With its own universe of homegrown social networks, e-commerce platforms and search engines, the Chinese internet is a world apart from its counterpart in the U.S. But in some areas, the two countries are surprisingly similar. That's particularly true of people's love for GIFs.
Some feelings are better expressed in pictures and animations than words. Starting in the 2010s, the onset of smartphones gave rise to the need for portable, flexible ways to send images and videos in chats. GIFs, the 1987-invention otherwise known as the graphics interchange format, is a perfect solution for transmitting lightweight pixels. These endlessly looping images quickly caught on in China, where mobile-first internet has flourished over the last decade.
Noticing the trend, Californian Grant Long moved to China and partnered with local entrepreneurs Ann Ding and Jiaming Yin to create Dongtu, which means "moving pictures" in Chinese. Much like Giphy and Google-owned Tenor, Dongtu runs an in-house creative team that pumps out a bountiful supply of GIFs; it also distributes works of third-party creators such as entertainment studios and contracted designers, as well as popular memes sourced from the web. The startup's content is then baked into some 3,000 apps with chatting features, including mainstream ones like WeChat, Twitter-like Weibo and Dingtalk, Alibaba's answer to Slack.
Dongtu claims it generates 750 million daily searches and over 3 billion views per day through the GIFs it provides to third-party platforms. In comparison, its American predecessor Giphy, which uses different performance metrics, had some 300 million daily users as of last March. Aside from tapping into China's obsession with GIFs, the journey of Dongtu is as much about a foreign entrepreneur carving out his spot in the crowded Chinese market as it is about a budding startup surviving alongside the giants.
Navigating the Chinese internet
Before his time in China, Long managed product and business development at Swyft Media, a New York-based company that made branded micro-content like stickers and fonts. In 2015, Swyft began working closely with rising messengers Kik, KakaoTalk and Viber, through which Long came to believe that a major growth opportunity was coming up in Asia. He wanted Swyft to enter this part of the world, but it became harder to push for changes after the startup got acquired by publicly-traded Monotype Imaging.
In 2016, Long packed up for China and began studying the market on the ground from Shanghai. Before long, he realized that a fully foreign entity would not be able to succeed alone for "both localization challenges as well as political reasons," he told TechCrunch in a phone interview. The American entrepreneur approached Biaoqingyun ("Emoji Cloud"), a local sticker startup that would otherwise be his competitor, to partner and create Dongtu together.
"It's definitely not the case that China is 100% different from America and America is 100% different from China because ultimately, we're all humans. And we have very similar tendencies of natural behaviors and desires for things," said Long, who now leads business strategy at Dongtu. "If you have a lot of understanding from another market, a lot of that actually does translate [in a new market]. You just have to localize it in terms of the platforms and services."
Having a local partner is crucial to navigating local media regulations. Apps in China can get pulled for spreading content that is illegal or simply deemed "inappropriate," a liability that's often vaguely defined. Before anything goes live, publishers are compelled to conduct stringent screening and GIF distributors are no exception.
Dongtu does not currently allow open uploads of user-generated content because doing so can be risky in China without significant content moderation efforts. "I'm personally very impressed by [China's] short video platforms," said Long. "If you think of the volume of content created and shared, and the fact that they're able to survive for as long as they have under the oversight that that is required."
Even with the advance of machine learning technology, Chinese media platforms still rely on large armies of human auditors to address the ever-changing whims of regulators. "Historically, something might be considered appropriate, but now suddenly, it isn't. I think the risk is that it's hard to draw a line and decide, well, what makes this piece of content inappropriate and different from this other thing that looks similar but is fine," noted the founder.
Dealing with Chinese giants
Dongtu has over time found a sweet spot in China's fierce internet industry by providing the essential content that thousands of apps need to enrich user communication. One big-name client is WeChat. The startup runs a GIF store inside Tencent's billion-user messenger where users can search for trending GIFs and load up their sticker arsenal.
A less expected partner is e-commerce titan Alibaba. While Amazon shoppers normally make decisions based on what others have to say on the products, Chinese consumers not only pore over reviews but also tend to pose detailed questions to vendors. Direct messaging is thus an inseparable part of Chinese e-commerce apps. Livestreaming has also emerged to allow shoppers and sellers to interact in a real-time manner. GIFs can play a big part in social commerce just like they would lighten up conversations in messengers.
Dongtu GIFs are integrated into the chatting feature of Alibaba's Taobao marketplace. Source: Dongtu
Chinese users might be similarly into animated images as Americans, but the adaptability of the format is far wider in China. Dongtu's vast library contains everything from NFL-themed stickers to soap opera memes. "A grandma in a rural city who's on WeChat can be quite familiar with sending sticker content whereas, in the U.S., I think it's far more of a young person's behavior," Long observed.
The way that Chinese apps adapt GIFs is also reflective of their hands-on approach to the customer journey. Most critically, the majority of Dongtu's integrations with partners happen through SDK instead of API. The former, which stands for Software Development Kit, gives third-party developers a more "turnkey" user experience. For instance, a Dongtu-powered GIF on China's largest podcast app Ximalaya can lead to a landing page that Dongtu has predetermined, a process that would not be otherwise achievable through the lightweight Application Programming Interface, which leaves it to the main app to display content the way they want.
In contrast, Giphy and Google-owned rival Tenor were originally built on API integrations. "For us, it's more like our SDK talking to our back end, so we're having a two-way conversation with ourselves. It's decentralized across all these different channels," suggested Long.
Working with giants brings Dongtu a steady revenue stream -- and potential funding opportunities. The rivaling pair Alibaba and Tencent rarely invest in the same startup, but for Long, "the ideal scenario would be if we could raise from both Alibaba and Tencent, because we do so much with both of them."
Dongtu makes money from a combination of paid consumer functions as well as paid promotions commissioned by marketers who want the brands they represent to be part of people's GIF-powered communication, including a structure that incentivizes large app partners to co-sell these GIF campaigns to their own large base of direct clients.
Dongtu counts ZhenFund as one of its seed investors. Cheetah Mobile, the Chinese firm known for developing utility apps, led its Series A round. Other investors from these rounds include InnoAngel, a venture fund started by alumni of China's prestigious Tsinghua University, and Creation Ventures, an investment fund specializing in entertainment and content.