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Marketing on China’s Most Serious Social Media Platform: Toutiao

Jinri Toutiao, literally “Today’s Headlines” is China’s most popular news and information content platform, but few foreign brands have exploited its potential as a marketing tool. Toutiao has 700 million users, and each day 120 million active users use the app to read some of the 200,000 articles and videos published on the platform each day. Toutiao was created by Bytedance, the large and well-financed creator of TikTok/Douyin, which is quickly emerging as an upstart rival to China’s internet giants: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Toutiao is beginning to turn heads in marketing departments across the world because its user base is wealthier, younger, and more educated than average and because its users tend to use the platform for long periods of time to do more serious reading.

What is Toutiao?

Toutiao is an AI-based news aggregator, similar to Flipboard. It shows users an endless feed of news and videos selected by artificial intelligence, personalized according to a user’s location, interests, reading history, clicks and browser history, and even phone model. Toutiao users have personal and distinct experiences on the app. Unlike China’s bland state-owned news outlets, Toutiao offers articles with user interests in mind, as opposed to editorial concerns coming from state policymakers and propagandists.

Where does its content come from?

Toutiao is a distributor rather than a creator of content. Its articles and videos come from more than 1.1 million publisher accounts. Traditional news media, government institutions and companies publish news regularly on Toutiao, and there is also content from smaller sites or individual accounts. Content creators share Toutiao’s ad revenue, and the platform also rewards them for hitting certain targets. In 2018, Toutiao struck a deal with Buzzfeed to distribute its content in China, which offered new ways for western content to reach Chinese netizens.

Who are Toutiao users?

Much of Toutiao’s appeal for marketers come from the makeup of its millions of daily active users. Users spend around 76 minutes on Toutiao per day on average, double that of the BBC app. More than 85% of them are young people under 35 years old, and are mostly from first or second-tier cities. 41.3% of them have bachelor degrees or are college students, and 37.8% are freelancers or business owners, making Toutiao users much wealthier than the average user on bigger social platforms like Wechat or Weibo. Toutiao has more male users than female users, accounting for 60% and 40% respectively.

Why Toutiao is perfect for marketers?

Toutiao can be very helpful for marketers in China because its users are young, highly educated, and have more income that can be allotted to consumption as opposed to long-term commitments like mortgages or children. In addition, Toutiao is a content-driven app, and there are no other functions (like messaging) that can distract users’ attention on
from advertisements. Lastly, users view the app for more serious browsing and reading news, as opposed to the more playful content that one sees on Weibo or particularly Douyin. Brands that advertise on this platform have access to millions of users that use the app for long, serious reading sessions, with few distractions.

How to market on Toutiao?

There are three formats of posting ads on Toutiao: Streaming Feed Ads, News-Banner Ads, and App Open-up Ads, and all of them support picture and video display. The app supports targeting by gender, age, interest, keywords, region, time of day, weather, occupation, phone carrier, phone operating system, phone brand, and type of internet connection.

Toutiao even has a tool to help marketers identify new target markets in China: the “seed audience” tool. Marketers can upload different “audience packs”, and Toutiao learns from a batch of test interactions to find patterns and similarities among highly engaged users based on different user attributes like age, region, and interests. Once the AI identifies a few new target demographics, your campaign will automatically be adjusted to target users from your new target audience base.

Marketing in China is hard. Traffic quality is often poor. Users are distracted with busy interfaces. Large incumbent platforms feel little pressure to do right by advertisers. Selling serious products next to a silly cat meme or blooper video can harm a brand. In China’s challenging marketing environment, Toutiao is a promising exception: an advertiser-friendly platform with a serious, undistracted, young, and sophisticated user base. Savvy advertisers looking to gain new customers in China would do well to take note.