Did you say TikTok?

Text: Jure Doler | Read time: 6 min

Have you heard about TikTok, the mobile video app that is wildly popular among teenage users and where sports organisations’ profiles are also growing every day? If you have not yet heard about TikTok or you only heard it mentioned by younger people, perhaps your teenage children, do not worry. Not many have, not even those with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts who consider themselves ‘digitally up-to-speed’. But ask any teenager who spends large amounts of time on their phone and almost without exception they would know what it is about.

So, what exactly is TikTok? Nothing but ‘a simple mobile application’ for creating and sharing short, up to 15-second long videos. TikTok videos are vertical (format 9:16), similarly to those some of the other mobile-focused social media platforms are using, such as Instagram (Stories) or Snapchat. Video creators – especially popular are music and dance videos, and different challenges or tricks – have a variety of tools and effects (sounds, filters) at their disposal that make the content more interesting and fun. These include reactions to other videos through ‘response videos’ and duplication of videos with ‘duets.’ Hashtags also play a significant role, for example in various ‘challenges’ or tricks. At the same time, TikTok is constantly learning from the user, building and offering a complex algorithmic feed of content. The feed, seemingly unconnected and random, is offered based on the videos the user has interacted with, it never runs out of material and appears to be expanding in every direction. “Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok,” writes The New York Times.

500 million users, 800 million installs

TikTok is, believe it or not, a global hit – the app is available in more than 150 world markets in 75 languages, has over 500 million users and was installed on mobile devices more than 800 million times! In terms of demographics, 75 percent of TikTok users are aged under 30 years, of which about 55 percent are under 24, and around two thirds of all users are female.

The numbers are truly remarkable. TikTok’s parent ByteDance, a Chinese technology company, was valued at $75 billion in the second half of 2018, making it the world’s most highly-valued startup. By way of comparison, second-placed Uber was valued at $72 billion, while the valuation of Airbnb was $29.3 billion and that of SpaceX, founded by the famous visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk, ‘merely’ $21.5 billion.

It would seem that TikTok is taking a fast lane, overtaking in an extremely short period of time the ‘veterans’ Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn and other platforms, and falling behind only Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (if put in the same category).

TikTok’s history is very short. The application exists under the name of TikTok for only about a year. It was launched initially as Douyin in China and then pushed out globally as TikTok. Before that, another China-based app called Musical.ly (short video-based service offering licensed music to user videos) was already boasting impressive young audience in the western part of the world. After ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, TikTok was merged with it in 2018, but in China the company also kept the original app Douyin, which is currently used by about 300 million users monthly.

However, despite its sudden growth, TikTok remains a ‘blank slate’ and a great unknown. It almost feels like the history is repeating itself – a few years ago Snapchat’s audience also skewed very young. Everyone was quietly talking about Snapchat, thinking about marketing opportunities, but no one actually knew that to ‘do’ there, and now, much the same is happening with TikTok. With one difference – TikTok, although it may appear similar, is a fundamentally different app that has exploded in a much more expansive way than Snapchat and its other (video) predecessors.

Which sports properties were the first to join TikTok?

Although the app/social media platform is still in its infancy, more and more sports organisations are adding TikTok to their social media accounts. According to them, this allows them to communicate, in an early stage, with a new generation of users – generation Z following the Millennials – who were practically born ‘Internet-ready’.

“We saw the power and creativity, and also that it is something new,” said Felix Loesner, Head of Social Media at FC Bayern Munich, for the Front Office Sport. “It is something like the old Vine where you can have creative storytelling for a special young audience. This makes the app so interesting for us.”

Bayern Munich earned 135,000 likes on a behind-the-scenes walkthrough video posted on TikTok before one of the home games. With only 19,000 followers, their TikTok account has not yet caught up with their 80 million followers on the other eleven different social media networks, which merely reflects the fact that this is a very new platform. Alongside Bayern, some of the other football clubs have also entered the TikTok scene (or Douyin in China), including Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Olympique de Marseille and AS Monaco.

While the platform has not yet exploded among the leading football ‘players’, such as football clubs Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, and organisations UEFA, FIFA and Premier League, it seems this is only a matter of time. Also because of Douyin and the Chinese market appeal.

NBA has the highest numbers

As with all digital innovations that are even more readily welcomed in the US than in Europe, TikTok is making its way into the American sports world with a growing number of leagues and teams launching their accounts. In addition to MLB, with baseball teams Boston Red Sox and LA Dodgers, professional football team Pittsburg Steelers and others, the NBA was also among the first to join TikTok. The NBA also attracted most of their audience (about 4 million fans on TikTok and another 5 million on Douyin) on Musical.ly before it was rebranded to TikTok.

“I think what makes TikTok so exciting is that literally one of our biggest goals in the entire company is cultivating the next generation of fans,” said NBA Vice President of Social and Digital Content Bob Carney for Digiday. “It gets really, really exciting for everybody when you can reach a completely new audience.”

The question or uncertainty they are grappling with at the moment mostly concerns content and relevance. What would be the most engaging content? It is very clear that the type of content used on other, well established socials would likely not have the right effect on TikTok. “It is still so new, but the challenges are a big part of the platform,” admits Carney. During All-Star Weekend, the NBA generated more than 44 million video views on TikTok, and over 3000 users participated in the NBA’s hashtag challenge, where users mimicked the players’ videos.

Record fine

The collection of personal user information is another important topic receiving more and more attention, especially as it relates to underage children. Even though this is an exceptionally sensitive area, TikTok seems to have failed in this respect – according to the US Federal Trade Commission, Musical.ly illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13 without the consent of their parents, for which TikTok received a record fine of $5.7 million.

It is difficult to predict how this will affect Tik Tok’s future, but the users have so far remained loyal. Due to its great potential, it seems inevitable that more and more (sports) brands will join and start to leverage its popularity.

The article was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 13 (May 2019).