“No ring lights. No tripods. Just a front phone camera. Imagine,” Vats says now almost in disbelief.
In the years that followed, Vats learned how to dance, became a popular TikToker, collected a loyal audience of millions of viewers and shot videos with Indian singers like Honey Singh, Badshah and Guru Randhawa.
His career as a short-video creator seemed to run into a snag when TikTok, a Chinese-owned app, was banned in India last year after the onset of Sino-Indian military tensions. But before he could even think what next, he was flooded by multiple offers from the platforms that were jostling to replace TikTok in India.
Ultimately, the ban that affected 200 million Indian users of TikTok didn’t make much difference to Vats’s career as a creator of entertainment content.
Except that he has to work harder; wake up at dawn to get that perfect 15-second slow-motion dance video on the banks of the Yamuna with the Taj Mahal in the backdrop while there is not another soul in sight. Vats needs to be at the top of his game for the kind of money he makes.
Vats now has 10 million followers on the short video app MX Takatak. That kind of a fanbase can earn an entertainer anywhere between ₹15-30 lakh a month through contracts with the video sharing apps.
The short-video space in India, more or less introduced and owned by TikTok, has experienced a massive ripple effect since it was banned in India towards the end of June 2020. At least a dozen wannabes including MX Takatak, backed by video streaming platform MXPlayer; Josh, owned by the content aggregator Dailyhunt; and Moj, launched by social media network ShareChat, are among them. Others include Roposo, Mitron, Chingari, Tiki and Trell. Inside this year-long disruption, mounted by a rainbow of upstarts, lies many lessons—about India’s startup ecosystem, about user loyalty, and the clout of the average Indian influencer.
With TikTok gone, creators are now scattered across various platforms, taking their audiences with them. With both content creators and consumers scattered across multiple platforms, the market for short entertainment apps has become fragmented.
Akshay Kakkar, a dancer and creator, says that he misses the virality and global reach that came with being famous on TikTok. But many mid- and entry-level creators, who were satisfied with just the number of views their work attracted on TikTok, are now making money too, upwards of ₹50,000 a month, thanks to contracts with Indian short-video app platforms.
With the entry of deep-pocketed startups like Dailyhunt, ShareChat and MXPlayer, capital is starting to trickle down to short-video creators, who hitherto made up an unorganized market.
Entry- and mid-level creators could make ₹50,000- ₹1 lakh a month and those in the top bracket earn ₹5-7 lakh in exchange for a fixed number of videos and exclusivity with the platform. Contracts come with the promise of brand collaborations and acting opportunities.
The money is enough for now to keep the creators happy and churning out content. But getting the user experience right by building a solid and reliable technology layer is still a significant challenge for homegrown entities that are eyeing a space that is already swamped by fake profiles, click farms, clueless creators and extremely flaky user allegiance.
The TikTok effect
Before it was banned, TikTok was a baffling rage in India, with about 170 million monthly active users (MAU), upstaging even Instagram, which had 120 million MAUs last year. India accounted for 611 million of the 2 billion app installs of TikTok globally.
In 2019, the platform clocked 70 billion monthly video views in India, with users spending on average 29 minutes on the app daily, a metric most content companies can only envy. TikTok’s biggest achievement was its deep penetration into the uncharted hinterland, serving eager and underserved consumers content in their own dialects, relatable humour in familiar languages, on inexpensive Android phones, which worked even with a patchy internet connection.
“The kind of content that people want to watch in lower tier towns and villages is exactly what TikTok was delivering,” said Anil Kumar, CEO of consulting firm Redseer. People in smaller towns aren’t so much into four seasons of a fantasy show with hundreds of characters as much as they would enjoy scrolling short videos that do not tax the brain. India, hence, is an even better market than China for a platform like TikTok, says Kumar.
Once TikTok was out of the picture though, it made business sense for the other players to dip their toes into the market.
“Tiktok had built a habit and the first step for us was to leverage on what they had built,” said Janhavi Parikh, business head of MX Takatak.
Regardless of the platform they are on, users’ expectations remain the same and the company’s focus is to match content with consumer tastes, Parikh said.
A quick study of TikTok and its growth in China, where it is known as Douyin, shows how the platform became ingrained enough in the DNA of the local population to become a part of their daily life.
The platform thrived by building an active social community where uninhibited creators shared snippets of their daily life—through videos showing dance, jokes or cooking with the online community and inspired followers to share their own life on the platform.
A platform like TikTok needs its creators to come up with content, their followers to view that content and then eventually become active creators and ultimately influencers. This circle needs to continue, said Kumar of RedSeer.
“A great short form platform will be able to funnel this journey successfully,” said Kumar. “A poor platform will get celebrities from outside and make them sit at the top of the funnel.”
But if TikTok’s playbook is any evidence, this is a long fight that requires years of patience and very deep pockets.
Indian short-video apps have been able to retain 67% of TikTok users, according to an April report by RedSeer. The report indicated that local platforms, including Josh, Moj, MX Takatak and Roposo ranked high on user satisfaction, given their strong tech stack and localisation.
The short-video ecosystem is riding the global success of TikTok and garnered interest from digital venture capitalists who are bullish on the space. The long hours users are spending indoors during the pandemic has also increased their engagement with entertainment platforms.
From building a better interface to organising workshops for young content creators, these platforms are competing with each other in terms of the benefits they offer creators on their platforms. And there’s of course a great deal of money at stake. Apart from flat monthly payments, entry- and mid-level creators also get opportunities to participate in internet challenges that offer cash and gift vouchers.
Upping the tech game
Parag and Aarohi Padia, a father-daughter duo who were popular on TikTok, are regular winners of such challenges. Padia who lives in Rajkot recently moved up the ladder from a gold creator to a platinum creator on Roposo. Their account has 1,90,000 followers. “My daughter’s just six but she’s already saving money for herself,” says Padia. He adds though that he prefers to wait for a platform to reach out to him rather than creating an account himself.
Creators are aware that they are being sought by platforms and can leverage their position as famous TikTokers to get the best offers from the new platforms.
“If a company approaches me, I can get things like a verified profile, brand collaborations written into the contract,” says Padia. Some platforms like Tiki give a flat rate chart to creators based on their followers.
“Our worth is mainly determined from our TikTok profile and our Instagram page,” says Kakkar. “Instagram is where all the action and discovery happens for these platforms.”
A part of the contract from Indian players also ensures that creators plug in their videos from these platforms into their Instagram and YouTube pages.
It is therefore not unusual that Shivani Kumari, who posts snippets of village life, is not your regular Instagram influencer but has close to a million followers on Instagram that she redirects to Tiki where she feels more at home among other creators like her.
For ambitious creators, however, just the promise of money is not enough. In an effort to match the TikTok experience, Indian companies are also constantly innovating their offerings by upping their tech game through better filters, music and an overall experience as a creator on the app.
In February, ShareChat’s Moj partnered with Snap Inc to allow its creators to access Snapchat’s Lens Carousel directly inside the app while creating new content. MX Player offers creators opportunities to audition for web series and short-video stories streaming on its platform.
On the consumer end, an important ingredient to make a short form platform as addictive as TikTok is the recommendation engine. In China, TikTok users spend close to 75 minutes daily on the platform, which is designed to ensure mindless scrolling; a highly personalised engine directs relevant content to every consumer.
Indian as well as global apps like Instagram Reels have the exact same home page design as TikTok. But the cosmetic look of TikTok isn’t hard to imitate; replicating the experience that TikTok provided is the challenge.
MX Takatak, Josh and Moj have to their advantage the experience of and user data from their parent companies MX Player, Dailyhunt and ShareChat. Dailyhunt and ShareChat have been operating in the lower tier market for years and have a great amount of data points on these consumers.
“In nurturing the former (Dailyhunt), we have learnt how to differentiate and scale content offerings for the local language user,” said Umang Bedi, cofounder of Dailyhunt, which owns Josh. Dailyhunt’s biggest advantage is that it understands local languages and gets traffic from 19,000 out of 21,000 pin codes, allowing it an insight into the local context, Bedi said.
A phenomenon that is only about three years old in India, the short form content market is still relatively new to Indian consumers and entities operating in the space. Add to that the fact that the market until a year ago was dominated solely by TikTok.
TikTok’s success in India meant that other tech giants like FaceBook that already had established a presence in India jumped into the ring as well.
Months before TikTok was banned in India, it managed to win the attention of big brands seeking to advertise in the space. And even as YouTube was filled with compilations of “cringe content from TikTok”, the elite and urban influencers who operated mainly on Instagram and YouTube started getting drawn to the Chinese app, democratising short form content across platforms.
In August 2020, Instagram launched Reels, a feature that looked like an urban cousin of TikTok. The company also introduced a major design update by launching a new home screen for Instagram with the Reels tab. Reels also began to appear on Facebook’s new feed and the platform launched a TikTok-like feature called Remix that let creators generate content alongside an existing video.
“We launched Reels as we heard of the need to create and watch short form video content from our community,” said Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships at Facebook India. Faebook owns Instagram.
Chopra said that since its launch, Reels had introduced features like music stickers, the Spark AR platform which enables augmented reality effects for videos and an Instagram Lite version of the app in an effort to localise the platform for Indian creators.
“If you are a serious creator, you will value the recognition you get on Reels,” said creator Kakkar, who has a profile on MX Takatak and Instagram. “It’s not just where followers or even recruiters or brands discover you. It’s also the only platform that gives you global recognition at this point, like TikTok did.”
Some creators however believe that talent is platform agnostic. Nandita Shrivastava, a dancer who became famous on TikTok, said that once the content is aired and is liked by viewers, it’s out across platforms.
“Even when TikTok was banned, many famous TikTokers had their TikTok compilations posted on YouTube. That’s how the newer players and viewers discovered us,” Shrivastava said.
With Instagram pushing aggressively in the Indian market and YouTube launching the beta version of its short-form feature YouTube shorts, Indian startups will face the challenge of keeping up the tech stack of their platforms. Even so, Indian startups have a fair chance of emerging as the winners in the market, said Ashish Fafadia, partner at venture capital firm Blume Ventures.
“The DNA of these large global companies is not necessarily building short-video platforms and commercialising them beyond advertising revenues. And that’s where Indian players have an advantage. They can think from the ground up, get the localisation right and do a better job of commercialising the market if they focus on monetisation of the platforms soon,” Fafadia said.
Fragmentation of the market is another major challenge of the short form video ecosystem, says Pranab Punj, chief marketing officer of Rainshine Entertainment, media and entertainment company. There are players like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook that do not want to miss out on the short form party despite that not being their primary offering.
“At the other end of the spectrum are creators that are also fragmented based on their genres and the social graph of their followers,” Punj says. “Consumers of the short form content are highly casual. At this point, it’s safe to say that both consumers and creators are multi-platform.”
A case in point is creator Vats who makes money off his videos on MX Takatak but gets his followers mainly from Instagram.
Vats says that among the offers he received from multiple short video platforms, he chose MX Takatak where he has a verified profile and about 10 million fans. But his “fake profile” exists in all short video apps. Getting creators like Vats onboard is a shortcut for platforms to get their fans on board too. But to emerge as a winner in this highly cutthroat short form market that requires pumping in millions of dollars every quarter, you need to create more creators like Vats.
(Shadma Shaikh is a technology journalist who writes on the intersection of tech and society.)
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