Deeper Dive—Rakuten Viki built a huge streaming service on community, rewards

Makoto Yasuda, chief operating officer at Rakuten Viki, said the service has 24 million registered members. (Rakuten)

Rakuten Viki has grown into a massive streaming video service by using community building and a rewards system.

The service offers Asian dramas, comedies and other series, and draws on a community of users to help translate and subtitle the content. The name Viki is a play on words, a combination of video and wiki. It’s that community user management format that allows Rakuten Viki to translate its content into more than 200 languages.

Makoto Yasuda, chief operating officer at Rakuten Viki, said the service has 24 million registered members – the company doesn’t share subscriber totals – and is growing 40% year over year. Rakuten Viki is a hybrid ad-supported/subscription service. That means users can get free access to episodes with ads; the first two are free but then users have to wait for three weeks to get more episodes. However, if users want earlier access to episodes, they can become subscribers. Yasuda said this model has led to both subscriber and advertising revenue growing “significantly” on an annual basis.

Yasuda said that before Rakuten acquired Viki in 2013 (for a reported $200 million), the service started out as a student project for translating YouTube content into other languages. Now it’s grown into a large content library with community elements including comments – that Yasuda said provide a “sort of co-viewing experience.” There’s also private messaging, rating of the shows and opportunities to subtitle. The subtitling is done by volunteers who Yasuda said do it to help spread the content and because it makes them feel like they are a part of the content.

Within the Rakuten Viki community there are qualified contributors (including trainees, mentorships and channel managers) and there’s a subtitling workflow built by the community. Community members can earn rewards like branded clothing and accessories once they started making qualified contributions. They can also get access to exclusive content.

Rakuten Viki recently rolled out new mobile app updates and a new homepage on the web “to cater to our passionate fans and community,” Yasuda said. The homepage includes rankings for the top contributors, most loved teams and scrolling updates about community members’ achievements. The service also recently added a watch history section that allows users to more easily access the previous 10 programs they watched. Yasuda said the updates have helped with subscriber growth, which is going up at a rate of 80% year over year. Rakuten Viki’s watch time is growing 65% annually as well.

Rakuten Viki’s biggest market is the U.S., which has recently seen several high-profile streaming service launches including Disney+ and Apple TV+. Yasuda said his company is focusing on super serving its biggest fans and continuing to innovate to make sure it stays relevant as more and more OTT platforms compete for consumers’ attention.