This Chinese app that debuted in India in late 2017 has already clocked 120 million monthly active users (MAUs). The best part is, it's the users who produce the app's content.
Think of platforms that help tell the world about ourselves and the names that crop up include YouTube and Facebook, closely followed by Twitter, Instagram, and a few others. This seems to be changing and fast. A relatively new entrant, TikTok is the talk of the town.
Launched globally in 2016, this online video creating and sharing platform started India operations in late 2017. For 200 million+ Indians, it has become the go-to destination for telling the world about themselves. Stories are told via crisp 15-second extremely pervasive videos. Pervasive, because TikTok's videos have invaded all other content platforms - WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - you name it. All thanks to its easy sharing and integration options.
Over 55 lakh videos were created and uploaded on the platform in a single day around a topic during Diwali last year, which officials say was TikTok's tipping point. By the end of 2018, it had already figured among the most entertaining apps on Google Play, with over 500 million downloads. TikTok was the highest-ranking free downloaded app globally, both on Apple's App Store and Google Play.
"It's from the gut, 'come as you are' storytelling told in 15 seconds." The sentence figures in the app's description on Google Play. It probably holds true because of the kind of content generated on the platform by a never-seen-before breed of creators.
A creator could be an octogenarian from a remote village or a city-bred school student. By TikTok's own admission, 24-year-old Mr Faisu from Mumbai was among the platform's most-followed creators with over 22 million followers. A previous commoner even debuted in a music video from Zee Music Company. Awez Darbar, a budding choreographer boasts over 14.1 million followers.
News about the death of Aaruni S Kurup, a nine-year-old TikTok sensation from Kerala, flashed across national news websites, a privilege accorded thus far to famous personalities. A granny-grandson duo, posting from the account @akshaypartha has garnered around two lakh followers and four million likes with its lip-syncing and dancing videos.
Apart from the song and dance, TikTok also features videos about workouts, DIY projects and fashion, among others. YouTube, the most popular destination for user-generated content (UGC), shares ad revenues with its creators. TikTok doesn't have any such pay structure in place (at least for now). Why do people TikTok then? A stab at quick fame coupled with joyful self-expression seems to be the key driver.
But where's the dough?
Apart from the general public, big brands have also started making their presence felt on TikTok. We spotted brands like Mountain Dew, Pepsi, Lays and Snapdeal on the platform's various ad formats. The platform also supports in-app purchases like effects and filters, prices of which on Google Play Store range between Rs 85 to Rs 8,200. According to app intelligence firm Sensor Tower's report, global spending on TikTok reached $10.8 million last month, up from $1.6 million in June 2018.
It all began with...
TikTok is owned by Chinese tech and content company ByteDance, founded by Chinese internet entrepreneur Yiming Zhang in 2012. Reportedly, it is one of the most valuable startups in the world with a valuation of over $75 billion. Latest reports suggest that it now has 1.5 billion monthly active users (MAU) globally.
In 2017, ByteDance bought Shanghai-based competitor Musical.ly, for $1 billion with over 200 million users at the time. In 2018, ByteDance rebranded Musical.ly, which specialised in lip-syncing videos to TikTok, and the app's users migrated to TikTok. ByteDance's product portfolio includes content apps like Helo, Vigo Video, BuzzVideo, and news apps such as Toutiao and TopBuzz.
The company's Indian apps include the social platform Helo; Vigo, a video platform for content creators in Tier-2/3 cities and rural markets; and TikTok, their 'flagship' app. The platform operates in 150 countries across 75 languages and was first launched in China as Douyin.
According to a Mint report, TikTok has over 700 million users globally. It started India operations in late 2017 and has already acquired 200 million users in the country. Of these, around 120 million are monthly active users (MAUs) and 85 per cent of users are adults, the TikTok team in India claims. To put things into perspective, (as per Statista) Facebook has 270 million users and Instagram has around 69 million users in India.
TikTok's legal roadblock...
TikTok star Faisu was taken off the platform in July this year. His profile has been inaccessible since he published a 'provocative' video, attracting an FIR against him. In October 2018, a 24-yr-old man is reported to have committed suicide after allegedly being bullied on TikTok for cross-dressing. There are other unfortunate examples.
In January 2019, S Ramadoss, founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) party in Tamil Nadu, approached the state government with a demand to ban TikTok, alleging it distracts children and helps create sexually provocative videos. Trouble took centre stage when S Muthukumar, an activist and advocate, filed a plea in the Madras High Court on April 1 to ban TikTok for its "explicit and disturbing content". On April 3, the court called for a ban on downloading TikTok and this came into effect in India on April 18.
TikTok was taken off Google Play Store as well as Apple App Store. On April 22, the Supreme Court ordered the Madras HC to pass an interim order on the ban, saying that if it failed to decide on the interim relief by April 24, the ban on TikTok app would be overturned. The HC lifted the ban on April 24 with a few conditions. The matter is still sub-judice. Concerns about TikTok's data security have also been raised, given the app's Chinese antecedents.
The criticism and the case were inevitable, given the pace at which TikTok penetrated the Indian society. The concern is valid since Indians repeatedly misuse their internet liberties and issues like trolling, fake-news and online bullying have been plaguing the country.
What's spurring growth?
So, what was special about TikTok that enabled it to become an overnight sensation, with no advertising? Video apps like Snapchat, Vine, or Dubsmash, which have been around longer, were not much different from TikTok. Twitter downed shutters on Vine, its 6-second video hosting service, in December 2016. Almost a decade-old multimedia messaging app, Snapchat is still experimenting with its India entry. Dubsmash, an app that pioneered the concept of lip-syncing in India couldn't cover as much ground as TikTok, despite being popularised by celebs. There is a buzz in global media around Vine's founders reinventing it to 'Vine2.0' in the form of 'Byte'. Facebook is busy (although silently) working on Lasso, its own TikTok-like alternative.
While there is a lot of curiosity around TikTok's secret spice, Sachin Sharma, director, Sales and Partnerships at ByteDance India, attributes it to the company's focus on helping users create content. Sharma joined ByteDance after spending 20 years in sales roles at organisations like LinkedIn, Google and Genpact.
"Growth and retention happens by providing tools for creating quality content and helping creators with localised topics and subjects - something they can relate to their daily lives," Sharma says.
TikTok constantly updates its editing tools, which include items like image filters, frames, animations, etc. The names of the tools used are also highlighted while playing the videos.
Sharma tells afaqs! that contrary to the popular perception that TikTok is a Tier 2/3 town or a rural phenomenon, users come from all over the country, across states, ethnicities, languages and city tiers. He strikes down another general misperception about TikTok's content being only about music, dance and lip-syncing. "A lot of these videos are about displaying various talents. People are doing smartphone reviews in 15 seconds," he shares.
According to Himanka Das, CEO, Vizeum India (DAN's media agency), TikTok is extremely massy and is evolving as a standalone genre within the social media bouquet. "The platform needs to stabilise to become an opportunity for brands. Preliminary findings suggest that it is becoming popular in Tier 2 and 3 markets but it's too early to estimate projection of the pie," he says.
"The platform has limited opportunity for brands to organically push its messaging, but they could tie up with influencers, mostly for brands with a mass appeal targeting youth," Das adds.
TikTok allows users to watch videos without logging in but a login (through phone number) is required for creating videos. Once logged in, videos can be created by selecting existing videos from the phone's storage or shooting fresh ones. Stored images can also be used to make slideshows with special effects. Once recorded, the videos can be edited with tools for trimming and adjusting play speed. For lip-sync videos, users select an audio from any video on the app and lip-sync to it as it plays while recording the video. The sync can be adjusted later using tools. To perform duets with others, users select a video and opt for 'Duet' from the app's sharing options. These are a few popular ways of creating content on the platform.
While Sharma stresses on the great mix of the short format and easy tools, there is an external factor that ensured perfect entry timing and fertile ground for TikTok in India. Studies suggest, India enjoys the cheapest mobile data in the world with a gigabyte (GB) costing just Rs 18.5 against the global average of almost Rs 600 ($8.53).
Cellular network Jio provides packs of 1.5 GB data daily. A pack of Rs 349 lasts 70 days and provides 105 GBs. A few years ago, a single GB would cover the entire month for many users and data used to be sold in MBs (1/1024 of a GB). With this pocket-friendly price, a primary barrier to internet access and consumption was eliminated.
Advertising on TikTok
TikTok is currently looking to find a spot on the media plan. The platform seems to be in the user-acquisition mode, but is also exploring monetisation and the ad market. There is a need for clarity in targeting, brand safety, and media quality. Among big names, PepsiCo was the first to board the platform and ran campaigns for massy brands like Pepsi, Lays and Mountain Dew.
But what's on offer?
TikTok has four primary ad formats: in-feed vertical video, branded filters, etc., full-screen takeovers and the hashtag, its 'flagship' campaign format. Branded in-feed videos appear while scrolling and brands can create branded app features like filters/skins. Takeovers allow a brand to be the first thing users see upon opening the app.
To create a hashtag campaign, a brand posts a challenge with a particular '#' and users take it over to create organic content around it. Among the latest examples is Mountain Dew's #DewFlipChallenge where the brand threw a bottle-flip challenge at users. #DewFlipChallenge has garnered 1.8 billion videos on TikTok.
ByteDance India's Sharma says brands have to open up a bit and take the 'user's narrative' forward to make optimum use of the platform's ad capabilities. TikTok in India is already in conversation with major ad agency networks like DAN, GroupM, OMG, IPG and Publicis. For now, advertisers deal directly with ByteDance for ads.
Speaking on advertiser partnerships, Sharma says that TikTok is witnessing a lot of interest in the industry. "We would like to engage advertisers at a 'pre-brief' stage, a consultation phase before rolling out a brief. It would provide better opportunities and more head-room to meet specific brand requirements," he adds.
TikTok's current ad formats won't be unique for long. On the ad front, Facebook is rearing its Thumbstoppers 10-second vertical ad format, which is similar to TikTok's. YouTube tweaked itself to allow vertical video and ads. Mobile web browser, UC Browser from Alibaba also recently initiated its TakeOver ad format like TikTok's.
A bigger concern with TikTok seems to be brand safety. In recent times, the platform has figured almost daily in the news for not-so-pleasant reasons. And a lot has to do with its content. Moderating audio-visual content has been a persistent challenge in the industry, not to mention TikTok's 15 different Indian language options. In such a scenario, how would Sharma, who heads partnerships for TikTok, impress advertisers?
He explains that the advanced machine learning (ML) technology TikTok uses enables the platform to monitor videos. "With the advanced ML and AI, we can not only flag and classify content but also understand themes and in-video references."
"For hashtag campaigns, the brand's own creatives give direction to the user-generated content. Topview ads are followed by our highest quality content. Promoted content is placed alongside top five per cent of the videos on the platform, which has already undergone multiple levels of moderation," adds Sharma.
While he is loath to reveal further, he assures that advertisers can rely on the tech. The first layer of the check is ML, followed by human moderation.
Away from TikTok's preventive measures, the platform's management is on a taming spree to put a leash around its usually raw and wild content. The brand recently partnered with National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), a government body, to 'educate' youth about new skills. It also joined hands with an NGO to launch #CleanIndia campaign to support the 'Swachh Bharat Mission'. TikTok's own campaign #EduTok deals with various facets of skill development. These steps are justified as the platform's future in the country is still being decided in a court. And, 'safe' content is also good news for advertisers. ByteDance has also announced plans of setting up a data centre in India.
In June this year, TikTok conducted its first "Creator's Lab" event in Mumbai, bringing together 500+ creators and influencers from all over India. The initiative was aimed at reinforcing TikTok as a medium of digital expression. It can be considered as TikTok's effort to organise itself and further brand messages via its influencers. But it needs to be seen if these steps will alter TikTok's image after its original massy, 'raw' and 'from the gut' positioning.
Unlike other platforms, TikTok allows users to integrate profiles with other social media accounts including YouTube and IGTV. TikTok's confidence in letting users hop around rival platforms is remarkable. "Would we want to limit users by not giving them a feature and restrict them within our environment? I don't think so," underlines Sharma.
Few things that set TikTok apart and keep it going, according to Sharma, include eliminating barriers to video creation, extending the reach of videos beyond the creator's own network and bringing content creators and followers closer so that the creator and the follower can share the screen in harmony.
But what happens when users flock to the next big thing? Among notable examples is social platform Orkut which made way for Facebook. "There is going to be constant innovation in terms of new tools, features and products. That is our commitment," Sharma responds. He mentions that any product or medium that demands users' attention is competition.
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However, TikTok is the new go-to social medium and is a direct threat to the ones that have been basking in the space - Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Instagram's IGTV and YouTube, among others. Facebook might soon silently launch its own Tik-Tok alternative, Lasso. So, despite the strong headway, a worthy contender to the app might just be a tick-tock away.