TikTok, a Chinese short-form video app known as Douyin in its home country, is exploding in popularity in the West.

It has now been downloaded more than 80 million times in the US, where it is currently the top free app in the Apple App Store. Nearly 4m of those downloads came in October alone, a 31% month-over-month leap that propelled downloads of TikTok past those of the Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube apps.

Qualitatively, TikTok’s accelerating Western popularity is evidenced by the number of celebrities who are flocking to the service. For example, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is using TikTok for a new segment, which invites viewers to submit videos of themselves engaging in various challenges.

TikTok is a good fit for such a segment. The app allows users to record and publish video clips of up to 15 seconds, and offers a variety of effects, filters and stickers that they can use to enhance their videos.

tik tok screenshots

One feature TikTok offers, called Duets, has made it an especially popular app for creating lip-syncing music videos, and it’s worth noting that TikTok merged with musical.ly, a music-centric video sharing app it acquired earlier this year.

The new Vine?

If the characteristics of TikTok seem familiar, that might because it is very similar to Vine, a US-based short-form video app that was actually acquired by Twitter in October 2012 prior to its official launch.

Vine became popular with content creators who used it to create comedy and music shorts, and it eventually grew to 200m active users. Not surprisingly, brands were eager to get in on the act as well.

In 2016, however, thanks in part to growing competition from other apps including Instagram and Snapchat, Twitter announced that it would shutter Vine as a standalone service.

Vine’s history raises an obvious question: is TikTok the new Vine, or does it have the potential to be something more?

Because of the similarities, including the fact that, like Vine before it, TikTok has shied away from monetization that could help it become a sustainable business, it’s easy to suggest that TikTok is a fad that won’t last.

But there are also reasons to believe that might not be the case.

First, thanks to its popularity in China, TikTok already has some 500m active users – more than double that of Vine at its peak. So while the app is only now making headlines in the West, its spectacular growth is coming on top of what looks like a pretty solid foundation.

Second, TikTok’s timing appears to be good. Video is well-established and booming, and younger generations appear especially entranced by the kind of short-form video content that TikTok is focused on.

Finally, TikTok is owned by ByteDance. That’s not a familiar name outside of China, but the privatelyheld company, which was founded in 2006, is, according to reports, now the most highly-valued tech startup in the world, having just raised a $3bn round of funding that valued it at $75bn. So TikTok has a lot of capital behind it, which could make it more difficult for incumbents to quash it.

Facebook has clearly taken note of TikTok’s growing popularity. Earlier this month it quietly launched a standalone TikTok-like iOS and Android app called Lasso.

The world’s largest social network has been ruthless in its targeting of the competition – just ask Snapchat – but the surge in TikTok’s usage comes at a time when Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are busy battling what appear to be huge internal fires, so Facebook might be more vulnerable now than in the past.

How brands can use TikTok

If TikTok has the potential to be a lasting social media star, if not the next big thing, how should brands approach it?

TikTok doesn’t yet have the kind of standard ad offerings brands can tap on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, but it is moving towards monetization.

In early September, it partnered with fashion brand Guess to run a #InMyDenim challenge that was promoted to users of the app. As part of its campaign, which was the first-ever “branded content piece” TikTok has run in the US, Guess also teamed up with a number of popular TikTok influencers.

It’s natural to expect that TikTok will forge similar relationships with other major brands to launch campaigns on its platform, but for brands wanting to get their feet wet now, they can set up TikTok accounts of their own and partner with influencers directly the same way they do on platforms like
Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

While there are (unsurprisingly) more brand case studies from China, common ways of driving engagement, such as working with influencers to launch viral challenges, would seem to be universally applicable.

Of course, as TikTok’s star rises, brands should expect that competition for attention will be fierce, and costs will rise. As such, as with their efforts on established social platform, brands will need to exercise creativity if they want to cut through the clutter. And they will want to ensure that in the process of
experimenting with social media’s latest shiny new toy, they don’t forget their business objectives.

Learn more

Econsultancy offers social media training and subscribers can download our Social Media Best Practice Guide.