There are only four attractive things about TikTok.
There is its very large monthly active user base, which has just passed a billion people. There are the 45 minutes that those users spend, on average, on the site each day – higher than any other social media site. There is the platform’s peculiarly ad-appropriate design, which enables brands to blend promotional content seamlessly into TikTok’s endless video stream. And, finally, there is the meteoric growth that has seen user base, time spent and advertising revenue grow at unprecedented rates – even by the standards of the hyper-stimulated world of social media.
It’s a formula that can be extrapolated to gigantic possibilities in the decade ahead. And also one that leaves the traditional social media brands with a strategic headache.
It has been a frenetic decade-and-a-half since the invention of The Facebook, followed by the arrival of the other major social media platforms. All of them started small, hungry and aggressive. Each found its niche. And each built a gigantic and insanely profitable empire. But time passes, user trial turns to habit and innovation becomes industry standard.
Thus was it once, and thus it will always be.
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat were the disruptors who created a new industry before our eyes. Their user growth was immediate and astronomical because – freed from the tyranny of physical products and the traditional laws of distribution – audience recruitment and growth were unlimited.
The disruptors are now ripe for disruption.
But a decade is a very long time in social media. These brands are now the establishment. The once-unlimited growth of social media is now bound by the very real constraints of the number of eyeballs on the planet and minutes in the day. And those non-existent barriers to instant customer recruitment now work in an equally vertiginous manner in reverse. Consumers can leave in the same massive numbers today as they arrived back in the heady days of the new millennium. Add this all together and you reach a delicious and ominous realisation: the disruptors are now ripe for disruption.
And always remember the crucial asymmetry of innovation over time: that being a disruptor confers zero skill to handle disruption. Indeed, being good at the former might make you even more vulnerable to the latter. Just as most tennis players with super-powerful serves often struggle to return the ball well, those companies that built their incredible growth from aggressively targeting legacy companies are probably more vulnerable to those attacks themselves.
It’s in that context that the rise of TikTok proves so fascinating. It’s not just its impressive growth numbers, but the flabby, indolent response of those it now displaces with that growth. For all their billion-dollar budgets and talk of strategic agility, the established social media platforms are responding with an astonishingly underwhelming reaction to TikTok’s nascent ascent.
The first brand to recognise and respond to the threat was Instagram. In 2020 the platform introduced Reels. It was “a new way to create and discover short, entertaining videos on Instagram”. But the move was an almost literal attempt to replicate the functionality of TikTok, and ran directly against the inherent DNA of Instagram and why it was so beloved by so many users.
Instagram was about curation and connection and community, not recommended videos from an anonymous vortex of strangers. While video was part of Instagram’s success, it was also a demonstrably image-led platform, not a video site.
But the ‘innovations’ have continued, with ‘Suggested Reels’ from unconnected recommenders replacing more and more of the photos posted by friends. In a more recent move, Instagram has also been testing showing these videos in full-screen mode with vertical scrolling. Instagram’s competitor response can be summarised as consisting of three key changes:
- Rely more on video
- Make the videos shorter and full-screen
- Use an algorithm to recommend them to users rather than rely on user contacts
A few months later, YouTube announced its new prototype feature called Shorts. It was launched in India, where TikTok had been banned in September 2020 and rolled out globally a year later. Like Reels, YouTube Shorts looks a lot like TikTok – from the full-screen videos, to the sub-60-second length, to the vertical scrolling, to the likes and swipes.
Indeed, it’s so similar I remember confusing the hell out of a senior mate who works for Google, when I asked him how TikTok was able to advertise on YouTube and “switch me across” to its site without me realising it. I still remember his panicked face softening as he realised I had unwittingly been watching YouTube Shorts without realising it. YouTube’s response to TikTok consists of three main thrusts:
- Continue to rely on video
- But make these videos shorter and full-screen
- Use a different kind of algorithm to recommend them
Snapchat has been busy too. In late 2020, the platform launched Spotlight – a dedicated space within its app where users could watch short, vertically scrolled, full-screen videos of up to 60 seconds in length. Snapchat would use its algorithms to select and then surface the most engaging Snaps to display to users.
The Spotlight feature was made accessible through a fifth tab on Snapchat’s home screen and users were motivated to create and publish these sub-60-second videos via a $1m daily funding programme created by Snapchat itself. In a nutshell, Snapchat attempted to respond to TikTok with:
- A greater reliance on video
- Making these videos shorter and full-screen
- Using its algorithm to recommend these shorter videos to users
Meanwhile, Instagram’s older sister, Facebook, was also struggling with TikTok’s growth. During the first three months of 2022, iPhone users in America spent 78% more time on TikTok than on Facebook.
In April, Tom Alison, head of the Facebook app, sent out a six-page memo to his team. While TikTok was not mentioned once, the presence of the rival was inherent in every sentence. Also evident from the memo was the recognition that the nature of social media was changing, fast.
“Social media products – including our own – are delivering value by investing more in discovery engines that help people find and enjoy interesting content, regardless of whether it was produced by someone you’re connected to or not,” Alison wrote in his memo. “We see this both in research as well as in the growth of products like Reels, Watch and In-Feed Recommendations [IFR].”
Facebook had to evolve, Alison noted. Rather than prioritising posts from friends and those who users followed, the platform would transform into a “discovery engine” and use its own algorithm to recommend posts regardless of where they originated. Top of the list of things that would be “discovered” would be short-form video.
“While Facebook’s discovery engine is designed to support many different formats (text, photos, video and eventually metaverse experiences), our biggest gap today is around short-form video and that’s why we’re focused on integrating Reels in Home, Watch, IFR and Groups,” Alison explained.
To summarise, Facebook’s response to TikTok was a three-pronged approach that relied on shorter videos, shown full-screen and recommended by an algo rather than friends.
What is so wrong with all of this, you might wonder? Why not focus on competitors and what they do, and augment it by evolving your own offering? I’m often asked this question by marketers I train and who are shocked at the lack of competitor assessments that I recommend as part of brand diagnosis.
I like looking at competitors through customer’s eyes, but I’m less interested in the insights that can be derived from directly studying competitors. In fact, it turns out there are very good reasons not to focus too heavily on competitors, what they do and how they do it.
There is a long and rewarding literature on the power of market orientation and keeping the customer in your cross hairs at all times. And there is an equally persuasive literature on the perils of competitor orientation – of switching our gaze from our customers to our competitors and how they do things. And that danger multiplies significantly if these insights turn to action and we start to replicate our competitors’ moves in our own approach.
There is the inherent double danger of doing something that suits your competitor and not you. Externally, the position, attraction and image of your brand is bound to certain things. And your rival, in this case TikTok, is bound to others. A focus on doing what it does leaves you vulnerable to attempting to offer things that aren’t your core and aren’t what customers want from you, and which are already being offered – in a superior way – by a competitor.
When Facebook internally announced its new TikTok-like features last month, one bemused employee voiced the fears that there was a “a real risk in this approach that we lose focus on our core differentiation (the social graph and human choice) in favor of chasing short-term interests and trends”. Spot on.
When Instagram began testing full-screen videos, making it practically identical to TikTok, the decision was met with howls of derision from users making this exact same point. They already had TikTok for a quick, algo-driven video fix and wanted Instagram for other, more enduring, community-based uses.
Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian agreed, and asked their combined 686 million followers on the platform to sign a petition to stop Instagram from “trying to…
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