Bilibili, China’s YouTube, wants to be its Netflix

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THE MISSION statement of Bilibili, often dubbed “China’s YouTube”, stands out for its modesty. Instead of promising to change the world, the firm aspires merely to “enrich the everyday life of young generations in China”. If user figures are a guide, the Chinese young feel enriched. In the last quarter of 2020 the number of people who used the service at least once a month shot up by half from a year earlier, to 202m. Nearly nine in ten were under the age of 35. Videos on the platform, which range from sports highlights to self-help lectures and everything in between, attract an average of 1.2bn daily views.

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Launched in 2009 as a website for fans of Japanese anime, Bilibili has evolved into a diversified entertainment group. In recent months even Western musicians (such as Jessie J and Charlie Puth) and Hollywood stars (including Dwayne Johnson) have rushed to set up Bilibili accounts. Investors, too, have taken notice. Between March 2018, when the firm listed in New York, and February this year its market capitalisation rose more than ten-fold, to $41bn. On March 23rd it raised $2.6bn in a secondary listing in Hong Kong.

Unlike YouTube, Bilibili refuses to clutter user-generated videos with adverts. That way, the thinking goes, it can attract new users put off by such interruptions, and convince them to spend more time on the platform. The central aim, as described by executives, is to “convert” this “sticky community” into “paying users”. Bilibili does so in two main ways: by offering games where players purchase virtual items to advance to the next level, and access to original and licensed films and series. This Netflix-like business, launched in 2018, now has 14.5m paying subscribers.

The share of users who pay for things like in-game accessories and subscriptions has risen from 3.9% in 2018 to 8.0% in 2020. Receipts from these sources helped Bilibili nearly to double its revenues in each of the past three years, to 12bn yuan ($1.7bn) in 2020. It also sells adverts on parts of its platform, but they made up less than fifth of its sales (compared with the vast majority of YouTube’s).

All this has yet to make any money. Last year Bilibili reported an operating loss of 3bn yuan, double the shortfall in 2019. Profits may remain elusive; the company must invest to maintain a pipeline of addictive games and pays top dollar to outbid big streamers like iQiyi for the rights to popular movies and shows its nascent subscription business needs.

Bilibili’s executives are sanguine. “As our net revenues continue to grow, we do not expect our total content costs as a percentage of total revenue to substantially increase,” they wrote in the prospectus for the firm’s Hong Kong listing. Its share price, down by a third since its February peak, suggests investors want finally to see some proof.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Billing, billing”

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