No matter how you feel about TikTok, we are past the stage where people debate if it is a fad. TikTok is snowballing with incredible momentum and growing globally about as fast as we have seen a social app grow. Even if you aren’t on TikTok, it is likely most people you know under 30 are, and perhaps a growing number of people in their 30s and 40s. If some recent app store reports are correct, the number of users on TikTok is approaching or has just surpassed 600 million people.
TikTok remained in the top 5 downloaded apps in the US in both the Apple App Store and Google Play store during 2019. Globally the story was similar, and in particular, it is extremely popular in India. In a recent worldwide survey of social app usage, that landed in my inbox, it highlighted that after YouTube, TikTok is now the second most used app to watch mobile video every month.
Celebrities are embracing TikTok, the mainstream media is talking about TikTok more regularly, and more importantly, consumers are creating user-generated video faster than perhaps any other social platform in mass. The question remains, however, as to what exactly is TikTok?
What is TikTok?
Yes, TikTok is an evolution of Vine, which is short-form video content that lends itself to memes (themes which duplicate with a user’s unique spin on it). TikTok is slightly different from Instagram in its appeal in that it is much easier to post something that goes viral on TikTok. For your post to go viral on Instagram, you have to have a large group of followers to see it. TikTok has a video feed every user sees called the For You Page. The content you post can show up on the For You Page and be shown to millions of people who don’t follow you. Therefore, many of those in Gen Z I talk to are not necessarily trying to build a huge follower group on TikTok, they are simply trying to create videos that go viral.
If you watch videos on the For You Page for any length of time, you see dozens of memes that are similar. Any user can pick up on one of these memes (content theme) and put their own spin on it and find it can go viral quickly. The appeal, for now, is the competition to make a post that goes viral. And that alone seems to have quite a bit of gravitas with everyone I’ve talked to creating content on TikTok.
Among other platforms, TikTok seems to be gaining traction seeing more consumers upload video content than others, including Instagram, where photos are still the most popular and frequently uploaded medium. This is where the potential for TikTok may be greater than Instagram, in my opinion. It’s a change in the medium and the format of content. This is also where TikTok may be the manifestation of what everyone thought YouTube would be where everyone would be a creator.
What’s interesting to watch with TikTok right now is how quickly the content is evolving, and doing so in a way, it is still unclear what TikTok will become. This is surprising when you think about a product with a user-base of 500-600 million people worldwide, and we still don’t know what kind of a media platform it is because it is still evolving. Consumers are experimenting and innovating, and as you scroll the For You Page, you see content from regular people, not celebrities, influencers, or producers, which makes it even more interesting.
The Business Model
From an economic standpoint, TikTok is growing rapidly in conversations with advertisers. I was surprised to even see ads from Apple already in TikTok. Ads feel much more native in experience and integrated into the overall video experience that it is easy not to realize you are watching an ad. Advertisers are even picking up on the most popular or trending memes and creating content to match those memes, which is brilliant in my opinion.
I’ve talked to a few friends in media and advertising, and while TikTok has entered the conversation, it is still only in the experimental budget camp. This, interestingly, is largely where Snapchat has been for major advertisers. It is my firm opinion TikTok will have a much more successful advertising platform than Snapchat, and people have been speculating ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese Owner, maybe a front runner to purchase Snap someday.
While Instagram has been growing in social commerce (buying and selling products promoted by an influencer), it is unclear how well this will work in TikTok even though the underlying architecture is there for social commerce.
TikTok will have its influencers who gain large follower bases just like Instagram and YouTube, but I have a feeling the way you play the influencer game on TikTok will be quite different than the way they do it on Instagram and YouTube, which may end up meaning the rise of new influencers who better adapt to the new medium.
These are interesting times because we thought social media was largely settled, and no one was going to come in and challenge the FB properties. But TikTok’s upside may be higher than Instagram and YouTube, and that will make for interesting competition to watch and analyze.