TikTok's Underappreciated Wins (from a former Yik Yak employee)
February 26 2020
TikTok has been front-and-center in pop-culture lately for good reason — becoming engrained in the zeitgeist of teenagers around the globe is no easy feat (something we were only briefly successful with at Yik Yak).
I recently re-watched a powerful and inspiring interview with Alex Zhu (TikTok's CEO) and Josh Elman (then at Greylock). Many of Alex's comments were so profound I will be referencing them throughout this write-up.
This post aims to call-out some of the underappreciated "wins" the company has achieved in their product and community while drawing on lessons learned from my time at Yik Yak.
First and foremost, TikTok reminds us how engaging video can be. If a picture says 1,000 words, a video says 1,000 words at 60 frames-per-second.
2. Bite-sized content
3:40If you want to build a user-generated content platform, the content has to be extremely light — both content creation and content consumption need to happen within seconds, not minutes.
TikTok capitalizes on our desire to be entertained in snack-sized sessions. It is commonly discussed how our attention spans are shortening. I would take this to an extreme and say, anecdotally, even 10-minute YouTube videos are a struggle to sit through now (one of the reasons David Dobrik's action-packed 4-minute videos are doing so well). We are forming the habit of seeking the next hit of dopamine faster. TikTok endulges this desire.
3. Foothold with US teens
4:55For a new social platform to take off, your early adopters need to be young. Especially teenage girls in U.S. Young people have tons of free time and tons of creativity. They are digitally native, especially with video. They can talk with each other at school to spread your product.
A year ago, I commonly heard some form of "TikTok, isn't that for kids?" amongst mid-twenty-somethings in my social circles. Today, that sentiment has turned into "I do use it... it's a guilty pleasure" among the same group.
Despite appealing to a wider (read: older) audience now, TikTok remains in the zeitgeist. I'm a bit in awe of their ability to incorporate content from parents, teachers, working professionals, and people of all backgrounds while not alienating their original and core userbase (teenagers).
4. Immersive onboarding
No account necessary. If you've downloaded TikTok, you may realize you've never created an account despite having consumed hours of content. TikTok, unlike many apps, does not require you to create an account to start using the app. Just download, let the app know your preferences (optional), allow push notifications, and you're in. This immersive onboarding lets a user quickly recognize the power of and buy into the TikTok community.
TikTok's new user experience bears resemblance to that of Yik Yak circa 2014. Yik Yak's new user experience consisted of two steps: allow access to location + allow push notifications. No account creation and no tutorial — just immersion into content. Only after immersing you in content would we ask for additional steps to comment or post in your community.
5. Don't-make-me-think feed
The For You Page, an algorithmically-generated feed of content that adapts to your preferences (a la your behavior) as you scroll, is at the core of the user experience.
Private accounts are not (yet) a hinderance to growth. One of the most frustrating parts of sharing content within Instagram is the private Instagram account. Meme accounts will go private in hopes of boosting follower counts — good for them (I assume) but poor for Instagram users.
Fortunately, sharing TikTok videos is open and free with no private accounts in sight. The purpose of posting a TikTok is inherently for the world to view. The product's For You Page-first approach to content (algorithm) only shows content that is public to everyone.
6. Buttery UI design
Continuous content consumption... Content consumption on TikTok is a more user-friendly version of YouTube's autoplay feature in that it is user-controlled. This is a sharp comparison to your main Instagram feed where, instead of the content finding you, you must first find it.
...No matter the entry point. Notably, the ease of consuming the next piece of content doesn't decrease at any point in the user experience. When a friend sends you a TikTok, just swipe up to see the next (generated by algorithm, of course). This is a notably more engaging experience than receiving and consuming shared content on Instagram which promptly leads to a dead-end.
No play/pause in sight. An interface free of play and pause buttons reinforces the action TikTok wants you to take — consume, like, comment, share, or move on to the next video.
Share button in plain sight. Sharing content on TikTok is straightforward and smooth.
Share button changes to SMS button. After a video has played-through once, the Share button will sometimes turn to a green SMS/iMessage button. This educates the user that share options span beyond in-app messaging and content is easily sharable off-platform.
7. Participatory creation
Creating content on TikTok feels more like a bonding activity than a demonstration of creativity or display of talent. If you don't know the latest dance craze, you feel left out of social circles as a teen. In an article for The Information, Sam Lessin calls this "making production a fun social game" instead of a single-player chore.
In 2016, Alex said 25% of Musically's daily active users were content creators. More creators means more opportunities for users to connect with one another and strengthen the social graph of the platform.
8. Hacked growth
6:10Alex and the team launched Musically with "a lot of hacks." For example, when the app first launched, an app's name in the App Store could be very long. App Store search algorithm weighted words in app names heavily so they made their app name include several key words.
It's clear the team's scrappy growth mentality hasn't fled with success. Today, a few growth hacks stand out.
Downloaded videos have branded watermarks. If you're watching something that was downloaded from TikTok, there's a good chance you know it. Many meme accounts on Instagram (whose followings total in the 100s of millions) post content originally found on TikTok. Displayed in the corner is the familiar TikTok logo which is enhanced by its animation. Eventually, consumers of this content may think "I see a lot of funny content from TikTok on Instagram. Why don't I give the app a try?"
Play button overlay on shared videos. When content is shared outside of the app, a play button is displayed on top of the video thumbnail. When the receiver taps play, instead of playing in-line, either a web view of the video or the app is opened. This is a small but meaningful user acquisition and engagement play.
Fake it until you become it. My first TikTok, focused on pranking my roommates, received some very generic (bordering irrelevant) comments from TikTok users that had not produced any content. While TikTok is likely far past the point of "faking it until you make it", I would not be surprised if they still played an invisible hand role in shaping their community and driving desired user behavior (in my case, creating content).
9. Avoided competition
20:00Music on [TikTok] is a raw material, not the end product. Therefore, [TikTok] is a complementary good to Spotify and Pandora.
Alex's framing of music as a raw material for TikTok is great. Since music isn't the final product, TikTok acts as a complementary experience to powerful music incumbents like Spotify, Apple Music, and record labels. It enhances the listening experience by tying visuals, emotions, and memories to a song (potentially a new song). What's better, pairing video and music together in this way gives artists the ability to shape the emotions and memories tied to a song by creating a dance or challenge alongside its release.
10. Fun name
While it may seem trivial, TikTok's name stands out among what have become relatively boring and commonplace Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube. It also bares a striking resemblance to another viral social app, Yik Yak. In my two years at Yik Yak, it was very clear college students loved the brand and people of all ages had fun saying the name. People would often repeat it several times and smile — Yik Yak. And, like Yik Yak, even if you don't know what TikTok is, you know its fun and for a younger audience.