In September of 2020 alone, viewers watched 1.6 billion hours of Twitch streams, there were 4 billion views of YouTube content about just one video game – Among Us – and TikTok users spent on average 45 minutes on the platform every day. As more people are staying at home due to the pandemic, they’re spending more time online. And where and with whom they spend it are questions that go to the heart of understanding the new ‘attention economy.’
From nowhere to everywhere
Our research indicates consumption of streaming and gaming content increased by 22% in 2020 compared with 20191. Suspension of everyday life and the cancellation of many forms of traditional entertainment, like sports and live events, has led people to look elsewhere for entertainment.
Hours gamers spend per week playing, watching livestreams & interacting via online communities1.
TikTok is one prominent example, of course. Only launched outside China in 2018, its runaway success rose sharply during the pandemic, emulating the previous success of Douyin, its predecessor in China. It’s no surprise that many other platforms like Josh in India are launching their takes on TikTok-style platforms to try and capitalize on this new way to engage.
Cameo offers users a personalized video from their favorite celebrity for a relatively modest fee. A couple of years ago, what was once a nice but niche idea has become a booming business, with 4.5x YoY growth in 20202. We’ve also seen a big rise in gaming, where the social interactions offered across platforms have become a big factor in the industry’s 20% growth in 2020 alone3. In fact, the surge in demand for gaming has seen both Microsoft and Sony’s new 2020 consoles in such heavy demand that many markets have sold out4.
A Cambrian Explosion of creativity
What’s happened? It could be compared to the Cambrian Explosion that saw complex life forms emerge on earth millions of years ago. It’s theorized that the chance convergence of environmental factors saw a sudden (in evolutionary timeframes) development of complex species.
The same explosive development is happening in the platform world now. A Scottish mailman singing sea shanties has earned a worldwide audience. An American singing and skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac won the internet and parlayed his new fame into a commercial career. Even politicians are successfully attracting attention: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch stream that encouraged voting drew 430,000 concurrent viewers5.
User-generated content is as old as the internet. But the current explosion of creativity, virality and engagement is taking things to a whole new level. Some recent work that we did with the World Economic Forum to explore the future media landscape highlighted the trend towards content creation democratization. There’s a new class of consumer-creator emerging.
Combining creativity with virality, they are reaching global audiences in the millions. UK-based broadcaster ITV aired user-generated remakes of popular ads, which drove higher brand impact than the originals. On YouTube, MrBeast ––who now has more than 53 million subscribers– initially captured attention through the viral spread of his video in which he counted to 100,000 in real-time and now creates mega budget viral videos like eating $100,000 ice cream. The distinction between professional and amateur is fading away as new platforms give direct access to content creators whose success or failure is determined by their ability to engage, not their career standing.
A global, captive audience
COVID drove a need for creative platforms and influenced a demand for content that’s light-hearted and, above all, fun. TikTok, for example, makes it very easy for users to watch quirky, short-form video content. If something doesn’t grab their attention, they can flip to the next video without having to choose from a list of suggestions. And TikTok makes it easy to watch instantly. There’s no sign-up or list of preferences to check. Users download the app and away they go. Algorithms serve content to users according to likes and dislikes, but TikTok has also become highly sophisticated at understanding what is in each piece of content to increase relevance and personalization. Ads also rarely get in the way of the user experience because TikTok has encouraged advertisers to make content that fits the platform's tone and style.
That sets a tone for what the platform carries that seems to have struck a chord with its users. In short, they’re looking for a distraction from the grimmer reality of lockdowns and bad news. Its content is exactly right for these times.
But looking to other media also shows a surging appetite for new content that’s breaking through national barriers to reach global audiences. Bridgerton, one of the biggest lockdown hits of the pandemic on Netflix, hit the number one spot in 82 countries6. Lupin (the first French-language series to make the top 10 in the US) has already had 60 million views worldwide7 since its release on January 8, 2021. One outcome? A considerable rise in content spending as incumbents battle with new competitors for consumers’ attention.
But what happens when we emerge from COVID? How will the behavior shaped by 12 months or more of relative confinement and increased digital engagement change when the conditions that helped form them no longer apply?
Key factors that will determine lasting success are the ability to scale fast and to do so globally. For example, much of TikTok’s revenue still comes from China. But with user numbers in the hundreds of millions globally, the potential in advertising revenue is clear. While the average revenue per user for platform businesses is relatively small compared with traditional media and entertainment players, it’s the size of the audience that drives success. Those players who can persistently attract huge numbers of users with an audience-first mindset will continue to thrive.