- January 23, 2020

From quirky to mainstream: TikTok’s Time to Grow Up

Alex Gevers
Alex Gevers
Regional Marketing Manager

TikTok, the video-sharing social media app owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, was released to international markets in September 2017. It has since made the headlines thanks to its stellar growth – mostly among teenagers and celebrity adopters – as well as its quirky offering (15-second user-generated videos played in a loop). Among digital marketing professionals, it has been the focal point of debates on the use of Artificial Intelligence to maximise virality of shared content, and on how to ensure user privacy against a rather volatile geopolitical backdrop.

It is not exactly the first time that the world is caught off guard by a social media app spreading like wildfire and raising all sorts of questions in its wake – from monetisation to ethics. But once the dust has settled, are these social media apps able to become mainstream? Is TikTok just a passing fad or is it here to stay? Will it also be monetiseable with the deep-pocket adults? 

To answer this, we looked at TikTok’s adoption among adult audiences in the UK. As of December 2019, nearly 3.4 million unique individuals age 18 or above in the UK accessed the TikTok app on their smartphone (iPhone or Android). This corresponds to 8.7% of all smartphone users within that age bracket in the country (see chart below), and a nearly 70% increase in users, compared with December 2018.

The fact that TikTok is mostly a young people’s app is borne by the data: as the chart below shows, the 18-24 segment is the largest age bracket with 1.4 million unique individuals, or 26% of smartphone owners in that age bracket. TikTok also seems to have far more traction among female audiences, with 1.9 million female unique users (that is, 9.3% of female smartphone users), compared with 1.5 million unique users for male audiences (or 6.8% of male smartphone users). A comparison of growth rates paints a similar picture: with growth rates highest among the younger age groups, and among women.

Given the sudden drop-off in adoption among older age groups, it is tempting to infer that TikTok is destined to remain the preserve of younger audiences. But since it’s still in the relatively early days for this service, what do comparisons with other social media say? To answer this, we look at demographic data of leading social media apps in the UK, namely Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube.

As the chart below shows, these social media apps can be split into three categories: The first consists of YouTube and Facebook: their penetration is high across all age groups. The second includes Instagram and Snapchat. Penetration is very high among the younger audiences, and quickly tapers off with older audiences. The last category includes Twitter, which has a smaller, but even, penetration rate across all age groups.

At this stage in its development, TikTok penetration rate by age group shows a pattern similar to Snapchat and Instagram today: an overwhelming majority of youngsters, and a penetration among older age groups that quickly drops off.

Clearly, despite the above penetration data, we cannot rule out that TikTok will become more mainstream – and adult - than it currently is. In its own way, TikTok has continued to reduce the barriers to video creation and distribution, and video consumption is likely to increase further in the coming years. TikTok has also rolled out a self-serve ad model to make it easy for advertisers to target its audiences – an indication of its transitioning into a grown-up business. Only time will tell, but we’ll be watching the data.

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