TikTok, the Chinese social network that wants to conquer the world
Backed by Bytedance, one of the world's most valuable private companies, the micro-video 'app' sweeps teenagers. TikTok's international rise is cautiously followed by Facebook and Google.
If you have teenage children, you probably know what TikTok is. Musical.ly's heiress has become, with Instagram's permission, the favorite application of millions of young people around the world. Adults squeal, they love it. TikTok allows them to visualize, create and share frivolous micro-videos in which they dance, playback, launch viral challenges, act, draw or show their pets.
After surpassing 1,000 million downloads in record time, TikTok is already a global phenomenon that giants like Facebook and YouTube watch with caution. Behind it is Bytedance, a young Chinese startup backed by SoftBank. Until recently unknown in the West, it is one of the most valuable private companies in the world, with a valuation of 75,000 million dollars, and look at the stock market.
"Its success lies in the fact that it has connected with the adolescent and pre-adolescent public, which is the trend-setter in social networks", explains Ferrán Lalueza, lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences at the UOC. In his opinion, in the face of hate speech or the troll kingdoms of other platforms, TikTok engages this audience because of its "frivolous and banal" content and the ease with which they can create videos with music as a common thread. "Young people are looking for breakthrough options, to be where their parents are not," he says.
TikTok has become the first Chinese application to triumph in the West, a company in which giants like Tencent and WeChat failed before. Bytedance has built its success by creating an app for the international market, TikTok, different from the one that operates in its country of origin since 2016, called Douying. After buying its rival Musical.ly in 2017 for $1 billion, TikTok is available in more than 150 markets and 75 languages. An aggressive advertising campaign - with influencers and advertisements on networks such as Snap or Instagram - has helped boost its growth.
Noel Nuez, country manager for Spain and South America of TikTok, led from Sao Paulo (Brazil), where he resides, the launch of TikTok in August 2018. "TikTok is the main destination for short format mobile videos," he explains to EXPANSIÓN, "We've created a new way to generate interest in content," he points to the 15- to 60-second videos shared by users. "We have achieved this by removing the barriers to the creation and consumption of content," notes Nuez.
One of the keys to TikTok is the intensive use of artificial intelligence. The founder of Bytedance, Zhang Yiming (36 years old) is considered a great expert in the field. In fact, the other great success of the company is Toutiao, an aggregator that uses artificial intelligence to display personalized content.
The use of algorithms to suggest videos and create a viral content platform is also a key in TikTok. "We recommend videos based on each user's preferences to ensure a personalized experience," explains Nuez.
"Another factor that differentiates us is that our platform has powerful and simple tools for video editing," says the executive, who explains that some editing effects have been created by the team in Spain. Lalueza delves into this idea. "While YouTube is a showcase where you create a minority, TikTok is a creativity lab where anyone can produce content," she explains.
The application sweeps away Generation Z. In Spain, most users range in age from 16 to 25, the company says. "In the last year we have seen a trend of increase in the average age," notes Nuez.
And is that one of the risks facing TikTok is that it remains a niche application for teenagers, which may limit its future success and its ability to attract brands. Extending the age range of its users would make it easier to reach more advertisers. "Adults have to colonize young people's social networks, adapting them to their messages. If that were the case, this realm of frivolity would be compromised, which is right now and which is attractive to teenagers," reflects Lalueza.
Despite Bytedance's financial muscle after its funding rounds - the latest of $3 billion - the company is challenged to test the profitability of applications like TikTok. The group does not reveal business figures. According to The Wall Street Journal, Douyin plus TikTok posted revenues of $1 billion in 2018, less than 15% of the group's estimated turnover.
Its growth has ignited the alerts of giants like Facebook or Google. According to Sensor Tower data, TikTok recorded 150 million downloads in the first quarter of the year, the latest data available. It was the lowest app on the App Store for the fifth consecutive quarter, and third on Google Play after WhatsApp and Messenger.
Last year, Facebook launched Lasso, a short-format video app mimicking TikTok, which has had limited impact. "It's hard to attract an audience that's no longer on Facebook," says Lalueza. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal said recently that Google has held talks to acquire Firework, a video startup that would allow it to compete with TikTok.
EACH USER ENTERS AN AVERAGE OF 43 MINUTES PER DAY
After a few years in which TikTok has focused on building a large community, now is the time to monetize the valuable asset of the audience through advertising. One of the weapons to convince brands is the intensive use of the app.
According to Noel Nuez, country manager for Spain and Latin America, each user opens the app around seven times a day with an average usage time of 43 minutes.
"We're exploring different opportunities to help brands get the most exposure possible, really effective engagement and, most importantly, connect with their key audiences," he says. Nuez, who does not reveal local user figures, says Spain is "a very important market" for the company.
TikTok is also exploiting a format that allows users to participate in brand challenges by creating and sharing videos. In Spain, for example, they launched one of these campaigns with LaLiga that achieved more than 81 million views.
In addition to monetization, another challenge for TikTok is to control the harmful content that may be on the platform, and deal with security and privacy issues. In India, for example, it was temporarily banned after being accused of inciting racial hatred and disseminating pornography. In the United States, it was fined for collecting data from children under the age of 13.
There are voices in the United States calling on the government to investigate whether, given that it is a Chinese app, the data it collects from users may pose a threat to national security. ByteDance is the subject of a national security investigation by the US Foreign Investment Committee.
"We are making a great effort to offer a safe experience by combining a team of moderators with our artificial intelligence technology," says Nuez, who reveals that this team of moderators, who manually review dozens of videos and accounts, are in more than 20 countries and regions, "which represents 400% more than a year ago," says the Tiktok executive. Nuez also highlights the inclusion of new privacy and security options in the app.