It’s 8.30am. N Govardhana’s mobile beeps to a WhatsApp message. It’s the usual forward-message from one of his friends wishing him “good morning”. The message has a picture of a regional language movie star with a dialogue from one of his movies. Govardhana immediately shares it on his ShareChat account. In a span of 48 hours, the image is shared 1,300 times on WhatsApp, attracts 2,500 likes and 48 comments on ShareChat.
Another user shares a picture of Mahatma Gandhi, father of India, paying tribute on his 149th birth anniversary. The post gets shared 4,200 times and attracts 2,000 likes within 14 hours.
ShareChat, India’s first regional language social app available in 14 Indian languages, lets users share jokes, GIFs, audio songs, motivational as well as funny quotes and images—all on one platform. The contents can also be shared on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app.
The company now claims that it clocks 7.5 million daily active users and is estimated to be valued at USD 450 million. It recently raised USD 100 million from a clutch of investors.
A screenshot of a user's ShareChat posts
ShareChat has attracted some big investors including China-based Shunwei Capital, early-stage investors such as Saif Partners, Lightspeed Venture and Morningside Venture Partners. It has made strides by venturing into the vernacular segment and focusing on Tier II cities and beyond.
The Chinese were so smitten by ShareChat’s success that Topbuzz, a Bytedance(字节跳动)-owned company launched a similar platform called Helo. It’s not just similar to ShareChat, but almost identical to it, both by design, editing tools and how the user-interface works.
Like the videos, the content on the platform is short, making the users swiftly pass to the next one. Although the content gets repetitive, due to its viral nature and ease of sharing, people stay hooked.
Bytedance’s international expansion plan push copycat model
Now even the Chinese players who once reaped the benefit in their home market are eyeing India for expansion. While the Chinese companies made a mark with short video apps that took over the internet, for the first time they were seeing GIFs, motivational and greeting messages shared so widely through the social app.
If one searches for ShareChat on Google Play, in addition to the app named "WhatsApp Status, Videos, Shayari, Quotes - ShareChat", one will also see an app called "Helo: Whatsapp Status, Video Clip, Share&Chat."
Also, within a regional content section, ShareChat has categories like Ladies’ Corner, Lifestyle, Jokes, WhatsApp Status, Love Bytes, Wishes, Quotes, Youngistan among others.
Helo, too, has similar features—Helo Trend, Helo Challenge, Wishes, Jokes, Love Bytes, Ladies Corner and News Corner. Many a time, their contents have the logo of the competitor. It is the first time that an India app is copied by its Chinese peer. The implication is profound. Bytedance founder Zhangyiming, said, in the long run, half of their users will be foreigners and the company is preparing for it.
But investors are betting on ShareChat’s originality. Speaking to The Passage, Hanson Hu of Morningside Venture Capital, an investor in ShareChat, said, “We believe, in a country like India, a simple copycat of Chinese or American products by Indian players may not work the best, especially in social and content sectors. Product with original innovation is what we are looking for.”
Helo did a soft launch this year and is already creating a buzz in the social market. Still in its nascent stage, Helo has already been downloaded about 10 million times in three months. It took almost 18 months for its competitor to reach that number. The company is spending heavily on the customer acquisition in India and is serious about taking on ShareChat.
Analysts believe that the Chinese player has an edge over the India player and data from analytics firm App Annie, obtained on September 25 shows that Helo App was ranked as the second most popular social app while ShareChat was down at sixth.
Even data from Similarweb, another app analytics firm, indicated that Helo was ahead of ShareChat in its app ranking, running behind Tik Tok, another short video app by former’s parent company Bytedance. But in terms of usage, ShareChat was ahead of Helo by two ranks.
“Chinese app startups are front-runners of OTT (over the top) video and the content market as they’ve already experienced such a transformation in their home country,” said Hanish Bhatia, senior analyst, IoT and mobility at Counterpoint Research.
“These Chinese startups are well aware of the fact that video and short content production is not their core competency for a country like India, primarily due to the cultural barrier and insufficient control of the content industry value chain,” he adds.
Both ShareChat and Hello declined to comment on the story.
High competition might lead to bloodbath
According to Chen Chi, a top executive at Welike, a similar app in the market, localisation is the key to success. The executive thinks tech giants like Facebook and Google have failed on this front.
“The question is not whether Helo will beat ShareChat in the near future. The problem is which one would integrate the culture to mix into the product. This will define which company will take the lead. And Facebook cannot do this now as they failed to do it in the early stages,” Chi said.
Xin Lin of Clipjoy also feels the same. But he says the market is big enough to have multiple players.
Bytedance, the company which has used a mixed strategy of producing, acquiring and investing in overseas products. Bytedance now has an impressive portfolio of global media platforms and is likely to lead a new wave of Chinese companies expanding overseas.
For instance, the company recently acquired Shanghai-based Musical.ly (now merged with Tik Tok) that was popular in the US and other countries. It had an average daily video playback of 1 billion. Musical.ly took the teen social world by storm in 2016, making people move beyond Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. It had partnered with Bangalore-based news aggregator Dailyhunt initially and is now exploring the Indian market independently. In recent months, the company spent about USD 300 million making Tik Tok, among the top 5 apps in India. Helo is just another proof of their global ambition.
For users, these apps have also become a source of providing social recognition and at the same time enables them to interact in their own language, instead of English. As these apps require limited time commitment due to the short format, they resonate well with the fast-paced and commitment-phobic millennials.
“These apps were successful in gauging the nerve of users, it feeds viewers with more localised content, tailored to suit their interests. For example, ShareIT pushes intriguing localised content notifications, which churns high engagement levels, Chinese Internet browser UC Browser, which has gained a strong foothold in India, also records higher engagement level by pushing localised content (news, articles, videos, etc.) notifications to its users,” Counterpoint Research’s Hanish Bhatia explains.
The future of these apps is entrenched in how they use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to personalise and localise content for the users. Chinese firms have used it in their home turf and they are now replicating the same in foreign countries.
A report by GGV capital which has invested in Bytedance, quoting latter’s CEO Zhang Yiming said, “Toutiao has always aimed to be ‘the platform that understands you the most,’ using AI algorithms to recommend content to potential followers. We also collect data on how content creators and their followers interact. Over time, this matching has become increasingly accurate, allowing influencers to increase their follower base.”
To summarize, it looks like people were looking for an alternative from tech giants like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat which led to the rise of these platforms.
“Facebook is more crowded with different types of content, while YouTube doesn’t provide the ease to share and interact within social circles,” Chen Chi says. “Unlike these players, Facebook and Google failed to capture the market by not localising the content and understanding the user requirement better.”