How TikTok created a new app market for itself

September 9, 2019 — by Esther Luan

When TikTok appeared on the U.S. app market in early August 2018, many people saw it as nothing more than a new version of Musical.ly, which had long been branded as a cringey app for young teenagers. Both apps are social media platforms for watching, creating and sharing short videos, but musical.ly was never quite able to reach past its young, albeit dedicated audience.

While few in the U.S. had heard of TikTok during the months following its release, Douyin, the original version of the app, was already somewhat of a social phenomenon in its home country of China. 

Launched by Chinese internet company ByteDance in September 2016, Douyin gained traction quickly, accumulating more than 100 million downloads in its first year without even touching the western media market, according to reports from Sensor Tower, an app analytics platform based in San Francisco. More than a billion videos were being watched per day, and within a year the app achieved 100 million downloads.

Bytedance broke into the western market beginning in September 2017 with its launch of the newly coined TikTok, the western version of Douyin. Bytedance then purchased Musical.ly for $1 billion to catapult TikTok into the western video sharing community. All accounts were consolidated onto the newly merged app, which were then kept separate from Douyin due to Chinese content restrictions.

According to Sensor Tower, an app analytics platform based in San Francisco, TikTok was downloaded more than 104 million times on Apple’s App Store alone during the first full half of 2018. 

The app achieved this extraordinary growth through a rather unconventional method — targeting many specific, smaller audiences. This tactic allows unknown creators to easily “go viral,” rising to small-scale fame within the app. 

Sophomore Naomi Mallik, a content creator on the app, gained more than 9,000 followers following a few viral skit videos she posted, which more than quadrupled her follower count. By creating this layout, viewers feel more closely connected to creators, and creators produce content continuously in hopes of either connecting with people online or going viral themselves. 

By expanding to different audiences, TikTok was also able to amass a more diverse range of content from all kinds of creators, effectively boosting user engagement. Unlike Musical.ly, TikTok places less emphasis on music, encouraging creators to produce content such as skits and meme videos.

Contrary to the market’s expectations, TikTok continues to expand following its initial user spike. From June to November 2018, TikTok ranked third worldwide in terms of downloads across all app stores, and throughout 2019 the app has consistently gained millions of new users per month.

Although many users initially downloaded TikTok without any intention of seriously using the app, it has ultimately proven itself to have much potential in today’s media market and provided a road map to success for other apps that seek to saturate the market.

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