TikTok in India is going where no social media app has gone before.
The app’s dizzying stream of 15-second videos may draw disdain from rivals in India for its content. However, behind the bass drops, lip-syncs, and dating advice lies a more nuanced trend that has made it such a huge success: Its popularity lies mostly in the suburbs, far from bustling metropolitan cities.
The result is that TikTok has, in an unprecedented way, brought a new kind of Indian user into the fold of socially networked communication.
Who is the Indian TikTok user?
TikTok’s explosion in India in the 18-month period since January 2018 has expanded its reach to 30% of all Indian smartphones as of August 2019, according to data provided by Delhi-based market intelligence firm KalaGato.
“A majority of TikTok’s users (in India) are 18-35 years old and come from tier-2 and tier-3 cities,” said Aman Kumar, chief business officer at KalaGato. Other international tech platforms such as Instagram and Amazon have a clear bias for major urban centres, unlike TikTok, says Kumar.
Moreover, the ByteDance-owned platform’s user base does not skew towards high-earning Indians. “Approximately 52% of Indian TikTok users earn less than Rs 25,000 ($350) per month,” says Kumar. “This is a stunning statistic.”
Bridging this digital divide has been a prime driver of TikTok’s success in India.
Its launch coincided with skyrocketing levels of internet penetration, just as the Jio effect was beginning to be felt, and brought what Kumar calls socially generated content to previously untapped markets.
“TikTok has a smart team that was able to foresee that they had to advertise according to domestic markets from content and cultural point of view,” said Subrat Kar, co-founder of Delhi-based online video data company, Vidooly. This segment of Indians has remained largely tricky for others.
TikTok’s playful, short-video format and straightforward user interface have turned phones into a creator’s studio, allowing aspiring actors, dancers and performers far from Bollywood’s flashing lights to gain recognition. It is a judgement-free platform that doesn’t “ask you to pretend that you’re on the internet for a good reason”, as a recent New Yorker article put it; whatever disdain it may inspire, its success in India is undeniable.
Brands follow the eyeballs
With the app’s rising popularity, Indian users have been spending more than 30 minutes a day on TikTok, ahead of both Instagram and Snapchat.
Moreover, TikTok was the most downloaded social media app in the world for the month of September according to estimates from Sensor Tower. A whopping 44% of these downloads were concentrated in India. With eyes glued to the app and downloads on the rise, brands have followed suit to reach this segment of the population in a novel way.
“TikTok’s strategy is the talk among marketers for its unique techniques…which are content-based and ensure growth,” said Kar.
Now, however, rivals like the new entrant Firework, a Silicon Valley-based video-sharing platform that launched in India in September, are ready to take on TikTok’s content, too. “We don’t want to do silly memes or lip sync videos,” said Sunil Nair, CEO & managing director at Firework India.
TikTok, though, is much more than that evidently. And we’re finally paying attention.
This article first appeared on Quartz.