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Should You Develop an App Like TikTok?

By Nick Epson on November 3, 2020

To many of us, it feels like the TikTok app came out of left field – though it hasn’t been around long, it already has 800 million monthly active users, a fact that is now drawing some entrepreneurs to develop an app like TikTok. Interestingly, it captured a portion of the audiences for both Instagram and Snapchat which had once seemed big enough to be untouchable.

Because of the issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic – namely, boredom – TikTok exploded earlier this year as users were consuming media as fast as they could find it. While the disaster did play a key role, it doesn’t stop some from wondering how to emulate portions of this app’s wild success. 

We should also want to quickly acknowledge the fact that the government is rallying against TikTok, citing security concerns when the reality is that there’s nothing inherently insecure about the app (not that congress would have any idea what to look for.) The only real reason the government has an issue with TikTok is simply because it originated in China which doesn’t mean anything.

We’re going to start by quickly looking at what it takes to build a TikTok-like app from a technology angle. From there, we’ll cover the background of TikTok up to current times then cover some takeaways that may make you rethink trying to compete with the platform.

The technology to develop an app like TikTok

To directly compete with something like TikTok, you would need to build your a streaming service which we recently covered. Paralleling TikTok means creating something similar to other popular streaming services like YouTube or Netflix use in addition to integrating services for real-time media delivery.

A streaming service requires a few things to function: the media and metadata need a place to live (meaning storage), a balanced distribution service is needed to supply the media to end-users (i.e. a CDN), an analytics system that reads user behavior then decides which content to promote is required, and there needs to an app on the frontend that displays the requested media.

All of the above cost a fair amount of money to function as intended. To truly emulate TikTok, you also need to have the capability to stream live which is where Over-the-Top (OTT) solutions like AWS Elemental MediaLive and AWS Elemental MediaPackage come into play.

Another major component of what makes TikTok so successful is its recommendation engine – by wholly analyzing each piece of content that passes through the platform using machine learning (ML), it does a remarkable job of recommending content to users. To do the same would require a significant investment in ML development that can accurately analyze these large datasets.

In short, to develop an app like TikTok would require substantial development on the backend to “fit” all these pieces together. Plus, you need an app that will require ongoing maintenance. Businesses looking to copy this model and compete with the big players will need to have a substantial amount of money to get their product off the ground and marketed. 

Once the product has been built, getting a heap of attention from potential users will be required. This means marketing needs to either come up with something that will go viral or hope that an early adopter will do it for you.

How TikTok came to be and current stats

Back in December of 2018, TikTok got it’s first huge break with a viral video that you can watch below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwOew-ycjP0

This cute video featuring gummy bears singing along to Adele’s “Someone Like You” was short and sweet enough that it quickly amassed a million views. Eventually, the video would go to live outside of TikTok where it would accumulate more views on other networks which inspired many to create copycat videos.

Thanks to the watermark left on the initial gummy bear videos, user enrollment snowballed. While some users lurked, others would go on to create content that helped flesh out the platform. TikTok would grow throughout the next year then eventually explode as the pandemic began to take hold of the world.

Before the TikTok name, the baseline for the service came to be in an app known as Musical.ly which was launched in 2014 in Shanghai. This app first introduced the “music overdub” feature which TikTok is known for, allowing it to grow its mostly Chinese userbase (being a Chinese-developed application.) The app would later buy out a competitor service, Douyin from ByteDance, because of its then-100-million userbase. Eventually, everything was merged into a single system and rebranded as TikTok.

Today, TikTok is still growing with roughly 2 billion downloads from the App Store and Google Play. It was even a “top downloaded app” in the App Store during Q1 of 2019 with an excess of 33 million downloads. Though its growth has slowed some, it’s important to acknowledge TikTok is still getting new users every day.

To develop an app like TikTok or just use its formula?

There are already a ton of media apps and social networks that offer features that allow users to share video clips from short to indefinite periods, depending on where and how the media is posted. TikTok showed us that there is indeed room for one more – but the question is, “Is there still enough of a void to develop an app like TikTok?”

We feel the answer to the question at this time is “probably not.” And here is why:

To achieve the same success with a similar app, a couple of things would need to happen. You’d first need to have the capital on hand to scale out a solution that’s on par with TikTok. Not only is their service incredibly powerful, especially considering its simple appearance, but you’d also have to quickly amass a ton of users. It’s not this was developed by some sole individual in their garage – it’s a mashup of its past projects and new technology which was incredibly expensive. Replicating their success, even to a lesser degree, would be quite expensive and challenging for a small startup or sole entrepreneur. 

TikTok got lucky in a couple of areas. First, they built the marginally successful app, Musical.ly, that provided the unique feature of being able to overlay music. Next, they managed to “buy” the entire userbase of Douyin which shot them into the 100 million user range. Then, of course, there was the gummy bear video.

Everything for TikTok came together in a perfect storm (so to speak.) Tech giants can mimic the formula because they’re already established but a new player likely wouldn’t achieve the same success. Your only hope is if courts across the world would ban TikTok but it looks like that’s not happening.

Applying lessons learned from TikTok

Instead of looking to develop an app like TikTok, you can look at the few things they did to get on top.

What Musical.ly lacked was a userbase so the team sought out a moderately successful app that did something similar. This buy-out sequestered users from both platforms into the new label which, to the end-user, was simply a change of name for a service they already enjoyed. All they had to do was download the new app and sign in with their existing account.

Next, their most prominent marketing effort didn’t come from some elaborate marketing scheme but rather from a user-submitted video. This organic occurrence is what most businesses wish would happen – some try for ages to “go viral” but it rarely happens without luck or an insane amount of work. In the case of the latter, this only works when you’re promoting something people already know they want. Rarely does something go viral, even great services, when you first have to explain why your app is so great.

One thing you could try to emulate is the ML and AI components that comprise the recommendation engine. The same logic applied to something like medical imaging, for example, could lead to some breakthroughs. Creating a sophisticated analytics system for other industries (and marketing the hell out of it) would likely produce significant results.

Instead of looking to compete with TikTok, you could use TikTok to promote your service. The most accessible action to you as a business is making a great marketing video. There are several examples of excellent content that’s worked for businesses in all kinds of industries.

Too, you could even use TikTok to distribute your video. The platform uses a powerful analytics engine that places relevant content on the For You Page which gives you a shot at landing views from the right people.

So instead of looking to go toe-to-toe with this newly emerged giant, you’re probably better off joining them!

We build services with a competitive edge for any market

Blue Label Labs understands that the market knows what it wants, except when it doesn’t. Data strategy derived from testing user engagement with real people solidifies understanding of a dynamic problem set enabling us to fine-tune our output. While we could build the next TikTok, we know that it’s probably not in your business’s best interest because of the current market saturation. 

Get in touch with us to discuss your app idea, whether it’s a streaming service, a unique tool for business, or something the world has yet to see.

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