Douyin vs TikTok: on the face of it they may be one and the same thing. However as soon as you take a second glance there are definite distinctions to be made. So what’s the difference between Douyin and TikTok? Isn’t TikTok just the international version of Douyin (or Douyin the Chinese version of TikTok perhaps)?
I’ve looked at other platforms in the past, however Douyin is too important to miss out.
Whilst TikTok is now starting to gain popularity for small businesses to market, it still doesn’t have the “serious standing” amongst many bigger brands that the Chinese version enjoys.
Which Elements of TikTok and Douyin are the same?
Let’s start with the easiest part. Both apps belong to the Chinese company Bytedance and specialise in short video content. Whilst Douyin was launched in Mainland China in September 2016, the international version was launched in app stores a year or so later.
You get the same basic opening user screen format in both apps with the livestream symbol in the top left. The app uses the nudge theory and moves automatically to the next video if you’ve finished one, making it more likely for you to stay in the app.
TikTok is now the world’s most popular short form video sharing app. It’s also been described as the most addictive social media app. This is mostly due to the “for you” driven feed, which gained it the name of an attention factory – it flips the focus (compared to other social media such as Facebook) from people you know to content from different creators.
However at least from a marketer’s perspective, TikTok is the more primitive version of the two, partly due to having to comply with both its host environment and also the Chinese legal situation, but also due to differing consumer habits.
Yes, both apps have banner ads and use hashtags to drive content search as well as having direct video links, and a certain penchant for crazy challenges, but that’s about where it ends.
Bytedance has really managed to optimise for both inside and outside the Great Firewall of China, allowing them to maximise their revenue and success.
Structural Differences TikTok vs Douyin
Whilst the general visual appearance of both apps are the same, they are actually completely separate. It’s impossible to search for a Douyin account on TikTok or vice versa as there’s no connection between the Chinese and international content.
If you search for a term on the Chinese app you get different content results than if you search in the international version. In fact the algorithm works on differently weighted factors – in China the algorithm has also been “toned down” to take account of legal factors.
User base Douyin vs Tiktok
Whilst both apps are extending their user base over all age groups, TikTok is still predominantly a community where Gen Z users come for entertainment and funny videos. 60% of users are between the ages of 16-24.
In China the age range is already more diverse with 80% of users being under 40, and a staggering 710mn daily active users. Compared to the international app, in China it’s a media platform with huge amounts of marketing yuan invested there.
The gender gap on both apps is closing as the stigma of “just being about lip sync and dancing” reduces.
Whilst the app was initially strongest in top tier cities, the strong growth now is coming especially from tier 3 and 4.
For users under 14, use in China is restricted to 40 minutes per day under the “Minor Protection Law” and blocked between 10pm and 6am – the government applied a lot of pressure to tech companies to play their part in encouraging young people into healthy study habits.
It starts with signing up
The process for signing up for Douyin vs Tiktok is quite different. For Douyin you can go into the app and use the main interface before you’ve actually signed up to anything. When you sign up, you basically just need to accept the user service agreement and are asked to allow the app to access your location before you get a swipe up explainer & can start watching as a registered user.
For international users the process is a bit more complex & you’re asked more questions:
- sign in with Facebook/Google/Twitter
- Tell us your birthday
- Give us your phone number
- Create a password
- allow personalised ads?
- choose your interests
- swipe up explainer
- swipe up explained overlaid over content 🙄
- finally start watching
You can see that these processes are quite different.
Tiktok vs Douyin Content
The style of content on the 2 apps varies in some ways although for some reason completely inexplicable to me, cat videos seem to be universally popular 🤷🏻♂️.
Having started out with lip syncs and dance videos, content is now moving more into the mainstream. However there is still a large amount of “arts” content on there which has allowed a huge number of amateur performers of all kinds to showcase their skills be it in singing, cooking, crafting or drawing.
The app has overtaken Instagram in the US amongst Gen Zs who open the app for funny videos and entertainment.
Videos are usually self narrated by the creator.
Videos usually have computerised voiceovers, which I personally find a bit weird and offputting, but it works in China.
There’s a whole range of topics covered from life skills (how to do stuff), popular science, workplaces, art and culture, education, fitness. I’m not saying that these are not present on the international version but if we’re looking at what’s the difference between Douyin and TikTok then this focus of more content on more “serious” topics has to be a biggie.
In China you can observe certain trends between the city tiers about which kind of content they enjoy consuming:
Tier 1 and 2 main consumers for finance and economics content
Tier 3 and 4 largest consumers of educational content
Lower tiers dance videos and other “arts”
Then of course there’s livestreaming. This hasn’t caught on in the same way in international markets but Chinese consumers are huge fans.
Whilst the short videos are often more content than personality driven, the success of a live stream comes down initially to the KOL (= key opinion leader) or influencer involved.
If you look at the two apps side by side above, you can see that where TikTok on the right has a search feature called “discover”, Douyin lets you check out your friends’ activity.
Social Commerce – the biggest difference between Douyin and TikTok
As I mentioned above, livestreams are hugely popular in China these days and are one of the greatest drivers of social commerce. It’s hard to overestimate the value that livestream selling has added for brands in China in the last years, even if the peak of rampant consumerism is past.
During Shanghai’s lockdown in Q2 2022, Liu Genghong and his wife rose to Douyin fame with their fitness videos, gaining 35 million followers in 10 days and having a record 44.76 million views on one of their lives.
Of course, the concept exists elsewhere in the world, but at least in Europe and the US, it certainly doesn’t arouse the same levels of enthusiasm.
It’s possible to link to both Amazon and Shopify from TikTok, but firstly this is limited (not everyone has access) and secondly “link in bio” is just a clumsy way of working if you’re trying to sell something specific to a group of potential clients.
Within Douyin on the other hand, consumers have 2 options to purchase:
- by clicking on a link in a video or livestream to be connected to Taobao or JD’s
- within a mini-program ecosystem Douyin has it’s own flagship stores. These dedicated stores have their own product pages in the same way that other ecommerce platforms operate
Consequently with just 3 clicks, it’s possible to buy a product being showcased in a livestream without ever leaving the app. When you add the app’s own payment system (Douyin Pay) into the mix, then you can see just how seamless the purchasing experience is for Chinese consumers. This ability to buy without ever needing to actually leave the app increases conversion levels no end.
Working together with KOLs (called influencers on TikTok) allows brands to sell directly also from their livestreams, making Douyin an extremely powerful sales and marketing tool for brands.
Compared to TikTok, Douyin users not only have generally higher educational levels (being older, they tend to have finished their education) but are also more ready to buy. Purchasing power and purchasing intent make for a heady combination!
As well as in-app shopping, a couple of sophisticated features of Douyin vs Tiktok would be:
- in video search
- strong trust in verified business accounts
- the ability for users to record their screens (for example during live streams)
- full length film availability
That doesn’t mean that TikTok users are not buying products from videos in the app, just that a lot more of them are on Douyin.
What’s the Difference between TikTok and Douyin in Marketing?
Like any other marketing channels whether you’re in China or based around the world, you need to tailor your content for your target clients. If you don’t craft your messaging for your target audience then it’s unlikely to bring the desired results.
I know that sounds like marketing 101, but you’d be surprised how many brands think that they can just use what they created for TikTok to market on Douyin… but it doesn’t work like that. You need to create separate content for China (as well as a number of other markets around the world, but China is in focus here).
One good example is Starbucks: internationally they share videos from followers on their official brand page, whilst in China they’ve created a lot of educational content around coffee. (They also have a great localisation strategy in market with a strong range of tea products and IP collaborations with popular shows).
You can see a comparison of the Adidas official accounts – the Chinese version has a header and is a bit more “styled”:
The number of followers China vs rest of the world is almost exactly the same, showing that branded accounts get far more notice in China right now.
You can also see how the grid of videos looks: China emphasises how many likes a video has, and the international version shows the views.
There are a lot of different official accounts though in China – also “Adidas for women”, etc and the accounts of the flagship stores tend to have more followers than the official accounts .
This is available in both apps and with similar options available – the differences tend to be in the details such as length of app and the convenience of the UX (user experience) when they decide to click on something to buy.
Top View Ads
These are known as “Splash ads” in China and pop up on the screen when a user opens the app. They are a full screen ad, maximum 5 seconds long & without links. In China at least they are billed per 1000 clicks (CPT).
In Feed Ads
As the name says these are in the feed and will be shown as a user is scrolling. They can be up to a minute long as well as containing links to a store or product. Users can share these also.
At the top of the feed, as in other apps.
Known as custom stickers in China, this might be adding for example a branded sticker or a filter type effect onto a video. When users participate in this kind of activity, the brand gains a lot of user generated content that can be tracked and where they can for example give prizes.
Participating in popular hashtag challenges is one of the recommended ways for companies to gain visibility on TikTok.
On Douyin however, companies can also add branded hashtag challenges to their official verified account.
Collaboration with Influencers
I mentioned KOLs and influencers already above when talking about livestreams, and collaboration possibilities about in the form of sponsored content.
In China a KOL is defined as having more than 100000 followers and they need to have either a Stargate account or be signed up with a MCN (= multi-channel network) that functions as an agency.
Whilst influencers on TikTok, can only add a “link in bio”, China offers the opportunity of a “suggested products” tab with a direct link to the KOL’s own Douyin or Taobao store.
The Difference between Douyin and TikTok
When it comes down to it, the main difference between the two apps is that each has been “localised” to the respective environment in which it’s operating. Remember that many users are utilising the apps as a search engine so you need to optimise any content that you produce accordingly.
That has allowed Bytedance to optimise for both inside and outside the Great Firewall of China, allowing them to maximise their revenue and success. Who knows whether it will continue in the medium term, but for now the apps are still growing.
Douyin will presumably continue to lead the way in terms of features as Chinese consumers are more open to new marketing methods, and the marketing scene there evolves at a furious pace.
In terms of brand and creator monetisation, TikTok is around 2 years behind Douyin.
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