How China’s leading online entertainment service iQIYI is pushing innovation

Gong Yu, founder, chief executive officer and director, iQIYI

iQIYI, an innovative market-leading online entertainment service in China, recently shared the company’s frontier marketing values and content strategies at its annual iJoy Conference. Joining the conference were iQIYI’s chief executive officer Dr Gong Yu, chief marketing officer Vivian Wang, Mewe Media’s founder and chief executive officer Ma Dong, among other guests.

The conference drew huge attention from China’s entertainment and marketing industries. Hundreds of advertisers, marketing agencies, celebrities and idol groups featured in iQIYI’s productions were present. Trailers of forthcoming dramas and variety shows also attracted hundreds of thousands of iQIYI users to watch the live stream online.

Dr Gong Yu: The company vision

In his keynote speech at the conference, iQIYI founder and chief executive Dr Gong Yu notes that, in the era of online entertainment, new media marketing needs to be combined with content and technological innovation.

Outlining three ways iQIYI will use AI in 2019 and beyond, Gong says AI will enhance user experience on its platform. He explains that iQIYI wants its technology to optimize viewing experiences so that “the user can watch more desired details while reducing bandwidth or data usage, having a better customer experience”.

Gong also believes AI will help iQIYI, its content and content marketing partners to improve content monetization. He acknowledges that even though the application of AI in content monetization has just started, there is a lot of potential in this field as AI can identify scenes suitable for product placement.

“Products or services such as takeout restaurants, seasonings, drinks and foods may be advertised in dining scenes. We have tried it and the effects are much better than those of airdrops,” he explains.

Finally, the chief exec highlights that AI will help iQIYI lower production costs in many aspects. At the moment, Gong says shooting iQIYI’s weekly reality show requires 40 to 90 cameras simultaneously. If over 40 cameras are used, enormous amounts of footage needs to be selected and edited within seven days, which will result in the vast majority of footage rendered useless. So how can AI help to improve this?

Ge Chengzhi: Provide a more scientific way of calculating popularity

Making a comparison between cartoons and drama series, Ge Chengzhi – the president of the Data Research Institute at iQIYI – proposes the pure index of view counting cannot evaluate the value of video content very well, and the popularity index for measuring or calculating recent users, interactive behaviours and the broadcast amount of the content is more suitable for offering popular content to users. Compared with view counting, the popularity index calculated by indicators such as views, user number and playing time by users can better reflect the commercial value of content.

Moving forward, iQIYI will open exclusive video accounts for video sponsors, so to analyze and evaluate commercial content more accurately. It is also looking for a third party to implement long-term views authentication across the platform in an open manner to establish a more objective, fair and just data display system.

However, as view counting is still a standard in the industry, iQIYI is not going to completely eliminate the index of views but will seek cooperation with third-party companies to offer an index of views that are more scientific, transparent and fair. It will also continue to combat fake traffic and click farming. “We won a lawsuit this year and were compensated. Our fight against fake views and fake UVs will not stop as long as click farming still exists,” asserts Ge.

Vivian Wang: Why iQIYI is constantly innovating

Vivian Wang, chief marketing officer at iQIYI, raises the topic of ‘aging’ because brands, like mankind, faces the problem of getting old. She says the lifespan of brands is getting shorter and the older generation tends to be very loyal to brands.

How iQIYI is becoming a younger brand

Using a popular phrase in China called 逆生长 (nì shēng zhǎng), which means regaining one’s youthfulness, Wang notes the current generation may only be loyal to a brand for a couple of years, while for the newer generation it may even only last for a couple of months.

In such a context, Wang asks: “How should brands grow old slower, or even grow younger?” She points to how brands in China have taken measures to promote brand loyalty, like inviting popular idols as endorsers.

“Those are all good ideas that extend brand lifespan, however, they still fail to get to the root of the problem of brand ageing. To fundamentally solve the problem and grow young, brands must deliver values recognized by young people,” explains Wang, adding that iQIYI’s anxiety is being afraid of getting old and being abandoned by young people.

“iQIYI was born with powerful youth genes. We are anxious all the time. We are afraid of being forgotten or abandoned by young people. We always care about young people and actively communicate with them so as to discover their changes and create content favoured by them.”

Disrupting the traditional broadcast model for shows

iQIYI released a new original drama this year called Yanxi Palace, which Wang says was innovative as it was not a big intellectual property (IP) product, was not adapted from a popular novel, starred no A-listers and was not broadcast on TV, which means it had none of the factors “necessary” for a successful TV drama.

“The scheduling of the drama is really unusual. At first, it was broadcast four days a week, two episodes a day. Several weeks later, the drama broke the internet and our Weibo account received a lot of messages asking for faster updating. So we broadcast it six days, or 12 episodes a week,” she explains.

“The audience was very happy, and the news became a trending hashtag. But one week later, they asked ‘Why not Monday? What’s wrong with Monday?’ So Monday was included in the schedule. We did something unimaginably unusual and we succeeded. We creatively scheduled according to user needs.”

The show also adopted the ‘character bullet screen’ mode in which viewers can comment in the name of a character while watching. For example, when the queen in the show worried about getting old because of menopause, some viewers commented, ‘Don’t worry Queen, you have Mageline 3 Step Skin Care’.

“Content innovation of the drama also lies in the incorporation of traditional Chinese elements rather than network buzzwords favoured by young people into its lines. In this drama, we introduced Suzhou embroidery, Kingfisher feather art, among others. And it turned out that young people are interested in them.

“As long as you tell an interesting story, all elements included will be accepted by the audience. The drama has also increased the number of visitors to the Forbidden City – they wanted to know where the Yanxi Palace is. So, the success of the drama makes us realize that there are more possibilities in the future.”

Explaining iQIYI’s innovative approach, Wang notes that awareness of innovation is required across a company in every industry and that companies without innovation cannot last for a long time. This means iQIYI is always focused on innovation for the purpose of providing better services to its users and clients.

“This has been and will always be one of our principles. We have put some of our innovative ideas into practice this year and next year will see more innovative ideas.

“An important thing is that we do not innovate blindly. We listen to the ideas of our users and observe their behaviour. When we notice any change, we try to satisfy their new needs through innovation.”

iQIYI’s vertical-horizontal content IP plans

With at least 70% of users in China watching vertical videos on their mobile phones, iQIYI has also innovated technically based on user feedback that shows they tend to hold their phones vertically while watching videos because it is more convenient. iQIYI will set up a professional production team to redefine vertical content and its business model for 2019 and beyond.

“iQIYI plans to create a high-quality vertical content IP matrix for the vertical-horizontal content IP and user interaction across its business sectors, comprehensively increasing the ecological value of iQIYI.”

iQIYI is also planning to create technology to improve the comments on the site, focusing on “a more scientific and healthy content comments standard within a multidimensional comments data model.” Wang adds that “comments matter a lot – young people are active in viewing, discussing and sharing content.”

How captivating IP-based values help brands grow younger

With the constant innovation by iQIYI, the standard for content selection has also changed for advertisers on the platform. Previously, advertisers selected content according to the upcoming year’s lists of series and variety shows provided by major TV channels. Now, the old model does not work at all, says Wang, and advertisers need to select content in a new and creative manner.

“The marketing ideas have changed. Aside from investing in conventional hard-sell ads as before, sponsors should actively participate in content creation by sharing IP content,” she says. “Advertisers should affect consumers through values expressed by their ad content and ‘captivating IP-based values’ provide an effective solution that helps brands grow young.”

Starting iQIYI from scratch and how far it has come

As a founding member of iQIYI, Wang – who was nominated for The Drum’s Digerati Asia Pacific 2018 – says she is really proud that iQIYI will still focus on young people in the future because the platform wants to be their friend who is always young. She expresses her gratitude to iQIYI for giving her great opportunities on a great platform, with which she is working to develop excellent solutions that satisfy the needs of more clients.

“We started iQIYI from zero, so iQIYI is like my child. At first, we only had a logo,” she says. “Over the years iQIYI has upgraded a couple of times and I’m very proud of its growth. I feel like my child has grown up and is popular in China and beyond.”

“I’ve been doing marketing for 18 years. My friends all think I was born to be a marketer. I’m outgoing and full of passion and I’m always willing to share. This makes people feel that I’m promoting products all the time. Actually, I’m not. I just want to share good stuff like delicious food and my pleasant experiences with others because I think this is a way to share my happiness.”

In the current climate with China’s younger generation having much lower loyalty to brands, marketing to this young audience has been challenging for video platforms like iQIYI. It will be interesting to see how the platform continues to work to help advertisers overcome difficulties and create more and better content for young people through AI and constant innovation.

Upcoming releases

In 2018, iQIYI’s original programming attracted a phenomenal amount of attention from viewers. iQIYI-produced variety shows Idol Producer, The Rap of China and Let’s Talk all have devoted fan followings while on Chinese microblogging site Weibo topics related to iQIYI’s mega-hit costume drama Story of Yanxi Palace received more than 12.8bn views and almost 10m comments. New shows that iQIYI will release in 2019 include dramas The City of Chaos, The Thunder, The Eight, The Legend of White Snake and Dancing in the Storm; variety shows The Chinese Youth and I Actor, and animations/comics Beyond the Ocean Season 2 and The Voice of Fox.

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