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Ticking on TikTok: How the COVID-19 lockdown has given birth to millennial stars

The short-format video-sharing platform has become the go-to app during these grim times for many youngsters.

Published: 10th May 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th May 2020 12:43 PM   |  A+A-

(From left) TikTok stars Riya Aggarwal, Khan Tariq and Mahendra Dogney

(From left) TikTok stars Riya Aggarwal, Khan Tariq and Mahendra Dogney

Much of Pranav Krishna's calendar for April was booked. He had film script narrations with producers, meetings lined up with his teammates, editing and script-writing workshops to attend. Krishna, an actor, writer and director, based out of Kochi in Kerala, was to spend this time in production houses and film sets.

Instead, the 33-year-old was involved in a different kind of shooting and editing, thanks to the lockdown. Here, there were no script narrations or heavy-duty recording equipment. A smartphone was his camera and his bedroom the location.

At his ancestral house in a nondescript village, some 100-odd km from Kochi, Krishna utilised what could otherwise have been a busy weekday, leisurely lip-syncing to actor Nana Patekar's famous dialogue from Krantiveer. He spent much of April on TikTok. "Earlier I never opened this app more than once or twice a month, but now I am uploading at least one video every day. It's timepass for me," he says.

Around the same time, almost 2,000 km away, in Harda, a small district of Madhya Pradesh, Mahendra Dogney had just finished uploading a 15-second video on the "three ideas to follow to be rich". The TikTok influencer, with a follower count (6.4 million) that far exceeds the population of his district (5.7 lakh), was signed up by a few educational portals to promote their app during the lockdown period. Dogney who joined the platform in March 2019 is an antithesis to Krishna.

He has shut his business of coaching centres to promote his work on TikTok as a motivational speaker. The app too has collaborated with him for its #Edutok series where it prepares small capsules of digital learning. "Now we are working much harder than before. There’s so much content to upload," Dogney says. 

Welcome to the world of TikTok under a global pandemic. During self-isolation, TikTok has assumed a new appeal. It has cut across age and class barriers. Social issues are being talked about here and quarantine ideas have become a hit. 

And it is not just Krishna or Dogney, who have found solace on this short video app. Like them, millions of users are logging onto the platform—some for fun, some for fame. And also joining the platform now are the government bodies and organisations to work on several campaigns around COVID-19.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) debuted on TikTok in February with a video on "How to protect yourself from the coronavirus".  Since then, the WHO, which has 1.7 million followers, has made 19 videos. Patna Pirates, a champion kabaddi team franchise from the popular Pro Kabaddi League, joined TikTok in February and has since been posting videos about how to stay safe and be at home. 

"If Snapchat is super premium, Instagram is premium and Facebook is average, then we can safely say that TikTok ranges from below average to above average and beyond, as almost everyone is on TikTok," says Honey Singh, CEO, public relations and content marketing, #ARM Worldwide, a Gurugram-based marketing and communication consulting company.

Singh, who has worked on several marketing campaigns for various apps, looks at TikTok as a great leveller among all social media apps. "Under the lockdown, someone or the other in the family either wants to create a TikTok or is an avid TikTok watcher," he says.

Singh has a point. According to US-based app analytics firm Sensor Tower, TikTok was the most downloaded non-game app worldwide for March 2020 with more than 115.2 million installs, which represented a 98.4 percent increase from March 2019. The first quarter of 2020 has been the best so far for the app, as it managed to accumulate 315 million installs. The social media giant has amassed two billion downloads and India has been the biggest driver as 611 million downloads are from the country, amounting to 30.3 percent of the total people using TikTok. 

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus crisis has raised the smartphone to prominence, facilitating the ability to stay connected during self-isolation. And TikTok has adapted itself to the changing times. Influencers on TikTok are posting videos on being responsible citizens, users are seeking information on Covid-19 and the app on its part has started an in-app feature exclusively dedicated to the pandemic.

According to the third edition of the India Influence Report released by Zefmo Media in April, about 77 percent influencers have created organic Covid-19 related content and close to 80 percent of them plan to continue creating content to spread more awareness about it.  So what is it about TikTok that makes it tick ahead of other forms of social media? The answer goes beyond 15 seconds.

Cringe to Cause

Two months back, Riya Aggarwal was quick to "judge" anyone who would be on TikTok. She used to cringe at the idea of her sister being a "fan of TikTok" while Aggarwal serenaded with her friends on more 'premium' social media platforms. But come lockdown, and a few days of idling away on various apps, this Delhi resident found herself slowly getting charmed by the app.

"It's a creative platform, one has to be talented to crack the code here,” says the 21-year-old Ashoka University graduate, who now spends almost five hours every day on TikTok. She has started uploading dance videos and creating content around the various challenges that the app keeps putting across.

"I tried to look at the algorithm that allows a user to get more 'likes' and it seems dance videos are the most popular," she says. TikTok, which was originally launched in 2017 by the Chinese firm ByteDance, was merged with Musical.ly, a social media platform for sharing music videos in 2018. Today, it has become the most engaging application in India.

User analysis by #ARM Worldwide shows that the average time a user spends on TikTok on mobile is 38 minutes and the average time a TikTok app is opened on mobile is around four minutes. For long the urban elite associated TikTok with "cringe-worthy" content. Perhaps it had to do with the popularity of the app in Tier II and Tier III cities where content creation was largely localised. But during a time like this when the new normal is changing every day, TikTok has remained constant in its appeal.

"ByteDance has taken the biggest bite of the lockdown market in many a nation. India is certainly one such," says brand guru Harish Bijoor. "The short format video-sharing network is the biggest success in social media space today. This goes true for both urban and rural markets," he adds.

Recently, Bijoor conducted a study in Punjab, which indicated that the penetration, franchise and usage of TikTok is the deepest with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter being the distant ran-ins. "As many as 83.6 percent of households in Punjab boast of TikTok presence in terms of household width. In terms of depth within households, TikTok is as deep as 3 in a household size of 5.5," adds Bijoor, founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

The surge in visibility on other platforms has also made TikTok a popular app across age-groups. Mumbai-based author Kiran Manral recently tweeted how the app has kept some of her family members busy during the lockdown. "TikTok has been a lifesaver for both my mom and my mother-in-law. The videos have kept them entertained, where Facebook and WhatsApp have failed," she says. 

The app, once known to be flocked only by 18-25-year-olds, is now becoming the go-to place for the entire family. While individuals are logging in for entertainment, international bodies such as WHO and Unicef are using the platform to dispel myths around the pandemic and spread awareness.

This week, TikTok released a public service announcement urging users to be careful before spreading misinformation amid the surge of Covid-19. TikTok's #Matkarforward initiative featuring cricketer Virat Kohli, and actors Kriti Sanon, Ayushmann Khurrana and Sara Ali Khan, is directed by Anurag Basu and talks about being responsible users.

TikTok has revised several strategies and started new initiatives keeping in mind the global health crisis. For instance, in the US the company has launched Donation Stickers, that creators can use on their videos and live streams in order to raise funds for their favourite charities directly on the app. 

TikTok runs its campaigns perfectly through associations with creators and influencers. “Digital superstars across the spectrum are now supporting government initiatives. Bhavin Bhanushali, Sameeksha Sud and Vishal Pandey aggressively drove messaging around the WHO campaign educating people to wash their hands in a certain way for at least 20 seconds,” says Samir Bangara, co-founder and CEO, Qyuki Digital Media and Super KOL Commerce, a Mumbai-based cross-platform media network.

Take the case of Abheshek Garg. The 28-year-old entrepreneur from Yamuna Nagar in Haryana joined the platform in August for a social cause. Being an avid traveller he started posting short videos on how to be a conscious traveller. But the lockdown meant no travel, so he has restructured his strategy. “Consistency is important on TikTok, so now, I am giving fashion tips for men,” Garg says. During this period, more people have started posting on his feed and his engagement with followers has gone up four times.

TikTok too is working on its responsibility towards the growing community. For the first time, it has introduced an in-app informational sticker on its homepage. The sticker Covid-19 is a resource page run in partnership with the WHO and the Union health ministry.

Also in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), TikTok launched the #GharBaithoIndia campaign that invites users to share ideas on how to stay safe and beat the lockdown blues. MyGov, a citizen engagement platform from the Government of India, launched #Coronawarriors on TikTok with various celebrities, including Kohli.

Surely content creation has gone up and so has the watch time of videos on all applications. "This is despite the fact that installs of some of the key popular apps have declined in March vs Feb, but that is more likely due to fewer sales of smartphones due to the lockdown. A top Key Opinion Leader (KOL) on TikTok could post as many as eight to ten 15-second content pieces in addition to two per day on Instagram," says Bangara.

He argues how on Facebook and YouTube the video content frequency is dependent on the format. "It means a news creator would upload furiously during this period but a webseries maker would be pivoting to byte-sized storytelling once or twice a week," he adds. 

The Influencer Code

So how does TikTok manage to capture the imagination of a nation under lockdown? It's an app that covers over 150 countries and is available in as many as 75 languages, including 15 Indian languages. Bijoor explains how the medium allows the whole world of users to peek into lifestyles that are at times western, at times local, and at times alien even.

"You can listen to Gurbani being recited, just as you can see irreverent videos that talk of the lockdown and its blues. There is just no boredom of the expected in TikTok. There is the bliss of the new, the exciting and the fast-paced. And so it is a hit," Bijoor says.

According to TikTok, which declined to comment on content creators' numbers, India has 200 million users. And among them are a significant number of influencers whom brands approach for promotion. They are the ones who make a challenge go viral. They are sought after by celebrities for movie promotions and music videos. That a popular Bollywood movie Bala had the lead female star as a small-town TikTok celebrity shows the outreach that platform has in India. The crucial blue tick with the handle name provides an influencer not just millions of followers, but celebrity status and financial gains as well.

So if you were to bump into Sameeksha Sud on road, chances are you will recognise her because of her TikTok feed. Even if you are not on TikTok, you would have seen her videos as they get frequently shared as WhatsApp forwards.

What many may not know is Sud has acted in several TV serials and yet most people relate to her as the female face of Teen Tigada channel on YouTube (the other two are Vishal Pandey and Bhavin Bhanushali). Sud today has 22 million followers but the journey into TikTok happened accidentally. It was a bored evening in between TV shoots that led Sud to open an account in what was then known as Musical.ly.

“Being an introvert, I used to keep to myself in-between shoots. That's when I chanced upon this app and got hooked on to it. Once the serial got over, I spent all my time on this creating videos that made people laugh,” she says. And when Musical.ly became TikTok, Sud was one of the early influencers on the platform. She has worked on several campaigns during these difficult times, including TikTok's #GharbaithoIndia and Dettol's #SafeHands. She has no plans to go back to serials anytime soon now.

Like Sud, her teammate from the Teen Tigada channel Vishal Pandey looks at TikTok as his full-time job. The 22-year-old from Mumbai is loved by his 13 million followers for his comic timing and the self-isolation has only meant more videos. Pandey currently uploads anywhere between eight to 10 videos in a day compared to four or five previously. He has also been upskilling his video-editing skills. “I work around four hours every day, deciding on content, shooting and editing it,” he says. Besides brand promotions, celebrity engagements and public appearances, Pandey will soon be seen in a webseries.

Lockdown meant a change in TikTok bio for some. Now Niharika Jain's bio reads “home posing ideas for quarantine”. Having joined the platform last August, Jain quickly shot into the million-follower count ranks after a post of her on how to pose in front of the camera went viral. Her forte remains keeping herself abreast with the latest in town—be it showing what to do when bored under self-isolation or how to pose for the perfect selfie.

 But the lockdown has had its challenges too for creators. According to the third edition of the India Influence Report, about 55 percent of influencers find it tough to shoot and edit photos or videos in the absence of readily available professionals to do the same. Perhaps because of this, almost half of the respondents, about 49 percent, are also reskilling themselves in audio- and video-editing among other skill-sets, thereby reducing their dependency on outsourced professionals. “I will soon run out of my makeup. So I have started shooting close to 10 videos a day in the same makeup and upload it the next few days,” Sud says.

Business for Brands 

At a time when ad productions and shoots are on hold, one of the easiest platforms for brands to get traction is TikTok. According to the India Influence Report, 72 percent of the respondents expressed their confidence in the revival of influencer marketing by leading brands of the country. 

"The survey findings clearly tell us that well thought-out, and co-created content by influencers can boost the quality of content for brands during uncertain times. With the lockdown in force and lack of other marketing channels, influencers are confident that the brands will lean on them to deliver contextual content to keep audiences engaged amid the Covid-19 crisis," says Shudeep Majumdar, co-founder and CEO, Zefmo Media, a Delhi-based influencer marketing platform.

Social media experts argue how on TikTok the speed of content creation and consumption is over five times of other platforms making it the perfect place for brands.

“What TikTok does brilliantly compared to other platforms is create infinite number of 15 seconds of fame,” says Majumdar. A point reiterated by Honey Singh of #ARM Worldwide. “The thumb rule for any brand is to be there where the audience is. And the beauty of TikTok is it offers cross-sharing. So any content created on TikTok can be shared across other social media platforms. So paid association, especially with FMCG brands and hygiene products, is going to increase under this period,” says Singh. 

Just how well the influencers are able to make money in these times is evident from the way not just brands but even celebrities are wooing them.

Khan Tariq, who has eight million followers, is known for his creative photo shoots. Tariq, originally a YouTuber, migrated to TikTok nine months back and now is often sought after by celebrities when their movies are around the corner. "It's challenging to shoot now but brands are approaching us with creative ideas. I am currently in talks with a brand and a campaign may soon follow," says the Mumbai resident.

Recently Tariq did a shoot with actor Deepika Padukone, which went viral immediately. Niharika Jain, on the other hand, has already signed three campaigns during the lockdown period and is in talks with two more brands for collaborations. Hygiene brand Dettol, for instance, has worked with several influencers, including Sud and has been running the #HandWashingChallenge campaign on TikTok.

As per reports, it has garnered close to 20 billion views and generated over a lakh user participation videos since mid-March. According to Majumdar, an influencer is paid anywhere between `500 and `5 lakh depending on the follower count and user engagement.

"The top content creators are being signed on retainership for Rs 25 lakh. Someone with less than one million followers can earn from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 for a 15-second video while those above get paid Rs 1 to 2 lakh," says Singh.

World of Wannabes

It's not that TikTok hasn't had its period of backlash. The app has been criticised repeatedly for people shooting dangerous stunts putting their lives at risk. It also suffered a brief ban in India in 2019 over safety measures related to kids. But the ban was soon lifted and it re-emerged with a vengeance and has been ticking ever since. 

The world of instant fame also brings with it immense disappointment when the youngsters fail to make it big. Last month, an 18-year-old allegedly committed suicide at his residence in Noida as he was "depressed for not getting enough likes for his TikTok videos". The dejection on the app is for real. "Every hour or so, I open TikTok to check how many likes my video has got. It becomes an addiction especially in times such as these," says Pranav Krishna.

According to Zefmo's report, the average monthly influencer earning crossed Rs 5,000 in 2019.

For many in small cities across India, where unemployment is high, this amounts to some quick money in a short span of time. But fame often comes at a price and many aren't prepared. "The TikTok star is yet another star. He is as fallible as any star on our reality shows who feels depressed when things don't go their way. It's sad, but very, very true," Bijoor says. 

Diksha Bhawnani knows how fame can make or break someone and is waiting patiently for one of her videos to go viral. "The algorithm may pick it up one day and it may land in your feed. The best thing about TikTok is that the follower count can quickly move up in comparison to what you may get on YouTube or Instagram," says the 27-year-old fashion designer and YouTuber from Bhopal.

Bhawnani, who has a YouTube channel 'Tag the trend', joined TikTok as it allowed her to cross-post content thereby enabling wider engagement. 

Meanwhile, as the lockdown continues in its third phase, TikTok has kept at bringing out new campaigns and brand associations. The app has realised its responsibility and no one can point it as 'frivolous' anymore. And so have the users.

At TikTok, Krishna is looking for 'likes', Bhawnani for 'followers', Pandey for 'stardom' and Dogney for 'livelihood'. These are the different faces of India on a Chinese-owned app. It's clear that the social, emotional and financial footprints of TikTok is here to stay. It's not just the lockdown love.

The Journey

Originally launched in 2017 by the Chinese firm ByteDance, it was merged with Musical.ly, a social media platform for sharing music videos in 2018. Today TikTok covers over 150 countries and is available in as many as 75 languages, including 15 Indian languages. It has become the most 
engaging app in India. 

"With the lockdown in force and lack of other marketing channels, influencers are confident that the brands will lean on them to deliver contextual content to keep audiences engaged amid the crisis. What TikTok does brilliantly compared to other platforms is create infinite number of 15 seconds of fame,"  Shudeep Majumdar, co-founder, and CEO, Zefmo Media

"Digital superstars across the spectrum are now supporting government initiatives to send out the right messaging to their audiences. Bhavin Bhanushali, Sameeksha Sud and Vishal Pandey aggressively drove messaging around the WHO campaign (on TikTok) educating people to wash their hands in a certain way for at least 20 seconds." Samir Bangara, co-founder & CEO, Qyuki Digital Media and Super KOL Commerce

The Campaigns 

  • Tik-Tok & UNDP India #GharBaithoIndia 

  • Lifebuoy #LifebuoyKorona

  • MyGOV #CoronaWarriors

  • Dettol #HandwashChallenge

  • WHO #SafeHands

  • TikTok #Happyathome

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