TikTok app logo on screen. Image: Shutterstock

It’s been a big news week for the social platform, as the US House of Representatives passed a bill that could lead to TikTok being divested or banned in the United States, leaving investors and users uncertain as to the app’s future.

At the same time, the Financial Times reported that TikTok reached record revenues of $16 billion in 2023, according to people with knowledge of its finances, and that parent company ByteDance is on track to overtake Meta as the world’s largest social media company by sales.

Amidst these major developments, another story emerged that could spell big things for TikTok and the social media landscape. Android-centric blog The SpAndroid revealed code within the latest version of TikTok’s Android app that suggests a launch of a photo-sharing app, TikTok Photos, could be imminent.

The code contains options to “Open TikTok Photos”, “Get TikTok Photos”, and “Share this post to TikTok Photos”, as well as some text from a pop-up announcing that “TikTok Photos will be launched soon” and promising to help users build an audience in the new app.

At a time when social media apps are moving towards short video in order to counter TikTok, TikTok appears to be broadening its remit in a different direction. Posting photo slideshows has been possible on TikTok since October 2022, but a dedicated app would give this much more focus – and with TikTok’s well-established popularity, it could pose a credible threat to photo-sharing titan Instagram.

Let’s look at what we know so far about TikTok Photos, what it could offer that’s distinctive from Instagram, and how it could present a compelling proposition for influencers and creators.

How likely is the launch of TikTok Photos?

“The presence of code indicates a significant possibility of TikTok exploring the development of a photo-sharing app,” says Shea Carter, VP of Social & Influencer at global social media agency Social Element. “While it’s conceivable that it could be an experiment, the fact that such code exists implies a more deliberate effort towards exploring this avenue.

“TikTok’s [2022] addition of photo carousels shows the platform has been testing photo-sharing capabilities for a while, and it’s not unreasonable to think TikTok Photos could be an extension of this – either within the same app environment or as a separate standalone app.”

“It’s interesting to see the experimentation that is going on behind the scenes with TikTok,” agrees Sarah Penny, Content & Research Director at The Influencer Group. “Historically, it has been Instagram that has leaned into other platform’s content formats, with the ephemeral content of Stories leaning into Snap style content, and Reels being driven by a need to compete with TikTok.

“TikTok, by comparison, has tended to lead the way with its own innovation so it is interesting to see the potential move towards content formats from other platforms. … We know that social platforms are constantly building and trialling new functionality, and even if it does get to beta, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be released widely. It will be super interesting if it is, though!”

How TikTok Photos could beat Instagram at its own game

“What made TikTok such a disruptive force in the first place was its algorithm,” says Thomas Walters, Europe CEO and co-founder of global influencer agency Billion Dollar Boy. “It made content more discoverable, helping to rapidly grow engagement and boost follower growth. It democratised content creation, enabling a more diverse range of content quality and creators to be seen and heard.

“If TikTok Photos is to be a success, it needs to ensure its proposition is sufficiently different to what’s already available on Instagram. It should stick to its [algorithm-led] USP … and champion raw, unedited imagery over the more curated content you tend to get on Instagram.”

Social Element’s Shea Carter also thinks that TikTok should embrace its famous algorithm with “a personalized feed of images for users, similar to the ‘For You Page’ (FYP) experience with videos.” Additionally, she thinks TikTok Photos could succeed by:

  • “Introducing innovative editing tools, sounds,  and filters tailored specifically for images, building on TikTok’s reputation for trending and creative content.
  • “Facilitating seamless integration with TikTok’s existing platform, allowing users to easily cross-post content between the photo app and the main TikTok app.
  • “Fostering a sense of community and discovery, similar to what TikTok currently provides for videos, by highlighting content from both established and emerging creators.”

Penny observes that in its efforts to compete with TikTok, Instagram may have opened up an opportunity for a rival to swoop in. “In trying to compete with the likes of TikTok, Instagram has de-prioritised photos in favour of videos and this has resulted in declining visibility and reward, alienating those users.

“Therefore … if TikTok could offer a photo app that rewarded these creators appropriately to an already highly-engaged audience, this could provide a very desirable option to influencers.”

Delivering ‘niche at scale’: A look at influencer marketing trends

How TikTok Photos should woo creators and influencers

TikTok is a major platform for creators and small businesses (many of whom have mobilised to protest the legal action in the United States that could bring about a ban) and Instagram is even more so.

With the launch of TikTok Photos, TikTok would no doubt be hoping to lure away many of those creators who create primarily photo-based and artistic content. What would it need to provide them with a compelling offering?

“TikTok Photos would likely be best received as an integration into the existing app – like TikTok Shop and Instagram Reels – as opposed to creating a brand new app,” says Billion Dollar Boy’s Thomas Walters. “Creating a new app would risk disenfranchising creators who wouldn’t be able to transfer across their followers that they’ve spent time building and engaging.

“Without creators producing high-quality and diverse content at scale, consumers are unlikely to make the switch and stay tuned in. In this scenario, we could see a repeat of the lukewarm reception we’ve seen so far from creators towards Threads.”

Shea Carter adds that “access to TikTok’s extensive user base” would of course be a major draw for TikTok Photos creators – which would be facilitated by integrating TikTok Photos within TikTok’s main app, or else allowing creators to use one account, à la Instagram and Threads. Certainly, the text discovered within TikTok’s app suggests that TikTok is exploring this setup.

Moreover, the “potential for virality with [TikTok’s] finely-tuned algorithm” would be the biggest incentive for creators, as well as another area where TikTok can distinguish itself from Instagram. “This is something creators have struggled with [on] Instagram, often complaining about reduced reach and engagement as Meta has rolled out algorithm changes,” says Carter.

TikTok Photos should hold back on social commerce

TikTok Shop, which brought integrated ecommerce to the video platform, has been progressively rolling out to different parts of the world since 2021, culminating in a US launch in September 2023. It offers businesses an additional way to monetise on TikTok via shoppable videos, which reduces the distance between inspiration and purchase on the platform.

However, Walters cautions against expanding commerce options to TikTok Photos too early, noting that the reception of social commerce in the west is not the same as it is in China. “Western markets are more resistant to social commerce than Asian markets – [as] evidenced by ByteDance’s Lemon8 experiencing a relatively disappointing launch in the US.

“There’s been some consumer backlash to TikTok Shop on the main TikTok platform, so TikTok Photos would be wise to allow its user base to grow organically before adding potentially less popular social commerce functions.”

Dive into Econsultancy’s Social Quarterly report for more up-to-the-minute social media trends and news, or tune into our recent Digital Shift webinar on evolving influencer marketing.  

Econsultancy offers elearning and training in digital marketing and ecommerce.