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What is TikTok and Why Does it Matter?

Social Media 

In a recent article about whether Facebook is dying or not, we shared a graph comparing the top social networks by age group, which showed TikTok leading the pack among 18-24-year-olds, beating even Snapchat and Instagram. 

Depending on who you ask, Generation Z is generally agreed to include those born between the mid-90s and early 2000s. We’re going to assume that those under age 6 aren’t on social networking apps, so for the purposes of this article, we’ll be referring to the 24-and-under set as Gen Z. We’ll also be referring to the 25-34 demographic as millennials.

What’s the age breakdown of TikTok users compared to other social apps?

Age breakdown of TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users

Source: RightMetric analysis of American & Canadian iOS & Android mobile application data from SensorTower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

Between January 2018 and June 2019, TikTok was the number one social networking app among Gen Z in the U.S. and Canada, beating SnapChat by 2.68%. The 24-and-under set made up 39.5% of TikTok’s total user base, followed by 25-34-year-olds, who comprised 29.78%.

Of all social media apps, the one with the second strongest Gen Z following was Snapchat, at 36.8% of its user base. Instagram came in third, with a Gen Z user base of 32.4%.

Of the three platforms, TikTok saw the lowest drop-off rate after age 34, dropping to 14.4% in the 35-44 demographic (let’s call them Gen X), a drop of 15.4% compared to Snapchat’s 20.5% and Instagram’s 17.4%.

Social network popularity by generation

  • Generation X: Facebook and Twitter
  • Millennials: Snapchat and Instagram
  • Generation Z: TikTok and Snapchat

A snapshot of TikTok’s biggest stars

Looking at the TikTok users with the biggest followings strongly reflects the platform’s Gen Z skew, with all 5 of the biggest TikTok stars being between ages 16-20 (with the exception of JiffPom, who would be 52 in dog years). 

Loren Gray, 17 – 32.8 Million Fans

Baby Ariel, 18 – 29.8 Million Fans


Kristen Hancher, 20 – 23 Million Fans


Jacob Sartorius, 16 – 20.8 Million Fans


JiffPom, 9 – 19.4 Million Fans

How are age demographics shifting between social platforms?

Although dominant among Gen Z, TikTok has seen the largest shift towards the 25-34-year-old demographic starting in 2019, with an increase of 10.6%. At the same time, its 24-and-under users decreased by 11.1%. 

Age Demographics by Social App

The shifting age demographics on social media platforms

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

As a whole, social media usage has shifted towards the 25-34 age range, with the exception of Twitter, which experienced a 5.47% increase in Gen Z users.

Our next demographic question was whether TikTok has more male or female users, and how that breakdown compares to the other social apps.


Gender Breakdowns of the Top Social Apps in the U.S. and Canada

Gender demographics of TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

TikTok’s user base is an almost even split between male and female users (51% and 49%, respectively). Its gender breakdown went from being mostly female-skewed in Q1 of 2018, with 55% female users, to mostly male-skewed in Q1 of 2019, with 56% male users.

All the other major social apps skewed more male than female as well. Instagram’s users were 52% male, Facebook’s were 54% male, SnapChat’s were 57% male, and Twitter was the most male-dominant of all, at 68%.


Now that we know who’s using it, what exactly is TikTok?

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance and is a platform where short, up to 15-second videos can be created, edited, shared—and gain a shot at Internet fame

Unlike most social networks, TikTok doesn’t require users to follow other accounts to browse fresh content, thanks to an endlessly scrollable “For You” page. This never-ending feed is filled with popular videos, allowing users to experience the memes, choreographed dance moves, pranks, challenges, and lip-syncing TikTok has become known for, from the first time the app is opened. 

This endlessly scrollable feed might help explain TikTok’s high user retention rates.

How TikTok’s retention rates compare to other social platforms

Comparing 7-day retention rates across TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

7-day retention rate is an important app metric that looks at the percentage of users who still open an app 7 days after downloading it. Out of the major social media apps, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter’s 7-day retention rates fell significantly over the past year. Only Tiktok and Instagram’s 7-days retention rates increased, and both did so substantially. 

Not just another Vine

While many people have compared TikTok to Vine, others have passionately defended that TikTok is something new entirely.

“Despite the quick sketches, DIY-aesthetic, and Vine-like dry humor, the app itself is way more complex than Vine ever was,” Mashable wrote. “TikTok users can add Snapchat-like face filters, use impressively complex in-app editing tools, and sync their videos to virtually any audio clip.”

That musical element is a huge part of TikTok’s appeal, and is a legacy feature from, an app ByteDance acquired in late 2017 for nearly $1 billion. ByteDance merged the companies under the name TikTok (known as Douyin in China) in August 2018.

“Although both apps were developed in China, became a sensation among teenagers in the Americas and Europe, while TikTok took off among youth in Asia,” Reuters explained.

This merger set the stage for TikTok’s strong and steady growth in North America. 

From January 2018 to June 2019 alone, TikTok more than tripled its American and Canadian mobile app users, growing from 19 million monthly active users (MAUs) to 65.5 million MAUs across iOS and Android devices.

Monthly Active User Share Over Time, by Platform

MAU share of social applications: TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

Despite that rapid growth, TikTok is still much smaller than its social competitors. Over the last 18 months, Facebook and Instagram were the dominant leaders in MAUs in the United States and Canada, with 42.5% and 26.6% of the volume share respectively. However, while the total volume of users has only grown by 5.25%, TikTok has grown its volume share by 109.8% in the last 18 months, showing that not only is it growing in MAU volume share, it is actually taking users away from its competitors.

How has TikTok’s MAU volume trended over time compared to its competitors?

TikTok experienced rapid growth from 2018 to 2019, growing its monthly active user volume by 148.9%, equal to an increase of 30.9M active monthly users.

Monthly Active User Growth by Platform

iOS and Android MAU volume on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19

TikTok’s closest competitors in terms of MAU growth were Snapchat and Instagram, which sat at 9.8% and 7.4% year-over-year growth rates respectively. 

Our next question was how much time users were actually spending on TikTok. Is that endlessly scrollable feed capturing users’ attention for longer than Instagram is? According to the data, it’s looking pretty close.

Time Spent on Each Social Platform Per Day, in Seconds

Comparing time spent on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS and Android application data from Sensor Tower (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

Over the period we analyzed, users spent an average of 13 minutes and 5 seconds per day on TikTok, which was significantly less than the 19 minutes and 41 seconds users spent on Facebook every day. 

Although not the leaders in time spent on a social app, TikTok and Instagram experienced the highest growth in time spent when comparing Q1 2018 to Q1 2019, at 4.5% and 7.6% growth respectively.

As for how many times each app was opened each day, TikTok came in last, at an average of 5.2 times per user. Instagram was opened an average of 8.9 times a day, Twitter was opened about 7.9 times, Facebook was opened around 10.2 times, and Snapchat’s users opened the app an average of 14.3 times a day.

How do TikTok’s users feel about the app?

A key piece of analysis we wanted to include was social sentiment in the United States and Canada over the last 18 months, to see how users really felt about TikTok.

Positive and negative social senitment about TikTok

Source: RightMetric analysis of American and Canadian iOS social conversation data from Crimson Hexagon (Jan ‘18 – Jun ‘19)

Between January 2018 and June 2019, sentiment towards TikTok was overwhelmingly positive, at 76%. Peaks in positive sentiment towards TikTok coincide with users sharing viral TikTok content on other social media platforms, such as Twitter. 

Common negative drivers of TikTok sentiment included the introduction of ads on TikTok, comparisons to Vine, and confusion around the sudden prominence of TikTok among non-users.

Based on this data, it was clear that TikTok users enjoy the platform, and can help explain its healthy retention rates.

Can TikTok buy its way to the top?

A very important detail about TikTok’s growth is that ByteDance has been investing heavily in advertising. It spent almost $1 billion in 2018 alone to drive TikTok downloads, according to the Wall Street Journal, which reported that TikTok’s ad spend in the U.S. reached as high as $3 million a day. 

That said, TikTok’s ad budget may not have been spent in traditional ways, making it more difficult to measure. 

As the WSJ reported in June 2019, “Earlier this year, TikTok started approaching people with large followings on Instagram to ask if they would run TikTok ads to attract users, a person familiar with the matter said. In one case, TikTok paid more than $1 million for an influencer to run a single video, the person said.”

Our own research using Pathmatics only revealed about $8.5 million of that spend. Among the top creatives from that investment came the following ad, which had an estimated spend of about $1 million in 2018:

Of the ad data attributed to direct spending by TikTok, YouTube ads were TikTok’s strongest investment, at an estimated $4.7 million in 2018, generating around 365.8 million impressions. This included buying banner space on YouTube’s landing page for about $1.1 million between August 3-4, another $1.8 million between December 27-30, and two smaller spends of $140k each at the end of December.

The site TikTok invested second-most in for ad spend was Facebook, at about $4.7 million, or about 402.3 million impressions. 

With its parent company valued at $75 billion — the highest valuation of any private tech company in the world — TikTok is well-armed to compete against social’s biggest giants. TikTok even has a viable shot at dethroning social’s current leaders in the U.S., or at the very least, significantly disrupting the market.

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