⏲️

TikTok's under-appreciated wins

Feb 2020 • Zack Hargett • View on Twitter ↗️

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.

image
image

1. Video

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.

image

2. Bite-sized content

Alex Zhu, from the interview with Josh Elman:

👉

3:40 If 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

Alex Zhu, from the interview:

👉

4:55 For 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.

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 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.

Tik Tok's 12-second new user experience, Feb 2020.
Tik Tok's 12-second new user experience, Feb 2020.

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.

Don't-make-me-think algorithm.

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.

Virtually no content on TikTok is private, as the point of posting is to broadcast to the world. This means content shared with you is ready to be consumed, unlike Instagram.
Virtually no content on TikTok is private, as the point of posting is to broadcast to the world. This means content shared with you is ready to be consumed, unlike Instagram.
Many "meme" account on Instagram make their content private to boost followers. This makes for a poor user experience when content is shared.
Many "meme" account on Instagram make their content private to boost followers. This makes for a poor user experience when content is shared.

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. Sometimes, after a video has played-through once, the Share button will turn to a green SMS/iMessage button. This subtly educates the user that share options span beyond

Bite-sized content consumption
Bite-sized content consumption

The standard "Share" button turns to the green Message button (SMS/iMessage) after the first loop
The standard "Share" button turns to the green Message button (SMS/iMessage) after the first loop

7. Participatory creation

Creating content on Tik Tok 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 annother and strengthen the social graph of the platform. link

8. Hacked growth

👉

6:10 Alex 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.

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 building their community.

This is very common in marketplaces (TikTok being a marketplace of content creators and consumers). You hack one side of the marketplace to spin the flywheel until you reach critical mass.

Notice the animated TikTok watermark in the lower-right corner of the video, appearing on Instagram
Notice the animated TikTok watermark in the lower-right corner of the video, appearing on Instagram

TikTok sent via iMessage have a thumbnail with a large play button overlay. While it gives the impression the video will play in-line, it is opened in a web view where more content is available.
TikTok sent via iMessage have a thumbnail with a large play button overlay. While it gives the impression the video will play in-line, it is opened in a web view where more content is available.

9. Avoided competition

👉

20:00 Music on [Tik Tok] is a raw material, not the end product. Therefore, [Tik Tok] 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 encumbents 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 resemblence 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.