the news aggregator under control.
In 2018 the state media regulatory body (then known by its acronym SAPPRFT), ordered Bytedance to shut down the Toutiao account and app version of Neihan Duanzi, or “implied jokes”, for posting “vulgar” content. Prior to this Toutiao had been suspended from Chinese app stores for 3 weeks.
In addition to closing the offending account, Bytedance vowed to hire 4,000 additional censors, bringing the total to 10,000. Then CEO Zhang Yiming issued an apology letter for content that “departed from core socialist values” and not doing enough to “guide public opinion”.
This did not mark the end of Toutiao’s troubles, however. In August 2021 China passed new data handling laws, citing privacy and cybersecurity concerns. These are seen as a push to bring big tech under control, establish the country as a leader in big data and expand social controls. These have been cited as a reason for Bytedance shelving plans to list an initial public offering.
Сiting an anonymous source, Reuters informed that ByteDance has been blocking the registration of new accounts at the behest of the Chinese authorities. ByteDance declined to comment on this for Reuters in July. The Fix also hasn’t received a response as of the publication of this article.
What’s next for Toutaio
Future growth prospects for Toutaio in China may be cloudy. But could the model, or some parts be replicated internationally? And what lessons does it carry for publishers?
Interestingly, Toutaio itself tried to roll out an international version in Japan, Brazil, Southeast Asia and the US. As with the Douyin/ TikTok expansion, it was branded under a different name (in this case TopBuzz). The app had the same interface as Toutiao and was available in multiple languages, including English, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese.
Despite ambitious plans, ByteDance shut down TopBuzz in 2020. Part of the reason were investor suggestions to focus on TikTok, which was picking up pace.
The bet certainly paid off. According to the archives of Sensor Tower research blog, TopBuzz fell from position of the 5th most downloaded news app worldwide in 2018 to the level out of top 10 by December 2019 on the App Store and Google Play combined. Meanwhile TikTok saw 13% growth during the same period – from 655M in 2018 to 738M in 2019.
But other factors played a role. For one, Facebook newsfeed was picking up in the West, creating serious competition. Meanwhile, TopBuzz was repeatedly accused of spreading fake news. For example, in 2018 it promoted a fake report on Yoko Ono testimony about the affair with Hillary Clinton from some hoax site. That year TopBuzz claimed it had deleted almost 2.7m pieces of content that violated its commmunity standards.
The dual pressure of government scrutiny and fighting misinformation seem to have overwhelmed Toutaio, at least internationally. It’s investments into other news aggregators, like India’s Dailyhunt, have fared better. More importantly, though, the model itself seems to have inspired others.
In 2018, Bytedance rival Tencent led a $50 million investment into Newsdog, an app aiming to become “India’s Toutaio”. In Japan Smartnews took, recently raising $230 million, putting its value at over $2 billion. Startups are using AI to tackle news at scale in such industries as fintech. The days of the AI-powered news aggregator are far from over, and publishers should take heed.
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photo by Reuters