ByteDance Unveils Flipchat, But Is It Old Wine In a New Bottle?
COVID-19 and China
ByteDance building. Photo: Credit to ByteDance.

ByteDance unveiled its new instant messaging product called “Flipchat (飞聊)” on May 19, a sequel to its ill-fated predecessor “Duoshan (多闪)" that launched in January.

It is quite simple to use Flipchat. Users can socialize by joining groups of kindred spirits, chatting with others, as well as adding someone they want to befriend. Similar functions can be found in offerings by Jike (即刻) and Douban (豆瓣), two social networking apps best known for hosting a colony of miscellaneous interest groups.

Users of Flipchat can share stories, feelings, as well as interesting fingdings, in the form of words, pictures, videos and links. This function has its equivalent in the WeChat Moments.

In terms of functions, Flipchat is not a “new” product at all, because similar types of apps proliferate in the market. Apart from the likes of Jike and Douban, players like Jianshu(简书), Zhihu(知乎), Bilibli(哔哩哔哩) and Xiaohongshu(小红书) have all rolled out apps that are based on general or specific interest groups.

It seems that this market has limited chances for new players. So why did ByteDance still seek to establish a toehold in instant messaging? We may find the answer from the company’s business model.

ByteDance has a couple of content platforms, and the most famous of them are Toutiao, a content creation and sharing app, and short-video servieces like  TikTok, Huoshan and Xigua. Relying on AI algorithm for precise content recommendation, these products have become very popular and acquired billions of users only years after their inception.

This achievement has hinged upon a basic rule: App users recommend things they find interesting to friends. Thus, building hype around a product helps increase its sales; content platforms stand to drive traffic through word-of-mouth communication. Websites or software that log higher traffic naturally attract advertisers, and this explains the fact that the majority of ByteDance’s revenue stems from advertisement.

However, compared with content platforms, users spend more time on instant messaging apps like QQ and WeChat.

For example, WeChat’s monthly active users (MAUs) reached 1.11 billion by the first quarter in 2019. People use it wherever and whenever they are so much so that it has become an important tool at workplace. In contrast, people only use TikTok when they are off work and at leisure. TikTok had MAUs of over 500 million by the end of January.

We can fathom that one of the reasons for ByteDance to return to the fold is to encourage users to stay within its apps for longer, so that the company parlay the traffic into more placements of in-app advertisements, thus higher revenue streams.

To Tencent, the owner and operator of QQ and WeChat, this is akin to a declaration of war. And the tech giant quickly flexed its muscles to warn the new challenger against stepping on its turf. A few hours after Flipchat was available for downloads, users can no longer open the link shared from Flipchat to WeChat, suggesting that Tencent has shut out the archrival’s app from its immensely popular messaging service.

This is kind of declaration of war to Tencent, which possesses QQ and WeChat. After users could download Flipchat for several hours, they can’t open the link forwarded from Flipchat to WeChat.

Tencent and ByteDance have been embroiled in a spate of spats in recent years, with both sides filing lawsuits and accusing each other of mud-slinging to smear their reputations. The rivalry between China’s two largest online content platform operators looks set to escalate with Tencent’s move in last January to block all the apps released by ByteDance under WeChat. Even the website of ByteDance has since been off-limits for WeChat users. Tencent has also come under fire from industry watchers that it has waged a relentless campaign to preempt competition by blocking services like Matong MT (马桶, MT), Liaotianbao (聊天宝) and so on under its ecosystem.

Altogether, Tencent has released 13 short video apps such as, among others, weishi (微视), Tencent Cloud Video (腾讯云小视频), Xiafan (下饭视频) and Yintu (音兔).

Amid the simmering war between ByteDance and Tencent, it’s hard for ByteDance to divert traffic generated through WeChat or QQ to its own apps or platforms. As such, the chance is slim for ByteDance to achieve a breakthrough on upgrading the functions and marketing models for now.

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