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Power

TikTok took India by storm. Now it’s using the same playbook in the U.S.

The company's brand-new U.S. CEO is no surprise to anyone who's studied its rise elsewhere.

Kevin Mayer

Kevin Mayer isn't set to have an easy time as the new CEO of TikTok.

Photo: Getty Images Entertainment

When former Disney executive Kevin Mayer was named TikTok's new chief executive earlier this week, it came as a shock to many in the U.S. entertainment industry. But for anyone who has studied how its parent company, ByteDance, tries to set up roots in a country, it just looked like the next page from a playbook developed in India.

Mayer's move, which also sees him assume the role of chief operating officer at ByteDance, has been analyzed as a smart power play for the short-form video-sharing app. And it is: By hiring an American CEO, TikTok manages to defang some of the most virulent criticism it has received, for being seen as un-American and a threat to national security — allegations raised by a long line of politicians and in a series of lawsuits. (The company reminded The New York Times that it's actually based in the Cayman Islands, but that seems to miss the point.) As Sen. Josh Hawley triumphantly tweeted, the installation of Mayer as CEO makes it easier for elected officials to drag TikTok in for hearings — something they've struggled to do in recent months.

The new CEO certainly won't have an easy time of it. "The challenge for Mayer at TikTok will be balancing the sometimes opposing interests of Gen Z teens and underage — but TikTok aspirational — GenAlpha kids, with the privacy concerns of U.S. and European privacy regulators over how kids data is collected, processed and used," said Derek Baird, author of "The Gen Z Frequency," a book about targeting younger audiences through marketing, who has previously worked with Mayer through consulting projects with Disney. (Mayer is likely to be well-compensated for the stress, though: He leaves a $1.25 million salary, bonuses and stock options behind at Disney.)

But the kinds of social and political complexity facing Mayer aren't new to TikTok: It's had to deal with equally thorny issues in India. In fact, the company has developed a roadmap for how it tries to enter and succeed in new markets like India and the U.S., one former ByteDance employee in India familiar with the roadmap told Protocol.

The first step: Seed ads on Facebook and Google at a low CPM (cost per thousand clicks) to build up the number of users in bulk. "They give you numbers: [the] DAUs, MAUs and downloads" that TikTok wants, said the former employee, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the information they disclosed. That attracts journalists to write about the growth of the platform, which drums up more interest. The problem is that a lot of those users aren't posting high-quality content; in fact, TikTok struggled with accusations in India that it fostered pedophilia and pornography, which resulted in the app temporarily being banned within the country. (The company purportedly lost half a million dollars a day during the ban, which was lifted when ByteDance said it would take a more proactive stance on monitoring content. It's since hired many hundreds of human moderators in the country.)

Next, the company lures micro-influencers — "people on Instagram who have 4,000, 5,000 or 10,000 followers, who have some fans," the former employee said. Those users begin to improve the quality of the content on the app, at which point the company begins planning its marketing campaigns to attract more users. Simultaneously, the app offers larger creators — people with more than a million followers on Instagram — money to join TikTok, according to the former employee, before rolling out traditional ad campaigns and luring celebrities to the platform. In the West, TikTok has reportedly spent more than $1 million on a single talent acquisition in the U.S., according to The Washington Post, while its second TV ad launched this week in the U.K.

Around the same time as TikTok was celebrating its success in India in October, when it added 80 million monthly active users in India in just six months, it also announced that it was installing a new in-country chief there, Nikhil Gandhi. Coincidentally, Gandhi had spent nearly a decade at Disney himself as a VP in India, before a 2.5-year stint at a traditional media organization that immediately preceded his move to TikTok. Gandhi offered reassurance for politicians who were worried the app was taking over the country and poisoning discourse: He combined old media sensibilities with child-friendly corporate interests — just as the installation of Mayer offers in the U.S.

"Undoubtedly, hiring execs from well-established American companies helps in fending off those accusations [of digital security concerns and ties to the Chinese state] and gaining broader acceptance," said Brendan Gahan, partner at Mekanism, a creative agency, who has extensive experience in the social video space.

And if the Indian precedent is anything to go by, we can make some predictions about what's set to arrive in the U.S in the coming months.

Content-wise, expect positive hashtag challenges and campaigns to promote the beneficial work that TikTok does in uniting communities. Soon after it faced its most strident criticism in India, it made sure to promote its #EduTok campaign, a movement where TikTok helped creators post short educational videos on the platform, which helped quell some of the worst criticism it faced.

In terms of product, we should expect to see ByteDance expand its offerings beyond TikTok. The company has a raft of different apps in China: Alongside Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok for Chinese audiences, there's a hugely popular news aggregator called Toutiao, a Facebook-like social network called Helo, and several other other apps and services.

The success of TikTok has allowed ByteDance to start rolling out its suite of apps in India, including Helo — which Mayer now leads, alongside ByteDance's growing gaming and music arms as its chief operating officer. Helo launched in India in June 2018, and has built up a user base of millions of monthly active users in a short period of time. Recent reports indicate that the app wants to expand further, following the same path as TikTok in the country by adding more professional content from celebrity creators. As with any company looking to diversify its brand and expand its reach, ByteDance will surely want to push its U.S. users onto its other apps, too.

TikTok is currently known in the U.S. for "The Renegade" dance, for quirky videos and for oddball challenges. But that's just the start of the climb ahead. Yiming Zhang, ByteDance's CEO, once said in an interview that he wanted his company to be "as borderless as Google." He likely wants it to be as big, as well — and Mayer's new role is just the next step in a plan that could make that happen.

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Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

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