What Made TikTok Tick – Tips for Homegrown Apps To Make it Big



TikTok was a primary source of entertainment for millions of Indians until the Indian government banned it. The ban came at a time when most offline activities are not possible and TikTok was perhaps experiencing excellent growth.

But as the lovely poet, Robert Frost said, “In 3 words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

While the people at TikTok must be brainstorming ways to deal with this huge blow, the users are already moving on. Thanks to the homegrown apps that are positioning themselves as the “Made in India” alternative to TikTok.

One App’s Loss is Another App’s Gain

As soon as the ban came into effect, many Indian video-sharing apps which were running on gear one, and probably struggling to survive on low fuel, suddenly saw their engines being put into the highest gear!

A few names grabbing a good amount of attention are Chingari, Bolo Indya, Roposo, Trell, ShareChat, and Mitron. Many more are coming up as I write this article.

Most of these apps saw a meteoric rise in the number of app downloads in a matter of days. Just to get an idea – Roposo, that has been around since 2014, saw its user base jump by 22 million within two days of the ban!

The teams behind these apps have been working tirelessly to make the most of the opportunity. If you are one of them, keep reading, there is interesting and helpful stuff for you.

User Acquisition: First Level Cleared, All Lives Intact!

Customer acquisition is a major milestone in the customer journey. Lead generation, lead nurturing, lead engagement – and then comes the customer acquisition. However, for the Indian video-sharing apps indiscussion, the turn of events took so fast and favorably that they could, more or less, bypass the stages before customer acquisition. May be with no or minimal marketing costs.

However, there is a catch.

If I can draw an analogy between the video-sharing apps and luxury hotels, the situation the apps are in right now is this.

Guests have arrived, all the rooms are full. These guests have had best stay experiences in the past in the most luxurious property. They are used to being hosted well, treated well with personal attention. But the hotel wasn’t prepared for a full house. If it fails to deliver the same (or better) experience, they won’t stay for long. After all, there are many hotels out there, and there are many more coming up!

You have cleared the Acquisition level. Customer Engagement and Customer Retention levels are as tough and are waiting for you. No time to waste!

Where do Homegrown Apps Stand in Comparison to Tik Tok?

This is the digital aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) moment that most Indians have been rooting for,” said Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO of InMobi Group, which acquired Roposo.

However, these attempts may achieve limited success unless the players scale up really fast. The fact is, none of the Indian players are currently ready to fill up TikTok’s shoes in terms of handling the user base and delivering the experience that kept TikTokers hooked.

Currently, the homegrown apps have only a fraction of users that TikTok had in India. In terms of user experience too, these apps are yet to impress their users. For instance, general negative user reviews in the Google Play Store reveal that users are finding the app interface not as great, the apps consume a lot of mobile data, the camera and filters are not that good, the apps crash, the phones get heated up, etc. In a nutshell, the Indian apps have a long way to go. After all, they have quite big shoes to fill!

However, poor feedback only highlights the areas that need to be worked upon.

What Made TikTok Tick?

TikTok took the social media world by storm, by reaching half a billion active users globally, in just under 2 years. It has the record of being the fastest app ever to achieve that milestone. (Instagram took 8 years, and WhatsApp took 5 years to reach that stage). This kind of a feat cannot come by chance.

The brains behind TikTok did some real research to leverage the best of technology, and basic tenets of human psychology that underpin the offline social world. From what we can gather, what worked for TikTok was its:

  • Excellent App Experience
  1. The key feature of TikTok is its video-first UI. As soon as a user opens the app, the “For You Page” which covers the entire screen starts playing videos immediately and hence hooks the users instantly.
  1. The onboarding is very simple and quick. No sign up required, no tutorials about how to use the app. Once you open the app, it takes you straight into the content, instantly grabbing your attention. Users can swipe up or down to explore the endless stream of videos, swipe sideways to see a creator’s profile for more content or tap one of the multiple small buttons around the edge of the screen. As simple!
  1. It is convenient and easy to use. Compared to all its counterparts, editing and uploading content is the easiest in TikTok. Creating viral videos is simple. The app offers easy video editing features, suggests music, hashtags, and filters that can help make the video popular.
  1. The short-form video content makes content creation and consumption frictionless. Since it is easy and convenient to create 15-60 seconds videos, most users produce the videos alone and even post multiple videos per day.
  • Excellent Technology

TikTok is the first mainstream consumer app where artificial intelligence IS the product. It’s representative of a broader shift.” – Connie Chan, Chinese Investor

  1. TikTok inhales and exhales Artificial Intelligence technology. Its powerful AI algorithms quickly absorb individual user preferences. They record the duration for which users watch each video, and of course, capture both the “likes” and the comments of the user. All this data is used to optimize its content creation, curation, and recommendation. Since the videos are quite short, the algorithms build vast datasets quite fast.
  1. Excellent AI translates to excellent recommendations. TikTok’s full-screen design allows every video to interpret both positive and negative signals from its users. The positive signal is deciphered from the user’s liking, following, or watching the video till the end. If the user swipes away, presses down on the video, or swipes away too fast, it is interpreted as a negative signal. The users don’t need to specify their preferences upon joining the platform. The AI algorithms immediately get to work, absorb the user behavior information required to make recommendations and start delivering content based on the interpretations. It entirely interprets and decides what the user will watch instead of presenting a list of recommendations to the users like Netflix and YouTube do.
  • Excellent Growth Strategies
  1. When starting out, TikTok focused on a sophisticated paid media strategy and user acquisition. This led to its huge success in mobiles. The users themselves became the ambassadors of the app, spreading awareness.
  1. Many apps came before TikTok, which had the same video-creation model (say, Vine). But TikTok carved its growth path differently. It managed to onboard many celebrities, models, actors, and influencers that already had massive social media fan following. It partnered with them and encouraged them to create their own content. Its higher engagement rate and faster user base growth than its competitors can be attributed to influencer and brand marketing campaigns. Apart from celebrities, it also partnered with big brands like Zomato, Lays and Pepsi.
  1. TikTok played the hashtag game really well. Collaborating with leading brands, it ran campaigns that garnered billions of views. This was a win-win for both parties. Even at the global level, there were campaigns like the #memeathon campaign, which included people like Paris Hilton and Kris Jenner. It reached 3,173,500 users, had an engagement rate of 338,500 and achieved 9.5 million views for all posts that used the hashtag. Now, that’s incredible!

Some Additional Strategies for the Indian Players

Why reinvent the wheel?

TikTok’s success is a global phenomenon. The Indian players who aim to dethrone TikTok, not only in India but even worldwide, have a ready-reference guide. The following points may reiterate the ones mentioned above, but just because they are important.

  1. Invest in technology: Embrace AI in true sense. Make it the backbone of your app. The users might have come to you for several reasons. But they will stay only for one- the experience – if they like the app. Invest in the latest technology platforms for data analytics, personalization engine, recommendations, and building scalability.
  1. Keep UI and UX simple: Because they are the soul of your app. Remember that your user base in India comprises people from all walks of life, not just youngsters who are hooked to their smartphone. A not-so-tech-literate housewife should be able to view, create, edit, and upload videos as easily as anyone else. The very reason why TikTok appeals to so many content creators in the world is because of its simplicity and ease of use.
  1. Expand content offerings: Expand the type of content you offer. TikTok rapidly expanded from lip-syncing, to memes, to many other types like comedy, art and craft, how to’s, etc. Broadening content categories will help in expanding the size and interest of the user base. There could be unexplored areas relevant to Indian culture and social set up. Go beyond the known.
  1. Leverage the situation: Users have spent years in building their TikTok profile. They would bless anyone who can save their content. Chingari’s co-founder Sumit Ghosh’s asked in a Twitter poll, if users would like to import all their TikTok content to Chingari.

Focus on building and expanding the user base. Because content creators are driven by virality. So, if right now you can give users what they are used to and loved (even by replicating TikTok), you can go on to provide differentiated experiences and more as you grow.

Things to Learn From TikTok’s Pitfalls

TikTok did find itself in trouble from time to time. The boon of AI has also proven to be a bane. The company has come under the scanner for user data security issues. It was accused of collecting personal data of children below 13 years. Also, often inappropriate content gets generated and delivered to users. TikTok was also temporarily banned from India in 2019, after the app was suspected of encouraging inappropriate content. TikTok has also been charged with ignoring ethical standards. So, there needs to be a control on AI-powered tools.  

Hold user data security, censorship and monitoring content and social responsibility with utmost importance. More and more users are getting aware about their personal information security.

There’s No Time to Rest

Remember the ban on Maggi? So many brands vied to replace it. But as soon as Maggi re-entered the market, people forgot everything else for their love for Maggi. It ruled hearts, just like TikTok did for Indian users.

Aman Kumar, Chief Business Officer, KalaGato said, “Although many users shifted to emulated versions of TikTok, the user base is still a loyal one, and they may shift back to the Chinese app as soon as the ban is lifted.” Quite plausible.

The fate of these upcoming apps and their shot at success is closely linked to how long the ban on TikTok lasts. Its return could easily jeopardize the prospects of the Indian players. Moreover, given the Covid-19 crisis, it isn’t easy for these start-ups to sustain and scale. But when did calm waters make good sailors?

To learn how can an AI-powered omni-channel automation and personalization platform like Smartech can be a part of amazing growth journeys, get in touch with the experts today!

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Ritu Poddar

Ritu Poddar

Ritu is a Technical Writer & Content Developer by profession, and a Poet & Creative Writer by passion. She works as Assistant Manager, Content Development at Netcore.

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