Can virality be taught?
The more than 20 people gathered in a room in Shenzhen one recent weekend certainly think so. Some have forked out as much as 9,800 yuan (S$1,900) for a weekend crash course on how to create short, funny videos that will get lots of views on Douyin, ByteDance's Chinese version of its short-video app TikTok. Lots of clicks lead to potential advertising endorsements, or so the equation goes.
Zhang Bo, a moon-faced man in his late 30s, is the man who promises to unlock the secrets of creating pandemic videos. Perched on a white table at the front of the class, Zhang regaled us with how one client made 70 million yuan in just three days following his methods, including interacting with influencers every 10 minutes while watching their live streams.
Another raked in more than 100,000 yuan in a single day. I could not independently verify those claims, but my classmates seemed impressed, scribbling down notes.
It is no wonder they want to succeed on Douyin - an account with three to 5 million followers can command between 50,000 to 100,000 yuan for a short video advertisement on the app, according to Joey Wang, co-founder and CEO of Beijing-based company Chenjin Culture. "In our company, influencers get thirty to forty per cent [of advertising income]," Wang said.
Douyin is the hottest short video app in China, boasting 400 million daily active users in January. Tencent-backed Kuaishou, the country's second-largest short video platform, had 200 million daily active users as of May 2019, according to its website.
Together, the top two apps account for 54.2 per cent of China's short video app market, outpacing competitors such as Xigua and Huoshan which have a combined 22 per cent of market share, according to Qianzhan Industry Research Institute.
Market leader Douyin's popularity has translated to advertising income for some of its content creators. One of China's top influencers, Li Jiaqi, reportedly earns more than 10 million yuan a year by promoting beauty products on an array of social media platforms including Douyin, on which he has 37.6 million followers.
But competition to stand out on the app is fierce, so a number of workshops promising to give participants an edge have sprung up.
That weekend in Shenzhen, I was attending one such workshop by Guyizouhong, whose name means "getting famous on purpose" in Chinese.
The course fees were not cheap: the 9,800 yuan some participants paid to attend the workshop was more than the 2,000 to 5,000 yuan monthly the "middle income" group in China makes, according to the National Bureau of Statistics' official definition.
Li Xilin, a 40-year-old founder of an educational company, told me it was curiosity over the 70 million yuan figure advertised by Guyizouhong that motivated him to shell out the money even though he was "a little suspicious" about the organisers' claims. His company has more than 900,000 followers on Douyin but he said it has not found a way to monetise its content.
Some participants travelled quite a great distance to be there: I met one mother of two who had taken a nine hour train from Jiangxi Province to join the class, while another woman flew more than three hours from Shanghai.
Overseas, social media influencers have achieved a considerable amount of fame. Teenager Noen Eubanks, best known for his anime-inspired aesthetic and lip-sync videos on TikTok, was recently chosen as the new face of French luxury brand Celine, while eight-year-old Ryan Kaji, whose YouTube channel has 23.3 million followers, became the top earner on the video-sharing platform last year with record earnings of US$26 million (S$35 million).
So I was surprised to find that most of my classmates did not seem to care about being famous. They wanted more followers, but were more concerned about how to translate these to income rather than becoming online celebrities.
Tibetan actor Awangduoji, 30, said he saw Douyin as just a springboard to bring in more money. His objective attending the class was to grow his follower count to beyond his 500 or so, and also attract more customers to his cafe through the platform.
"It's meaningless to be famous," the actor, who has starred in some advertisements and appeared in plays and movies, said. "I'd be happier if I can turn the traffic I get on Douyin to cash."
With the strong focus on money, it perhaps should not have come as a shock that the instructor advised us not to try to be too original. Instead, we should observe the most successful accounts on Douyin and take a leaf from their playbooks, according to Zhang.
"We aren't geniuses," Zhang said. "We don't need to take the risk of coming up with entirely original content ideas."
This mindset reminded me of what China has long been criticised for - imitating others instead of innovating. But it seems to be a strategy that works, at least to a certain extent: Chenjin Culture has helped make the accounts of three different pairs of twins popular on Douyin, all of them featuring similar content, according to Wang.
Chenjin Culture and Guyizouhong are both multichannel networks (MCNs), fast-growing commercialised influencer ecosystems built on the back of the boom in the short video industry.
MCNs work with video platforms and users, either grooming individuals to become online celebrities or helping enterprises operate their accounts and taking a cut of the earnings in the process. Such networks are also popular elsewhere: North America is expected to continue to be the largest market but the Asia-Pacific region, including countries like China and India, is showing faster growth due to the low cost of general internet use, according to a 2019 report by research firm Research Nester.
In China, there were over 5,000 MCNs as of December 2018, with more than a third of them hitting over 50 million yuan in revenue, according to a report by new media research firm TopKlout. For some of these MCNs, workshops are an additional revenue stream and a way to scout potential clients.
After the class I overheard Hao Ming, a 37-year-old cross-border businessman, asking if he could become a long-term student.
Hao told me that he would consider giving up his business if he could find success on the video platform, and taking classes was part of the process. It was easier to pay experts and learn what not to do than experiment on his own and risk losing money, he said.
"Every platform will have its own pitfalls, and I want to know where the pitfalls are [for Douyin] before I start," said Hao, "Taking a class like this gives me the chance to meet like-minded people - perhaps we can even help each other out."
For me, the course was helpful in identifying the common traits for viral videos, but following them is no guarantee of success. Because after all, if the instructor could, like his client, rake in millions from following his methods, why is he still teaching us on weekends for a few thousand yuan a head?
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.