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Short-form video apps: taking the social media world by storm

January 2021: “Drivers License” – a song released by 17-year-old Disney star Olivia Rodrigo – breaks multiple streaming records. In the span of ten days, her song broke the top 100, went straight to the number one song on Spotify and broke the record of most streamed song in one week.

But how exactly did this song go this viral? TikTok. Since January 8th when Rodrigo’s song was released, Drivers License was used as the audio of more than 900,000 videos posted on the TikTok app, including by creators like Charli D’Amelio who currently has more than 100 million followers on her account. 

Unless you’ve been completely out of the loop, or are maybe just over the age of 25, you’ve seen TikTok become the raging, extraordinarily popular new app over the course of the past year or so. While walking down the street, eating at restaurants, or simply even doing your weekly grocery shop, seeing teens whip out their phone anywhere and everywhere to record themselves recreating viral dances or the most recent trends wouldn’t be out of the norm. 
In 2020, short-form video apps entirely disrupted the social media landscape. At their core, these apps provide video entertainment for users and viewers using snippets of songs, original audio sounds, or other sound bites. Users can post fifteen to sixty-second videos on the application, creating content ranging from lip-syncing, original dances, tutorials, comedy skits – you name it.

Creators on these short-form apps have seen immense success. The most successful creators on TikTok – Charli D’Amelio, Addision Rae, Dixie D’Amelio, and Loren Gray, to name a few – were just normal teens going to high school one day and then becoming overnight sensations the next, all from filming and posting less than one-minute videos on their TikTok accounts from their bedroom. All on the list of TikTok’s highest-paid stars, these viral video content creators have earned millions over the course of last year. 
Although the majority of top content creators are US based, Indian creators, Riyaz Aly, Arishfa Khan, Awez Darbar and Nisha Guragain place in the top 15 in global rankings.

Aly, with almost 44 million followers on TikTok and over 2 billion likes on his videos, posts content ranging from skits, lip-syncing to collaborations with friends and other famous creators in the space. Fans engage with his content by “duetting” his videos, a feature that allows you to build on another user’s video by recording your own video alongside the original as it plays. 
But why have short-form video apps recently dominated the social media space? On apps such as TikTok, content creators have accumulated millions of followers who avidly watch the sometimes multiple videos that are posted every day.

  1. Bite-sized content

    Being part of a short form app, whether as a content creator or simply a viewer, has become a standard culture within Gen Z. Gen Z value instant and quick modes of entertainment or communication. These less-than-one-minute videos are an easily accessible form of entertainment for people all over the world, anytime and anywhere.

  2. Penetration and time usage due to pandemic

    Arguably, the pandemic has also increased the value of short-form video applications. While being cut off from the rest of the world with a lot of time on their hands, people gravitated towards these apps as a way to interact and stay in touch with current trends, other people, and more generally, just the rest of the world.

  3. Fan engagement

Short-form video apps have also become fantastic advertising platforms. As seen in the example of “Drivers Licence”, TikTok can be used as a music distribution platform. Current music artists, actors, athletes etc. have also started their own accounts on the app – a way to engage with their supporters and fans on a regular basis and advertise current events or projects that are in the making. Businesses that figure out how to leverage TikTok and other similar apps will have an advantage in building brand awareness,  cultivating user trust, and efficiently acquiring customers. Apart from creating a buzz around a certain product being launched, this advertising method doesn’t feel commercial or transactional, but rather personal to users which is likely to build trust.

Currently, there are a number of short-form video applications on the market – the most popular being TikTok. TikTok was launched in China in 2016 and was then pushed out globally the following year. Its parent company, ByteDance, acquired Musical.ly in late 2017 and the apps were merged a year later. Now, TikTok has over 1.5 billion downloads across the world. At its peak, the app had 170 million monthly active users and 75 million daily active users. Across the world, users spent 165 billion minutes on short-form video apps in 2019, and almost 90% of this time was spent on the TikTok app. 

Although across the world it seems that TikTok has a clear dominance in the competitive landscape, the Indian government banned over 50 Chinese apps last year and one of those apps was TikTok. This ban created an opening for similar local applications to take its place; Indian competitors include MX TakaTak, Moj, Josh, Roposo and Chingari – to name a few.

Like TikTok, TakaTak allows users to create short videos on the go which can be shared across many other social media platforms. The app supports languages such as Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, and Punjabi on top of English and therefore may be more accessible and appropriate for its Indian audience. It also includes features that allow users to browse trending videos, photo and video editors, beauty cams, and more. TakaTak has 60 million monthly active users and 25 million daily active users. 

As of June 2020, TikTok had around 50 million daily active users and 92 million monthly active users in the US alone, up nearly 800% from January 2018. The average US user opens the app 8 times a day and spends 46 minutes per day on the app.
One of the consumer trends which has come to light after short-form video apps have become wildly popular is that personal media is growing faster than social media. The time spent on personal media, such as Netflix, is approximately 60% of the total time spent online, up from 55% last year. On the other hand, social media platforms, such as Twitter, took up approximately 35% of time spent online. Out of 560 million smartphone users in India, almost 45% of them have used short-form video apps in some shape or form. Out of the 290 minutes an average user spends on their smartphone, 55% of this time is spent consuming content – this percentage is higher than in China, Russia, and the US.

When comparing Indian and Chinese consumers, they have considerable commonalities. With over 65% of their population living in tier 2 cities in both India and China, short-form video apps attract a significant middle-class audience. Trends have shown that Indian consumers are slowly becoming more and more mobile-first, with a high demand for video content.  
As for market trends in India, the market is dominated by free users – out of the total 240 million personal media users, only 16 million pay for consuming content. This number is comparatively low compared to other markets, for e.g. Netflix alone has over 65 million paid users in the US.
Currently, in the Indian market, there is a lack of entertainment on free platforms; the top 50 Indian youtube channels are scarce on entertainment content. This is exactly where short-form video apps come in. With time spent on short-form video apps expected to rise to over 500 billion minutes, this demand for quick entertainment on-the-go is only going to rise.

And how exactly are these apps successful?

In the short-form video app space, content personalization is key. How are you going to make your users going to want to keep coming back for more? Content can be personalized through recommendation and feed algorithms. TikTok’s ‘for you’ page is a perfect example of this. Upon opening the app, the user is presented with an endless stream of videos that are uniquely tailored to them

As a foodie, my ‘for you’ page would be flooded with video recipes detailing how I can recreate a mouth-watering level new pasta dish to show off to friends and family. The app relies on various signals to identify what types of videos I want to see. Weighted differently, these signals include whether I watched the video until the end, if I liked or shared the video and if I ended up following the creator who uploaded it. The app constantly keeps on recommending me more and more videos as I keep scrolling, and before I know it, hours have passed by and I don’t even realize it. Although apps like Instagram have tried in the past with Instagram reels and explore pages, the scrolling feature alongside the personalized content on short-form video apps has seemed to crack the code. 

What makes a great short-form video app is the focus on the creators as well as users. The creators on these apps are the force that drives them. TikTok is loved because as a platform, it allows for creative expression and a uniquely genuine and personal app experience. 

Creators are paid and rewarded for posted content that is well received and attracts high fan engagement, providing a source of motivation to continue posting. They also have a series of filters, sounds, and effects on hand to make their videos interesting and engaging for their fans – a tool to keep their content fresh and unique. 

But there’s still one last question left unanswered: if short-form apps are so popular, then why are Chinese apps more successful than their Indian counterparts?

It seems there are multiple reasons why Chinese apps have been more successful. First and foremost, these apps have far superior content personalization algorithms, arguably because they track all user activity. Their AI-based algorithms captivate users by showing them exactly what they want to see. The quality and moderation of content is also higher – these algorithms have the capability to constantly filter and remove the content as appropriate. 

In the specific case of TikTok, it isn’t just an app on your phone – they built a pop-culture friendly brand. Creators on the app are now known as “TikTok-ers” who have become more famous and well known than major celebrities. Through the right marketing spend and their deep pockets, TikTok built its own ecosystem by acquiring creators and users, such as through creator events. And, of course, they followed the Chinese playbook with the product, engineering, and design. 

Now that TikTok and numerous other Chinese apps have been banned in India since June 2020, is there an opportunity for Indian apps to take its place? TikTok’s loss seems to be a gain for India’s home-grown user-generated short-video platforms.

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Gaurika Sawhney

Gaurika Sawhney

Gaurika Sawhney

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