To Win Short-Form Video, Look Away From the Creator

By Shreya Sudarshana and Johnathan Zhou

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If you’re following the recent developments with the future of TikTok, then you know that there’s a potential $50 billion acquisition at stake. Moreover, the platform that ends up dominating the short-form video social platform market over the next few months will greatly influence the social culture and information exchange of an entire generation of users. Although TikTok is the clear frontrunner right now, stakeholders competing for this market range from e-commerce giants, like Walmart, all the way to TikTok’s short-term video competitor, Triller.

TikTok’s success has been written about countless times, and many analysts talk about the terrifyingly accurate algorithm & the lowered barrier to content creation. However, there is another key component to TikTok’s industry leading engagement rates & growth that often goes unnoticed: its ability to cater to lurkers — silent users that consume but rarely create content. Lurkers play a critical role in the success of social applications and TikTok has been able to solve lurkers’ needs better than any other short-form video or social application.

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TikTok’s growth is incomparable to any other mainstream social media platform

Understanding the User Base of TikTok

Similar to other social media platforms, a large proportion of TikTok users are lurkers. Lurkers tend to make up the majority of social media user bases, while only a small minority of users are responsible for actual content creation. Research shows that there are twice as many lurkers than content creators on TikTok, insinuating that a significant amount of users are likely engaging with the app every day, despite a lack of desire to create content. While these users are not creating content on their own, they are still considered daily active users, indirectly engaging with the application. TikTok-specific lurkers include users who are not content creators but actively scroll through their For You page, send TikToks to their friends, and spend hours engaging with the app.

Lurkers don’t just exist on TikTok — they exist on almost every form of social media. So why do lurkers use the app if not to create their own content? What are they looking for?

The primary reason that most lurkers use social platforms is to find a sense of community. For example, the vast majority of Reddit users are lurkers; they might subscribe to a multitude of subreddits, or communities, yet they never actively post in them. Although content creators also seek community, lurkers uniquely search for communities with engaging content without actually having to post anything themselves or having to follow specific individuals, revealing a specific user behavior. Their strong need for community, paired with their strong desire to stay under the radar, creates a unique user type.

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Both TikTok and Byte have announced large creator funds to incentivize creating new content

The second critical social media user group is content creators, as content is the backbone of any social network. Creators, on any social platform, need tools to build their content, whether that be face filters or video editing capabilities. Beyond tools, social platforms have also reached the point of critical mass where creators can monetize content through either ad revenue and partnerships or directly from the platforms. Both Byte and TikTok have committed to massive creator funds, enabling their creators to launch careers off of their posts. However, no matter how much a company focuses on creator needs and how they utilize respective platforms, even the best content is meaningless without fans and users to consume that content or communities centered around the brand. This is why lurkers carry their own significance within social networks; they are not only the majority of users but also the primary consumers of content, providing purpose and incentive to creators.

How TikTok Stands Out

TikTok is unique in that any user, no matter how small or new, has the potential to go viral. This means that a user’s feed is made up of more diverse creators and is much more likely to have content that is relatable to the user.

Every TikTok has the chance to go viral

TikTok’s content is also genre-neutral — users can find anything from an animated dancing frog to a video on home decor. The capacity for a range of content allows for niche communities that has cult followings, such as the viral audio ‘Mi pan su su sum’ from a Russian cereal commercial.

TikTok demonstrates their understanding of the power of their algorithm when they announced their creator fund, listing example communities where creators have begun to thrive, such as vegan TikTok, makeup artist TikTok, and LGBTQ TikTok. The fact that the content can come from any person helps TikTok serve users more relatable content, creating a personalized and customizable For You page. Speaking of relatability, TikTok creates organic communities far better than any other social platform. In other social applications, users must proactively seek out communities to join and be a part of. Facebook Groups are an example of this, as they require users to search specific keywords for communities to join.

TikTok utilizes its powerful recommendation algorithm to provide all users with a sense of belonging, essentially learning what users want and giving them a community to be a part of. Some of TikTok’s core engagement metrics don’t even require an account, such as watching a video fully, or sending a video to friends. Many users even use the app without an account, since TikTok’s magic works as long as users are scrolling their feed. All it takes to be a part of a community is to engage with the right type of content. This application behavior is so clear to users that the content actually reflects it; many videos actually mention “comment on this video to stay on [a specific side of] TikTok”. In the examples below, audience members commenting “to stay on Christmas TikTok”, while content creators caption their TikToks with “Comment to stay on [Christian, #collegetiktok, charcuterie] TikTok”. TikTok’s ability to create community along with its non-bias for content type allows it to serve lurkers’ needs better than any other social application.

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Left & middle: users commenting to stay in a certain community. Right: creators encouraging similar behavior

Competitors’ Attempts

There are quite a few applications competing for Tiktok’s users by offering similar tools. Byte, Triller, Dubsmash, and Instagram Reels are currently the four that are most relevant in the market. At the highest level, these platforms all offer the same tools — videos with embedded music, editing capability, and feeds, just to name a few. Although the tools may be the same, the real difference lies in the content being produced, the algorithms powering the platform, and the audience consuming the content.

Instagram Reels

After adding Reels, Instagram began facing the difficult challenge of understanding how to balance their preexisting service as a close friends and family network, while also supporting creators who want to create content specifically for online communities, made up of complete strangers. In grappling with this challenge, Instagram Reels currently promotes both Reels made from a close network of users someone directly follows, while also promoting Reels made from accounts with large followings or verified accounts. As a result, Reels has not yet been able to solve the same problem that TikTok solves, allowing normal users to be amplified to an audience of complete strangers, or to give those strangers (or lurkers) a community.

The Reels user interface on Instagram

As Nathan Baschez mentions in his piece Instagram Can’t Recreate TikTok’s Magic, “The biggest obstacle Facebook has to overcome to make Reels successful is that the type of content that makes TikTok amazing is the stuff people don’t want to post in an environment connected to their real-life friends.” This obstacle prevents the potential for a solidified online community made up of strangers and leaves a need unsatisfied.

Triller

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Another popular competitor, Triller, has a strong tendency to promote content from celebrities, verified users, and folks who already have a strongly established brand. In May 2020, Triller CEO Mike Lu emphasized this point, stating “Our motto, our mission, is ‘music first.’ We consistently work with the major management companies and labels and know they find Triller as a great source of talent discovery. It’s great to continue to see Triller to be used as it was intended: to help catapult artists onto a world stage.” In fact, the default tab on Triller is the “Music” tab, and Triller has only recently added a “Social” tab, potentially to compete with TikTok’s For You page.

Triller’s initial decision to cater strongly towards creators, rather than towards lurkers, is a strong signal of where their priorities lie. This is a stark contrast to TikTok’s product decision to make the For You page the default tab, encouraging a lurker to find their community as soon as they open the app. Triller’s decision to focus on rising stars excludes millions of users who seek niche communities for fun and relatable content from like-minded peers, a user need that TikTok caters to very well.

Concluding Thoughts

As the social app landscape increases in competition, it’s clear where certain players in the market shine.TikTok continues to dominate the short-term video social platform market due to its ability to provide lurkers with a sense of belonging with minimal effort, regardless of what type of community they’re looking for. Lurkers’ needs have long been underserved in social applications and TikTok is one of the few to really nail the need to seamlessly feel connected. TikTok’s impartiality towards content is another reason it has grown so quickly, allowing users to find their niches and express themselves. This contrasts with other short-term video social platforms on the market, as no other competitor has the breadth of content combined nor the means to curate content for this type of consumer behavior. It’ll be exciting to see how social apps evolve to solve lurkers’ needs better and curate content more effectively for all genres & users.

A huge thank you to Tanthai Pongstien, Christopher Franco, Sari Abukhadra, Yash Bora, Martin Anquetil, Mallika Chennupaty, and Fionce Siow for their incredible feedback.

Written by

Product @DisneyPlus. Working on getting Gen Z to vote through @2020uptous. Studied Data Science at @UCBerkeley. Keep up with me on Twitter, @shreya_sud

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