During this year’s third quarter earnings season, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, known collectively as BAT, sent the capital market reeling as their ad revenue growth slowed to single digits.
Alibaba’s Q3 results revealed the Chinese e-commerce giant had entered its slowest growth period, as customer management (including advertising and commissions on transactions), its largest revenue stream, declined to a meager 3% year-on-year increase. Baidu and Tencent fared no better, reporting 6% and 5% growth, respectively, from a year earlier.
The rising stars were not invulnerable either. ByteDance’s ad income prospect was the subject of wildly varying speculations. While local financial paper Securities Times reported ByteDance internally revealed growth for its ad revenues in China has stalled in the past six months, another financial news outlet Yicai suspected the company could still grow 20% yoy. Silicon Valley-based tech media The Information was the most optimistic, predicting a 60% growth.
Local outlet LatePost quoted sources saying ByteDance’s H2 ad revenue growth could drop to as low as 30%, with further dips in several months to around or below 20%, which is consistent with its 20% and 17% yoy growth for September and October that sources told 36Kr.
Despite varying data points, these reports point to the same reality: ByteDance’s ad revenue is slowing, though still enviable compared to BAT’s single-digit growth.
Kuaishou was one of the few bright lights in Q3, its RMB 10.9 billion in ad revenue, a 76.5% yoy growth, making it one of the fastest-growing Chinese internet companies with ad revenue over RMB 10 billion. Bilibili, known for its popularity among Chinese millennials, has also chalked up impressive numbers. Its RMB 2.936 billion revenue in ads was a 109.9% yoy growth.
Internet giants in China now have to accept the status quo of declining revenue and slowing growth, a trend that is likely to persist in the foreseeable future.
The advertising industry is a weathervane for the broader economy. As China’s economic growth slowed since 2018, ad spending also decreased.
Baidu and Tencent saw their ad revenue growth slow down as early as 2019. To boost its ad business, Tencent, which for years has refrained from excessively monetizing WeChat out of concern that it would weigh down the user experience, dialed up ad displays on WeChat Moments. This has contributed to Tencent’s ad growth in the past few quarters until this Q3.
Chinese internet giants have benefited from the explosion of online education platforms and new consumption trends over the last two years, as the platforms advertised lavishly to reach more customers. Market researcher AppGrowing ranked the online education industry as the fourth largest mobile advertiser in China last year.
However, this year, the “double reduction” policy—aiming to reduce the homework and after-school tutoring burden on students—as part of China’s crackdown on the edtech sector has effectively eliminated edtech companies’ appetite for online ads. According to data obtained by 36Kr affiliate Tech Planet, the edtech crackdown cost ByteDance up to RMB 4 billion in ad revenue.
New consumer brands also saw their popularity wane. These Chinese P&G-wannabes were burning venture capital money on online campaigns with return on investments (ROIs) as low as 0.5, meaning they could expect to recoup only 50 cents in revenue for every ad dollar spent. Keeping investing in capital subsidized campaigns is simply not sustainable for them when many were already operating at a loss.
The lackluster performance of online ads was not unique to consumer brands. It reflected a severe challenge to the whole online marketing industry. According to an anonymous source who runs the e-commerce business at a sportswear brand, Alibaba and JD.com used to be obvious choices for online campaigns. But ad ROIs on these platforms have plummeted by 30%–50%.
According to another source cited by Tech Planet, an ROI of over 1 is unrealistic these days. “There are many reasons behind this, including Douyin starting its e-commerce platform. Despite Douyin’s sensational popularity, a siloed platform with a smaller traffic pool (compared to the whole e-commerce market in China) will only drive the price up but deliver low conversions,” the source said.
The business of online marketing is ultimately all about traffic.
According to the 47th edition of China Internet Network Information Center’s “Chinese Internet Development Statistics” report, as of December 2020, there are 989 million internet users in China, with a penetration rate of 70.4%. Traffic growth headroom is further constrained as the country’s internet penetration saturates.
China’s tech giants are under pressure to diversify their revenue streams and break free from their reliance on internet traffic.
Baidu has placed its mid-term bet on cloud computing and long-term bet on AI, while Alibaba has hedged its bets on hyperlocal and cloud computing services. The gambles seem to be paying off: In this Q3, Baidu’s AI Cloud business achieved 73% yoy growth and sustained a 70% growth rate for two successive quarters.
Alibaba’s hyperlocal retail sales services have racked up RMB 55.1 billion in sales in Q3, a yoy growth of 111%, rapidly narrowing the gap with its customer engagement service revenue.
Other companies, including Tencent and Meituan, have ventured into the hardware or new energy sector to explore new opportunities.
The ad market might not be on the mend anytime soon, but Chinese tech giants’ revenue diversification efforts may ease at least part of their revenue pressure.
This article first appeared on 36Kr, and was written by Wang Lin.