A man looks at his mobile phone in Delhi, India. Wacky content-sharing apps based in China are flocking to the huge, largely untapped market.


Photo:

Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty Images

NEW DELHI—Some of China’s quirkiest social-media firms are signing up hundreds of millions of consumers in India, tech’s biggest untapped market, looking to capture users who aren’t already locked into

Facebook
,

Twitter

or other American apps.

Chinese content-sharing apps such as Bigo Inc.’s Like and Bigo Live, along with Bytedance Ltd.’s Helo and TikTok, are taking off in this country of 1.3 billion, where most people are getting online for the first time using low-cost smartphones and dirt-cheap data plans. These apps, with ad-supported models, feature hours and hours of mostly wacky and often titillating content: brief videos of slapstick gags, girls blowing kisses, patriotic songs, teens twerking to the latest Bollywood hits and more.

Their simple interfaces appeal to users such as Asha Limbu, a 31-year-old from the northeastern state of Manipur who works as a housekeeper in New Delhi. In between doing housework for a middle class family, Ms. Limbu spends three hours a day on Like, scrolling through hundreds of tiny videos in a sitting and connecting with friends and strangers along the way.

“Facebook is boring,” she said. She has heard of Twitter and Instagram but never tried them.

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Apps for the Next Billion

Chinese social media apps are exploding in India, where hundreds of millions of people are getting online for the first time.

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Top social media apps in India

Downloads in India of Chinese social media apps

(bold = Chinese app)

Number of downloads

1.0

billion

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

TikTok

WhatsApp

1

70.7 mil.

0.8

WhatsApp

Messenger

2

11.7 mil.

Like

Facebook

3

0.6

Vigo Video

Facebook

4

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

Messenger

Instagram

5

Share of all social media apps downloaded that are Chinese

6

Imo

Helo

0.4

7

ShareChat

TikTok

62%

Vigo Video

ShareChat

8

0.2

9

Welike

Clips

18%

Instagram

10

Like

0

Feb. 2’18

Feb. ’19

’18

’17

2016

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Top social media apps

Downloads in India of Chinese social media apps

(bold = Chinese app)

Number of downloads

1.0

billion

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

70.7 mil.

1

WhatsApp

TikTok

0.8

2

WhatsApp

Messenger

11.7 mil.

3

Facebook

Like

0.6

4

Facebook

Vigo Video

Feb. ’18

Feb. ’19

5

Messenger

Instagram

Share of all social media apps downloaded that are Chinese

6

Imo

0.4

Helo

7

ShareChat

TikTok

62%

8

ShareChat

Vigo Video

0.2

9

Clips

Welike

18%

10

Instagram

Like

0

Feb. ’18

’18

’17

2016

Feb. ’19

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Top social media apps

Downloads in India of Chinese social media apps

(bold = Chinese app)

Number of downloads

1.0

billion

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

WhatsApp

TikTok

1

70.7 mil.

0.8

WhatsApp

Messenger

2

11.7 mil.

Like

Facebook

3

0.6

Facebook

Vigo Video

4

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

Messenger

Instagram

5

Share of all social media apps downloaded that are Chinese

6

Imo

Helo

0.4

7

TikTok

ShareChat

62%

Vigo Video

ShareChat

8

0.2

9

Clips

Welike

18%

Instagram

10

Like

0

Feb. ’18

2017

2016

2018

Feb. ’19

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Downloads in India of Chinese social media apps

billion

1.0

0.8

0.6

0.4

0.2

0

2016

’17

’18

Number of downloads

70.7 mil.

11.7 mil.

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

Share of all social media apps downloaded that are Chinese

62%

18%

Feb. ’18

Feb. ’19

Top social media apps in India

(bold = Chinese app)

Feb. ’19

Feb. ’18

WhatsApp

TikTok

1

WhatsApp

Messenger

2

Facebook

3

Like

Facebook

Vigo Video

4

Messenger

Instagram

5

6

Imo

Helo

7

ShareChat

TikTok

ShareChat

8

Vigo Video

9

Welike

Clips

Instagram

10

Like

Source: Sensor Tower

Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service, with more than 200 million users, is hugely popular across many socioeconomic classes and language speakers in India; it doesn’t carry ads. YouTube, from

Alphabet
Inc.’s

Google, remains popular as users binge on videos. Still, some of the new Chinese apps are growing more quickly and could soon chip away at Facebook and Alphabet’s domination of ad dollars in the country.

Chinese companies are expanding overseas as they face slowing growth and increased censorship at home. Chinese social-media apps were downloaded more than 950 million times in India last year, three times as many as in 2017, according to mobile-data firm Sensor Tower.

But while Chinese giants

Tencent Holdings
Ltd.

,

Alibaba Group Holding
Ltd.

and

Weibo
Corp.

have yet to find a foothold in India, apps such as Like are popular. Like’s owner, Bigo, was founded in 2016 by David Xueling Li, chairman of Chinese live-streaming company YY.com. The app and its sister platform, video-streaming app Bigo Live, have 69 million monthly users globally; it doesn’t disclose how many users it has in India. Bigo in February said it would invest $100 million to expand its business in India and hire 1,000 people.

The presence on the Like app of Bollywood superstars such as Ranveer Singh has added to its popularity. Mr. Singh’s video uploads of himself dancing have amassed 4.6 million followers in four months—nearly half the 10.2 million fans he has on Facebook and more than a third of his 11.7 Twitter followers.

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Many of the Chinese apps target users who are outside India’s English-speaking population of city dwellers. Bytedance, a startup valued at $78 billion and backed by

SoftBank Group
Corp.

, is going after local language speakers in smaller cities who are new to the internet and who access it almost exclusively on smartphones.

Bytedance last year launched a new app just for India called Helo. Users open it up and choose from 14 Indian languages—but not English. Without needing to select accounts to follow, app users automatically get a simple, continuously scrolling feed that shows video clips and images that are going viral.

Helo has racked up 25 million monthly users since it launched in June, the company said, and is adding an average of about 100,000 new users every day. That puts it already into the same ballpark as Twitter in India, a favorite of the country’s journalists, politicians, actors and other elite and which research firm eMarketer estimates has about 26 million users.

TikTok, Bytedance’s short-video app, is popular around the world and has made massive gains in India. TikTok has about 260 million users in India, according to Sensor Tower, or a quarter of its global total and close to the number of people who use the Facebook app in India.

The Chinese upstarts and other newer platforms could attract advertisers’ interest as their reach grows, said Ujjwal Chaudhry, an analyst at RedSeer Consulting, based in Bangalore. “There is a very large global opportunity here,” he said. The country’s digital advertising market is still small, with only around $2 billion in annual revenues compared with $100 billion in the U.S., according to KPMG, but the India market could triple in the next five years.

The sudden rise of China’s video-sharing superstars has triggered a backlash. Some groups are worried about racy content amid New Delhi’s recent efforts to create restrictions on foreign companies to allow local tech companies to grow.

“These apps are known for sharing the details of children and being an open ground for child pornography and possibly antinational activities,” an arm of a Hindu nationalist group said in a letter to India’s prime minister last month.

A Bytedance spokeswoman said TikTok and Helo are meant for people 13 and older, and that both apps include ways users and law enforcement can report content that violates its terms. A Bigo spokeswoman said Like in India is meant for users 18 and older while Bigo Live users must be at least 16. Both have mechanisms for reporting content.

Write to Newley Purnell at newley.purnell@wsj.com

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