In 2018, Chinese internet giant Bytedance decided to go where no Chinese company had gone before—the heart of the US social media market. Chinese companies have always struggled to understand Western consumers, and, when it launched short video app Tiktok in the US, Bytedance didn’t even try. Instead, it let an algorithm spend billions on bizarre ads that looked straight out of Tumblr. What was Bytedance thinking?
In an excerpt from his new book “Attention Factory: The Story of Tiktok and China’s Bytedance,” TechNode contributor and Managing Director of China Channel Matthew Brennan looks back at Tiktok’s cringeworthy US debut, explaining how furries played their role in jumpstarting the mainstream content juggernaut.
“Why are moms using Tiktok? Why is anyone using Tiktok?” shouted the world’s most popular Youtuber towards the camera. It was late 2018 and Swedish gamer Pewdiepie was recording his second of fifteen “Tiktok Cringe Compilation” videos after the first had proved to be a hit. Each episode was ten minutes of him reacting to painfully embarrassing Tiktok videos.
Matthew Brennan is an author and speaker on Chinese mobile innovation technology, and co-founder of China Channel.
Tiktok hadn’t paid anything to Pewdiepie. The A-list global internet mega-celebrity was creating video after video about Tiktok because his audience loved it. This should have been the kind of authentic influencer promotion that online marketers dreamed of. Every video was essentially a free ten-minute advert for Tiktok distributed out to a loyal 80 million follower base. Yet, at the same time, Pewdiepie wasn’t exactly endorsing the app.
Tiktok was bizarre. An endless stream of people posting weird content with almost a total lack of self-awareness. Mindless comedy skits, lip-syncing, and just outright wacky oddball creations. The kids making these videos could be forgiven; they were just kids. But the adults posting on the app came off simply as creepy and weird. Countless numbers of Tiktok cringe compilations started appearing on Youtube, many with millions of views. Criticism of the app became widespread, with the shaming of Tiktok users becoming a regular occurrence on Twitter and Reddit.
In China, Douyin, the domestic version of Tiktok also operated by Bytedance, had first garnered attention as a popular app for urban youths, associating itself with art students and fashionable hip-hop lovers. Yet in America, it was the absolute opposite. Tiktok had entered the public consciousness as a cringe app for losers and misfits. What was going on?
The answer was Bytedance’s truly massive advertising campaign across major Western social media platforms such as Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat. The advertising campaign’s budget was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be over $1 billion in 2018. Bytedance became Facebook’s biggest Chinese customer as it grew Tiktok’s footprint with app-install ads. Many Americans suddenly found Tiktok ads were everywhere they looked online.
The company also spent heavily on traditional billboard ads and outdoor advertising. They ran an expensive TV advert right after the New Year’s Eve ball dropped in New York City’s Time Square. Adverts for Tiktok popped up at famous landmarks around the world from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to the London underground through to the Las Vegas strip.
The initial warm reception towards Tiktok across various Asian markets was highly encouraging —it seemed Douyin’s success really could be replicated globally. Yet the more successful Tiktok became in Asia, the more attention it attracted from competitors; all major internet companies had advanced systems in place to keep track of new trends and changes in mobile usage habits. Bytedance had to move fast to grab the window of opportunity to leverage its advantage. In general, Western internet companies look down upon directly cloning competitors. Even so, if an established giant like Google or Facebook chose to promote a similar product to Tiktok vigorously, it could significantly hamper their progress.
This meant speed was of the essence, and the most effective way to scale up fast with a combination of massive spending on online app install ads matched with building brand awareness through offline ads.
Usually, when a company wants to spend big on online advertising and introduce a brand to a new market, they will work with a creative agency. Expensive consultants will be hired, and veteran advertising professionals with years of industry experience will create smart concepts. The process will involve carefully crafted brand messaging, extensive Gen Z focus groups, professional actors in expensive recording studios, crews of video editors, and graphic designers to ensure everything is perfect.
When it came to advertising Tiktok and newly acquired Musical.ly, Bytedance found a shortcut, but the strategy was somewhat unorthodox—it would simply use videos from the app itself. The platform’s terms of service gave it the right to do so.
After manually identifying and removing potentially inappropriate content, the company implemented a systematic process to experiment with various videos. The adverts didn’t actually say anything about what Tiktok was or why anyone would want to use it; they simply needed to pique people’s interest. The goal was simple: find the clips that got the most people to click on a big blue “install” button.
This ad buying process was run from Beijing by the company’s experienced growth teams. There was just one issue—the teams had a laser-like focus on conversion metrics but little understanding of the actual video content. Whatever converted best would be used more, regardless of what the actual video showed. It turned out that wacky, outlandish, downright weird videos worked really well at getting people to click the button.
Many of these weird ads were attracting social misfits. When these people started using Tiktok, they, in turn, made strange videos that would attract more social misfits and so on.
Tiktok’s video classification systems were highly sophisticated and able to accurately identify and classify all kinds of subculture content—automatically. The system was also able to tag users more effectively based on their actions and precisely match them with content in a way that Musical.ly had never been able to do.
A prominent example were “Furries,” a stigmatized and misunderstood community of people who derive enjoyment from dressing up as animal characters in large fursuits. Furries were big early adopters of Tiktok in the US. Many built significant followings as the colorful cartoon-like animal costumes proved attractive to the app’s large pre-teen user base, bringing the subculture to a new audience.
Other notable early Tiktok adopter communities included cosplayers and gamers. The animosity between these groups led to the “Furries Vs. Gamers War” meme (This video gives a feel for what early Tiktok content was like in the US.), a lighthearted imaginary conflict which saw gamers pretending to have been kidnapped by furries and roleplaying acts of espionage, feigning to have infiltrated the ranks of the furries.
Tiktok contained a “duet” feature, which allows two videos to appear side by side, splitting the screen. Duet had previously been restricted in Musical.ly, but now users could respond to any video by recording one of their own. With many weird niche subcultures like furries on the platform, “duet” became popular, quickly transforming into a bullying and harassment tool. As a countermeasure, settings were later added, allowing users to disable duets.
Since merging Musical.ly with Tiktok in August 2018, the platform was moving in a vastly different direction—and not everyone was happy. “Tiktok’s early (unintentional) positioning in the States basically was cringe,” explained an early Tiktok employee who wished to remain anonymous. The app had an awful image problem. It was widely perceived as being only for misfits and kids making lip-syncing videos.
“I haven’t seen one piece of content on there made by an adult that’s normal and good. To be a grown adult doing a cute karaoke video on an app and trying to make it go viral is odd behavior.” was the brutal assessment of Instagram influencer Jack Wagner, interviewed in one of the earliest American media articles covering Tiktok.
The colossal spend on adverts was effective at getting downloads, but they were also ruining the reputation of the platform, leading the then small US based Tiktok team to express concerns to the China head offices. In China, Douyin had never had such a problem. The seed group of early adopters had been carefully selected, and the app had built an outstanding brand image with carefully crafted glitzy cinema adverts, savvy viral marketing campaigns, and sponsorships of hit talent shows.
“If you look at history, a lot of inventions first started with a toy, with things that seem to be irrelevant, but have the potential to become something much bigger.” postured Musical.ly co-founder Alex Zhu in an interview, echoing an observation previously made by many industry practitioners. Tiktok’s early reputation for wacky cringe videos had made it seem like a toy and hard to take seriously. The situation had echoes of the initial characterizations of Snapchat being written off as an app solely for college students “sexting” each other with disappearing pictures. Widely criticized and with retention rates in the US rumored to be as low as 10%, Tiktok was not seen as a threat to anyone but itself.