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Is TikTok Trying to Become a Chinese-Style Super-App?

  20 July, 2021

Last month TikTok launched ‘Jump’, a new feature which lets third-parties build ‘mini apps’ within the TikTok app. Essentially TikTok Jump lets publishers and creators link to other types of content and services, while keeping users on the TikTok app.

On the face of it, the announcement slipped under the radar without a huge amount of fanfare. The initial examples of ‘Jumps’ are relatively simple, quirky features. For example, a Jump developed by recipe app Whisk, lets foodie influencers link to recipes for the meals they’re showcasing in their TikToks. Another, created by meditation app Breathwrk, leads users to simple interactive breathing exercises.

But Jumps could be hugely significant in the long run. Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese counterpart, introduced a similar feature back in 2018 which has since grown into a massive ‘mini programme’ ecosystem. Douyin’s mini programmes cover everything from news to games to ecommerce, making Douyin something of a one-stop shop for shopping and entertainment.

This concept originated with WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, which launched mini programmes back in 2017. Through mini programmes, WeChat has morphed into a ‘super-app’; a self-contained mobile ecosystem which users rarely have to leave.

“You can’t exaggerate the extent to which in China, WeChat is basically just your phone,” said Alex Wilson, senior consultant at Radioactive Talent, an agency which has worked on branded WeChat mini programmes. “If I dropped you in Beijing and all you had on your phone was WeChat, you could probably get around fine. You could pay for stuff in restaurants with it, you could meet people with it, you could book cinema tickets. And a lot of that is down to mini programmes.”

Whilst it’s still early days, Jumps could be TikTok’s first steps down the same path, and have big potential for brands and advertisers.

Massively tightening the funnel

So far, only six Jumps are available, and TikTok itself has had a hand in their development. None of these six have any sort of e-commerce functionality – and TikTok isn’t yet positioning Jumps as marketing or ecommerce tools. Rather, TikTok says Jumps are designed to help publishers and creators on TikTok add deeper interactions with viewers, both on and off the platform.

But brands are already working with Jumps. Earlier this month Kraft Heinz partnered with food-focussed social publisher Twisted for a campaign which leverages Whisk’s Jump. Twisted posted a recipe video on TikTok which used Kraft Heniz ingredients, and included a link to the Whisk mini app. From the Whisk mini app, users can view the written recipe, which lists Kraft Heinz’s branded ingredients.

Even without any direct e-commerce capabilities, Vicky Banham, TikTok manager at Jungle Creations, Twisted’s parent company, says these added features can be very valuable for branded partnerships.

“‘Can you link in video’ is a question that is constantly asked by brands, and I think this integration of external links will boost the platform to the next level and help brands create a more seamless brand experience and buyer journey,” said Banham. “The Jump options at the moment are varied, but I’m especially excited about Whisk Jump as it’s a major opportunity for Twisted to promote the brand, and really offer the audience a well rounded creator experience.”

And if TikTok begins letting developers build e-commerce elements into Jumps, brands would be able to complete the entire customer journey within TikTok’s app.

This sort of offering is particularly attractive to brands. It lets advertisers run more effective performance campaigns, since there are fewer steps between a user seeing an ad and taking an action. And these campaigns are very measurable, since users never leave the logged in environment.

Radioactive Talent has seen how popular mini programmes have proven with advertisers in China. “Mini programmes don’t really let you do anything that you couldn’t do before,” said Alex Wilson. “You could always lead users to their browser or to a separate app to complete a transaction. But as anyone who’s worked at the pointy end of digital campaigns will know, getting a user to leave one app and complete an action in another creates a lot of friction, and you see huge drop off. Mini programmes massively tighten the funnel.”

The one-stop shop

Of course, in-app shopping isn’t unique to TikTok. Facebook has already introduced shoppability into Instagram back in 2019, and Snapchat opened up its in-app stores feature to all businesses earlier this year.

But if Jumps take off and we see publishers and developers devoting significant resources to them, we could see users spending more and more time within TikTok’s ecosystem.

“There’s huge potential on Jump for publishers and brands,” said Jungle Creations’ Banham. “It seems like Jump is TikTok’s middle ground for external links on content which is super exciting. It’s a fantastic opportunity overall as it’s a massive step towards TikTok becoming a competitive household app that ticks all the boxes, vs just being a fun app.”

And if TikTok were to successfully become a one-stop shop app in the style of WeChat or Douyin, it’s shoppable offering would be formidable.

“I think as soon as commercialisation comes into it, we’ll see brands spending in it very quickly,” said Rich Leigh, founder of Radioactive PR, Radioactive Talent’s parent company. “If you look at the early days of the web, at first companies would say ‘We should probably have a web presence’. And very quickly that became ‘We have to have a web presence’. And there’s a chance the same thing could happen on TikTok.”

There are big questions around whether this super-app model would work in the western world. TikTok wouldn’t be the first to attempt it – Facebook has experimented with something similar in the past, and Snpachat’s ‘Minis’, launched last year, follow the same path. Neither could really be described yet as super-apps.

TikTok’s Chinese heritage might mean it invests more heavily in the super-app model. “Western social media companies have usually been much more open to users leaving their apps to explore other content elsewhere,” said Radioactive’s Alex Wilson. “But TikTok is a Chinese company, and follows the Chinese philosophy. It will be interesting to see what happens when you get that disruptive influence of a Chinese platform combining into the western social media ecosystem.”

But its lofty ambitions jarr with the current regulatory mood in the West. Antitrust bodies are already scrutinising big tech’s business models in the US and Europe, and increasingly asking whether these companies need to be broken up. A particularly close parallel is Apple, which is facing court cases and competition probes over its domination of its own devices’ app ecosystems.

In that environment, building a super-app will not be an easy task.

2021-07-20T14:06:00+01:00
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