Baidu's (NASDAQ:BIDU) stock stumbled nearly 30% over the past 12 months, with the trade war causing investors to shun Chinese stocks, and higher interest rates causing them to sell riskier growth stocks. Despite those headwinds, Baidu's core search-based ad business remains strong, and it remains a top play on China's booming tech sector.
I recently discussed why Baidu's stock was too cheap to ignore. Today, I'll focus on the four major catalysts for Baidu's long-term growth.
1. Mini programs
Earlier this year, Baidu introduced "mini programs" for its mobile app. These mini programs, which include games and travel apps, are installed from inside the Baidu App instead of a mobile app store. This allows Baidu to expand its app into a mobile platform, tether more apps to its ecosystem, and lock more mobile users into its app.
This strategy mirrors Tencent's (OTC:TCEHY) introduction of mini programs for its mobile messaging platform WeChat last year. Last quarter, Tencent claimed that its mini programs had 200 million daily active users (DAUs), compared to 1.06 billion monthly active users (MAUs) on the WeChat app.
Baidu's DAUs on the Baidu App rose 17% annually to 148 million last quarter. This means that even if all of the Baidu App's DAUs use Baidu's mini programs, its ecosystem will still reach fewer users than Tencent's mini programs. But if Baidu can offer its mobile search users similar mini programs as Tencent, it could widen its moat against WeChat.
2. Streaming media investments
Earlier this year Baidu spun off iQiyi (NASDAQ:IQ), which leads China's online streaming video market alongside Tencent Video. The decision to turn iQiyi from a money-losing unit into an investment was a smart one, since it significantly boosted Baidu's earnings growth. Baidu still holds a majority stake in iQiyi, and integrates its streaming videos into its other platforms.
Baidu also has a streaming music platform, Baidu Music, but it only controlled 4% of the market last year according to DCCI. Meanwhile, market leader Tencent Music -- which was formed via a combination of three leading music platforms -- controls over three-quarters of the market with more than 800 million MAUs. The second largest player, NetEase (NASDAQ:NTES) Cloud Music, has over 400 million MAUs.
That's why it wasn't surprising when Baidu recently took a stake in NetEase Cloud Music in mid-October. NetEase will remain the unit's majority stakeholder, while Baidu will become a strategic partner -- which indicates that its ecosystem and content library could be merged with Baidu Music.
3. Expanding its blockchain platform
Earlier this year,Baidu launched a blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) platform, which was aimed at helping companies process digital currencies and bill payments, and provided credit and insurance management services, audits, and other financial services on its blockchain network. It also launched a digital puppy adoption service, called "Leci Gou", to promote the service.
If Baidu continues to expand its BaaS platform, it could counter the growth of rival blockchain platforms from Tencent, Alibaba, JD, and other tech companies. Winning over more enterprise customers could also allow Baidu to cross-sell more services and tether them more closely to its search and advertising ecosystem.
4. AI and self-driving cars
Lastly, Baidu has a major presence in the AI and driverless car markets. In the AI market, it's expanding its DuerOS virtual assistant platform to more hardware devices. In August, Baidu revealed that the platform had an installed base of 100 million devices -- up from five million just six months earlier.
The platform has over 200 hardware partners, including Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo, which have launched over 110 types of DuerOS devices. This first-mover's advantage gives Baidu an Alexa-like lead in the Chinese market for voice searches, which could help it expand its ecosystem into connected homes.
Meanwhile, Baidu's open-source autonomous driving platform Apollo, which aims to be the "Android of the auto industry," has attracted a growing list of partners, including Microsoft, NVIDIA, and Intel. Baidu has already been testing out its driverless cars in China and the US, which puts it at the forefront of this nascent next-gen market.
The bottom line
Mini programs, streaming media, blockchain, and AI won't move the needle for Baidu over the next few quarters. But, over the long term, these investments could help Baidu diversify its business away from online ads and widen its moat against formidable ecosystem challengers like Tencent and Alibaba. Investors should remember that Baidu isn't just China's biggest online search company -- it's a diversified tech giant with plenty of irons in the fire.