Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
🙏 Today’s wondermissive is a special guest edition from Chris Stokel-Walker on the drivers behind TikTok’s remarkable growth and whether the company is here to stay. I’ve gotten to know Chris over the past years as he has proved to be one of the foremost investigative reporters tackling the growth and development of the digital creator economy, showing nuanced expertise and the ability to source insights from deep within the bowels of the industry.
Chris is one of the world’s experts on TikTok. He’s also written a fantastic book (a thriller, I would say) on the social network. I’ve had a chance to read it and you might want to treat yourself, too: TikTok Boom.
Please take a moment to thank Chris on Twitter for his contribution this week.
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Hi, I'm Chris. It's an honour to step in for Azeem today.
When I pitched the idea for TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media to my agent in 2019, they had some questions. As did the publishers it was offered to. Would TikTok even be around by the time the book was written, edited, and ready to be published?
While TikTok's success caught many by surprise, there is a deeper backstory to how this video-sharing app rose to global prominence. Its success hinges on its approach to four primary areas including product, content, geography, and brand marketing. It has developed a model, designed to avoid the missteps of those that went before it, that guarantees growth and has the potential to change how we shop, interact and consume content.
A superior and nimble product
TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have fine-tuned a series of algorithms to innately know us better than we know ourselves – which itself has become a viable business called Volcengine in China and BytePlus in the West. The ByteDance algorithm is unparalleled across tech, plugged into almost every app the company creates. TikTok’s success at short-form video recommendation didn’t appear out of thin air: ByteDance had already built a canny recommender system through tens of millions of users of Toutiao, a news app, popular in China years before the Chinese version of TikTok – Douyin – came about.
The genius of TikTok’s algorithm is that it doesn’t standstill. It’s constantly being tweaked on countless numbers of data points. Think about the number of videos the average YouTube user watches in an hour: the average sweet spot for view duration there is between five and eight minutes. A YouTube viewer likely gets through 10 videos an hour. On TikTok, where most videos range from 15 to 60 seconds, that’s between 60 and 240 videos an hour. TikTok learns more about its users because they input more data into the systems that innately know them, meaning its efficacy is always going to be amplified at a quicker rate than longer-form competitors. TikTok also benefits from easy sharing, including the use of watermarked videos that help lure more people onto the platform when viral videos are shared on other social media platforms such as Instagram.
And when the users are there, they’re addicted. In March 2020, as the world locked down, users spent the equivalent of 320,000 years on TikTok – that’s as much time between the Stone Age and the present. That trend has continued as people linger longer on the never-ending stream of video. All of which has made ByteDance rich. The company’s revenue hit $34.3 billion last year and shows no sign of slowing down.
Working-class content creators and big marketing campaigns
In China, some of the earliest celebrities minted by ByteDance apps were pig farmers. In India, Israil Ansari became an overnight star because of a video filmed in a paddy field.
The popularity of the app among the rank and file is fascinating considering ByteDance isn’t shy about splashing the cash. At one point it was spending $3 million a day on advertising in the United States, while football fans couldn’t have escaped TikTok’s logo blaring out at them from hoardings in the Euro 2020 tournament currently being held in Europe, for which TikTok is the main sponsor. The company cheerfully paid Cardi B a six-figure sum to post six ineffectual videos on the app.
TikTok’s stratospheric success in the UK – where one in four people log onto the app every month, according to data I uncovered for Bloomberg last year – and elsewhere can be seen through this three-pronged super-fast model of growth. The company spent big, including a splashy TV advertising campaign that attracted new users. It kept those users engaged by bombarding them with tailor-made content designed to appeal to their interests. And it relied on advocates, in this instance young children nagging their parents to perform with them, to build up the app’s existence in the country, before broadening out. Surprisingly, two-thirds of TikTok’s users worldwide are over the age of 25, which throws cold water on the idea that only young people are driving TikTok’s growth. By expanding beyond the traditional userbases of these kinds of apps, TikTok has managed to maintain its appeal where so many have crashed and burned.
Every market has potential
TikTok’s astonishing growth stems from where and how the company has chosen to grow. India was a key market for TikTok before it was banned as a result of a political dispute between China and India. The company wants to return to India because it was its biggest market outside China. TikTok’s 100 million monthly active users in the United States and its further 100 million across Europe can’t compare to the foothold TikTok had in India. Even large countries like Russia are comparatively underdeveloped areas for TikTok – it had 28.5 million monthly active users this time last year, according to internal TikTok data I’ve obtained.
TikTok’s entry into India was a calculated decision to target the next big market of internet users. India has the second-highest internet penetration rate of the 10 biggest nations worldwide. The Indian market is divided between the urban haves and the rural have-nots. Interestingly, TikTok targeted users in rural areas and smaller cities to gain a foothold in the country. It did this by taking advantage of the lower cost of targeting them through Facebook adverts. Having gained a foothold, the company then moved towards glamming up the app for the pickier city dwellers. Had it continued operating in the country, it’s a plan that would likely have paid off. Rural internet users are expected to outnumber urban ones in India by 2025.
While geopolitics put the brakes on TikTok in India last year (read Azeem’s commentary on the fracas from last year), the company has replicated the model in other countries where internet penetration is growing, including brokering partnerships with mobile network providers to offer specialised bundles where data consumed through TikTok is billed at a lower price or free (see here for an example from Namibia).
TikTok has managed to avoid some of the more obvious mistakes of its predecessors. How it has done that is a mix of consciously learning from the errors of those that went before them and heading off issues (where YouTube struggled for years with inappropriate content, TikTok has 10,000 content moderators worldwide, fully one-tenth of ByteDance’s total headcount), and through a more proactive moderation policy that’s inevitable from an app born in a tightly controlled market like China.
The key to TikTok’s growth
TikTok has followed a fundamentally different approach to content creators and brand marketing than its leading American counterparts, which relied solely on the cool factor and word of mouth while shunning brand advertising as a driver of growth. TikTok is willing to be brash and bold, and to meticulously weigh up decisions that help bolster its expansion.
All of which makes TikTok’s long-term survival and success more certain than I would ever have known when my agent and publisher quizzed. But the fact that the app – and the gigantic company behind it – aren’t simply riding the crest of the online video wave and waiting for their luck to run out shows how foolhardy we are to overlook TikTok as a flash in the pan, or a little app for kids.
Some fear it’s a Trojan horse for a broader Chinese tech invasion. That might be overdoing it. But its speedy success in revolutionising the world of online entertainment does hint at a more contested future of tech control outside Silicon Valley – and that we all need to react a little faster to totemic shifts in the sands.
TikTok is part of a seismic shift in the future of technology, and an augur of what’s to come. It’s why I was so confident TikTok would stick around – and why I wouldn’t bet on it rewriting the big tech table to add a sixth member beyond Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. ByteDance is here to stay, as is TikTok.
Thanks for reading. If you'd like to continue the conversation, leave a comment on this post (click the header and sign in) or tweet @stokel.
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🤯 In the last episode of the fifth season of the Exponential View Podcast, I got together with the award winning novelist Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is one of the greatest living sci-fi authors, particularly prominent in the evolving genre of "cli-fi" or "climate fiction". His latest novel The Ministry for the Future offers a stunning vision what it would take for institutions, individuals, and emerging technologies to save millions of lives as climate change changes the world around us. Some of the things we discuss:
- Why Kim Stanley Robinson wanted to kill the adaptationist movement, which mistakenly argued that humans could adapt to extreme temperatures?
- Why civil disobedience and direct action may become a moral necessity when the lives of future people are at stake?
- What is the role of central banks are a necessary part of facing the risks of climate change?
Listen here or wherever you receive podcasts. (If you've been a fan of the podcast, join me and our production team on Clubhouse next Friday as we share what we learnt in the past year of hosting brilliant conversations).
🌎 Measuring climate impact is key for companies trying to hit ESG targets. But how does a company determine its climate impact targets? The MIT Sloan management school published a look into how Salesforce, Amazon, and Google make these decisions. The bottom line is that there is no one standard for reporting (and perhaps there should be), so the key for each of these companies is to articulate clearly to stakeholders how they approach climate impact. This leaves a lot of power in the hands of management but also for consumers, who should be able to evaluate whether a company lives up to its promises.
Short morsels to appear smart during your next TikTok binge
👽 The UFO phenomenon has had a distinctly western veneer… until now. China is building its own Area 51.
🇨🇳 Venture capital firms are finding incredible returns by investing in China.
🚙 Elon Musk discovers that self-driving cars are a much harder problem to solve than he expected. Listen to my conversation with Professor Missy Cummings about this from two years ago.
❄️ Maori settlers began visiting Antarctica much earlier than researchers assumed. As such, they might hold the key to its future.
🍄 Fungi intelligence continues to come into sharp focus as scientists discover that they embrace economic theory as they trade. More in science: incredible new discoveries are untangling how our memory works.
TikTok's approach to social media is fundamentally different from other social media platforms. What I have taken away from talking with Chris about the company is how different their approach is in the four drivers he outlined above. The product is highly viral, but early on used the algorithmic recommendations and sharing strategies that amplified the virality. TikTok courted content makers (regardless of their heritage) early on, making sure that what content-creators made using TikTok compelling. (Instagram and Twitter started working with influencers far later in their lifecycle). The company poured petrol on this fire by spending heavily on brand marketing to drive awareness.
And finally, unlike its American peers, TikTok understood the importance of full-stack localisation (from interface to content influencers to marketing strategy, content moderation, and policy and public affairs). Each major market was treated as more than just an ad market. While that didn’t stop the ban in India, it has helped the firm’s growth.
Really fascinating, I’m sure you’ll agree, and lots to mull.
Don’t forget to thank Chris for his essay this week.
P.S. Join me live on Clubhouse next Friday, 5.30pm BST, to hear what I learnt in the past year of speaking with brilliant minds on our podcast.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Paul Swider completed a series of short novels informed by international experience in diplomacy, development and communications.
Great interview with Craig Cohon on launching Coca Cola in Russia.
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