Opinion: The TikTok copycat wars are underway, but which app is winning?
When 2020 started out, a third of brands and agencies were planning to increase their spend on TikTok. But many have now been forced to take a wait-and-see approach, given the popular app’s future in the U.S. remains uncertain. Microsoft has until September 15 to work out a deal to acquire TikTok from its China-based parent ByteDance, else President Trump’s executive order, issued on Thursday, that prohibits transactions with ByteDance will effectively ban TikTok from operating in the States.
Meanwhile, alternative TikTok apps seem to be cropping up like a game of whack-a-mole—battling for active users and for advertising dollars. So, which of these copycats will benefit the most should TikTok actually be banned? While contenders like Dubsmash, Likee, and Triller are gaining traction, three apps in particular are in the advertising spotlight right now.
Not to be confused with ByteDance, Byte is commonly referred to as “Vine 2.0” as it’s the brainchild of the co-founder of Vine. When it launched this past January, the app surged in downloads because of the anticipation, nostalgia and loyalty to Vine. However, expectations were quickly tempered by a user experience that fell flat—likened to a “lesser than” TikTok because of its clumsy UI and far fewer creator tools. Byte is working hard to continuously roadmap and ship new features but its biggest challenge is building up its user base from scratch. However, TikTok’s questionable future is giving Byte a resurgence in popularity as it hit the #2 spot on Apple’s App Store this past week. The company even tweeted that it’s ready to fill TikTok’s void, and the general population tends to agree—at least on Twitter.
In a poll I conducted with more than 3,000 votes, the majority thinks that Byte will benefit the most from a TikTok ban. Francisca Moliere, a senior media planner at Mediahub Global, tends to agree, “Considering the audience size of Byte and its similar user experience with Vine, it has similarities to TikTok. Instagram is already cluttered with advertisers now. To add more to it can become tiring to the user. Advertisers can benefit from a ‘new’ platform that's not yet saturated.” Certainly Nike, in partnership with R/GA seized the opportunity of Byte’s newness and untapped whitespace when the app first launched. Yet most advertisers I spoke with wouldn’t necessarily place their bets on Byte. Why? It’s all about scale, which is something that Instagram undeniably has.
With the launch of Instagram Reels this week, Facebook now has a viable competitor to TikTok following its failed Lasso app. Since Reels is natively embedded into Instagram, it’s got an immediate user base from the get-go. OMD’s executive director of marketing science, David Hill explains, “With the audience already built in, it makes it natural that Reels will win. Unless Byte, Snap or even Triller have some features that make them drastically standout, I don’t see anyone beating Reels.” Since Reels is effectively a feature versus an app, it poses a double-edged sword for Facebook: On one hand, Instagram users avoid the need to download yet another new app but, on the other hand, it runs the risk of diluting Instagram with feature overload.
So in order to kickstart the use of Reels, Facebook is reportedly paying off top TikTok creators to join Reels and to bring their followership along with them. It’s an aggressive move but not unexpected from the company that ripped off Stories from Snapchat. And now Snapchat is following suit with plans to launch its own “TikTok-like” music feature this fall.
Snapchat 'music feature'
This week in New Zealand and Australia, Snapchat rolled out the ability to embed popular songs into Snaps. The feature is set to launch this fall in the U.S. with a large music catalog. Friends who receive a music-powered Snap can swipe up and play the full song—a nuance that’s different from TikTok’s user experience. Snapchat will have to contend with the fact that it’s coming late to the party in the U.S. and also that, for better or for worse, Snaps continue to be contained amongst friends, versus going public. One of the lures of TikTok is the ability for creators to quickly become “famous” with a chance of going viral by being featured on the app’s For You feed.
Still, Snapchat’s foothold on the teen audience is strong. In fact, Uber’s global head of media, Travis Freeman, would place his bets on Snapchat in a TikTok-less world by saying, “The audience I would hypothetically be trying to reach on TikTok is going to be younger, and less leaned into the platforms that their parents are using like Facebook or Instagram. The one place that we see overlap with this younger audience is Snapchat, and with their newly added music-powered feature, our message is a lot easier to port over to a seemingly similar audience.”
Banning TikTok is simply bad for competition
“We don’t want to see TikTok banned” is a common sentiment that reverberated throughout my conversations with brand marketers and media planners. And that’s because the app is making big strides to be advertiser-friendly. The recent launch of TikTok for Business with its mantra, “Don’t make ads, make TikToks” demonstrates how ads can be welcoming, native and playful. Benjamin Lord, chief marketing officer of Mira Beauty, put it this way: “TikTok is a breath of fresh air in the social space because it offers a different and fun experience with a lighter ad load. Facebook and Instagram are designed to get your eyeballs on the maximum number of ads possible. You never get more than one or two ads on TikTok per session.”
While the TikTok copycats continue to vie for its coveted throne in the U.S. marketplace, I simply don’t believe TikTok will go anywhere other than continuing to rapidly gain share of users and advertising budgets. In his opening remarks during last week’s Big Tech antitrust hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized TikTok as the fastest-growing app right now. He was trying to make a point that Facebook has legitimate competition within the tech industry. Banning TikTok simply wipes out Facebook’s greatest competitor, only to fuel the monopoly in question. If today’s lawmakers are truly concerned about mitigating potential predatory business practices within Big Tech, having fewer players at scale only exacerbates the issue.