Inside Triller's troubles, from fights with a music giant to a tripped-up TV launch
Triller, the musical video app company, is having some technical difficulties. The scrappy upstart, which over the past year has aggressively attempted to position itself as a challenger to TikTok, has experienced a series of stumbles as of late that could jeopardize those efforts and its ability to woo premiere marketers.
Triller benefited from anti-TikTok rhetoric this summer when Donald Trump tried to ban the video-sharing platform in the U.S. Since then, Triller staged a high-profile boxing match between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr.; tapped a prominent marketing leader in Bonin Bough; caught the attention of Pepsi; and, last week, unveiled a new TV-like effort.
But a very public battle with Universal Music Group, uncertainty around Triller’s metrics and a haphazard unveiling of its new streaming offering, raise red flags.
Triller has been going head-to-head with Universal Music Group, which resulted in the record giant pulling its catalog from the platform over claims that Triller wasn’t paying its bills (Triller denied the accusation). UMG was partly motivated to go public with its claim of missed payments because Triller announced that it considered buying a $5.5 million Super Bowl spot on CBS (Triller ultimately decided not to go through with a Big Game commercial). With that kind of money, and the $50 million it reportedly spent on a Mike Tyson prize fight production last year, UMG figured Triller had the money it was owed.
Ad Age spoke with multiple ad agency execs, music industry insiders and social media marketing firms about Triller’s business. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, but they each painted a similar picture regarding the chaos surrounding Triller’s operations.
The fight with UMG could be a deterrent for brands that want to avoid getting caught in the middle.
“Advertisers do not want to be associated with music rights controversies and upset the record labels,” says Jimmy Hutcheson, CEO of Spin Media, the renowned music industry publication. “The record labels are one of the gatekeepers to the talent in the music industry, and it will give advertisers pause until resolutions are reached. It's best to keep the labels happy.”
These types of spats over rights are common in the tech world, Hutcheson says. The labels are litigious and aggressive, and they force the platforms to pay for rights to any songs that wind up even playing on low volume in the background of a video uploaded by any user. When the platforms secure deals with the studios, it makes sharing music easier, giving it greater potential to achieve popularity on an app.
“There is a history of this throughout the tech proliferation into entertainment," Hutcheson says. "I think the IP owner, in this case UMG, they usually come out on top.”
Questions are swirling about the size of Triller’s audience, too.
On Aug. 1, at the height of the TikTok’s trouble in the U.S., Triller rose to No. 1 in the U.S. app download charts on Apple’s App Store, according to App Annie’s download tracking figures. But after the initial frenzy, downloads calmed down. Triller is now often below the top 500 apps in terms of downloads, according to App Annie’s stats. On Jan. 30, Triller was ranked No. 926 in the overall U.S. app download charts, according to App Annie.
In December, Triller CEO Mike Lu claimed the app had 65 million monthly users, and that it could expand that to more than 250 million through partnerships, like one it was working on with Samsung to become embedded in mobile phones. But the active user numbers were questioned again, most recently in a report by Billboard this week, that said there were concerns that Triller may have inflated its stats. On Wednesday, Lu denied those claims to Billboard and said the company should be valued at $10 billion.
Without the ability to verify the size of the audience, Triller's ad technology product, CrossHype, is a tough sell. The platform has also asked top-dollar for brands to participate, according to people familiar with the ad service.
“When we did get a quote from them it was astronomical, $15 per thousand views,” a social ad exec says. Those rates are similar to a premium ad buy on Instagram and YouTube.
Triller's advertising team is run by one of the most well-respected people in marketing, Bonin Bough, who joined Triller as chief growth officer in March. Bough is an example of how Triller has been able to entice some of the biggest talent in advertising and media.
Last year, Chipotle tried Triller, giving it a whirl during TikTok’s troubles, but the restaurant chain never ran paid ads on the app. “Experimenting on new platforms and engaging with our audience in unexpected places has always been part of our ongoing digital strategy,” said Tressie Lieberman, VP of digital and off-premise marketing at Chipotle, in an email to Ad Age. “We experimented with organic content on Triller early on and continue to monitor the platform to see if it’s a place for positive engagement.”
Triller is building an ad business that plays heavily on its ties to the music industry and inroads with celebrities, which it showed off in its announcement of TrillerTV. The video offering names Jennifer Lopez, DJ Khaled, the D’Amelio family, and 2 Chainz among its stars. It seems like a star-powered mix of shows, which Triller said will run in the form of weekly live streams on the app.
But when Triller pointed viewers to a website, Triller.TV, promising a schedule of shows, the domain had nothing to do with the TV project. It was a parked domain, meaning it was inactive and it displayed a handful of Russian-language links. (A parked domain can redirect to other sites, too, so each visitor may see a different page. None of them appeared to be owned by Triller though.)
When asked about the mixup on the evening of the announcement, Triller’s press team at Hitzik Strategies confirmed Triller.TV was the right address. “Triller.TV is the website and it should be up and running within the next hour or so,” a Triller spokesman said by email. But the website was not up and running within the hour. The same domain was still inactive days later, as well. The parked website was appearing as of Wednesday, nearly a week later. A Triller spokesman said that the domain would transfer at some point, but in the meantime pointed people to go.triller.co/live to get the schedule for the programs that were supposed to start on Triller on Feb. 18.
The show descriptions resemble the type of work Triller has been doing with brands lately, creating digital properties that could attract sponsorships.
In fact, Triller recently developed a show with Pepsi called "Your Wildest Dreams," a hip-hop talent competition that runs on the app. One of the shows being promoted on TrillerTV is “Fat Joe’s Masterclass,” which promises a livestream of the artist teaching his creative process.
Video series are content and advertising machines on social media. Some platforms have had success with such programs, like Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, and they promote the shows during periods like the IAB Digital Content NewFronts, which are yearly digital entertainment showcases for brands to consider.
Triller has also worked with L’Oréal’s NYX, E.l.f. cosmetics and Levi’s.
Then there are the boxing matches. Triller produced the Mike Tyson-Roy Jones Jr. comeback match in November. By entertainment standards it was certainly a success, drawing 1.6 million pay-per-view signups, one of the largest in history. Weedmaps sponsored the bout.
“The sponsorship was a significant inflection point for the broader cannabis industry,” Juanjo Feijoo, Weedmaps chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “The driving objective for many of our consumer marketing efforts is to dismantle the negative stigmas associated with cannabis through education and social advocacy, and this sponsorship provided one of the largest, and arguably, one of the most diverse platforms where we were able to further address those stigmas and promote social justice.”
“Weedmaps saw a record day for new web traffic, and hit an all-time high for single-day app downloads, surpassing even 4/20 numbers,” Feijoo said.
Ad world insiders have doubts about whether boxing, or other similar live events, can be a core part of digital video service looking to run with the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok. The smallest of those, Snapchat, has 265 million daily users, the type of consistent audience that major marketers demand in order to shift more than experimental ad budgets.
“For all the hype with the fight back in November, it’s an interesting event but it kind of had nothing to do with the app,” says a digital media exec who has had negotiations with Triller. The exec spoke on condition of anonymity but is close to Triller investors and people who have worked at Triller. “A lot of it is entertaining to a degree, but it had nothing to do with the app itself.”
The exec says that Triller has had some big moments with brands that have dabbled in the app, but “I don’t know if those are just one-offs.”
Triller declined to comment for this story, but it offered an email with a statement attributed to Noah Beck, the social media star. “The Triller audience may be smaller but it consists of relevant culture and trend setters,” the statement said. “This separates them from the competitors.”
But execs at agencies that work closely with creators, the ones whom Triller sought to win over, say the platform never delivered on the types of numbers it promised. Triller had been promoting its ability to give the newcomers top visibility in the app. That would mean big view counts and community. “It was a disaster,” says one social media talent executive, who has had direct dealings with Triller. “It was a very confusing mess and they couldn’t deliver what they said they could deliver to the creators.”