Short-form video content platforms are not new; many will remember the short-lived but once-ubiquitous presence of Vine. However, the meteoric rise of TikTok and the recent failure of new kid on the block Quibi show us that these platforms are now seriously big business – and offer a few interesting lessons.
TikTok and Quibi have had very different fortunes. TikTok is utterly dominating its market, is growing rapidly and is the social media network of the moment – it’s where viral trends are made, where new and old songs get boosted to the top of the charts, and it’s a breeding ground for influencers.
Begin at TikTok
Perhaps most notably, it’s also arguably often the first in the ‘chain’ of social media sharing; it’s where content originally comes from. Many social media feeds now consist largely of screenshots of posts from other social media; many have observed that this flow of memes and viral content tends to trickle from the platform with the youngest, hippest audience to the platform with the oldest users. Until recently, that’s usually meant that things happen on Twitter first, then are reposted on Instagram, then Facebook.
But now things are originating on TikTok. Its users are setting trends, and its design is geared utterly towards virality, shareability and scrollability. The way the app is built, and the way sharing is made ultra-easy, is no coincidence: the designers have taken on board years of iteration in the social media industry to build the product.
That work is paying dividends for TikTok. Despite finding itself in a political and legal bog over data privacy issues – there have been no formal allegations of data misuse, just a general sense of distrust about the Chinese firm behind the app – it is growing massively.
Most recently, the firm said it will hire 3000 engineers as it expands around the world. That’s a huge expansion and a sign of the company’s rapid growth. A company spokesperson told Reuters: “To support our rapid global growth, we plan to continue expanding TikTok’s global engineering team, including adding approximately 3,000 engineers in Canada, Europe, Singapore, as well as the US, over the next three years.” The US will stay as one of the engineering hubs for the company and hire more staff, the spokesman also said.
Currently, the company has about 1000 engineers working for TikTok outside of China – where it is headquartered – mostly based in California, according to the Reuters article. The company is also planning to invest a huge amount of money and go on a hiring spree in Singapore, Reuters said.
All this says lots of things about the state of big technology companies. It says that even in a global pandemic – when marketing and advertising budgets have been slashed – they can thrive and grow. It also says that they will hire all over the world, and will make big plans for expansion to meet future demand; consider that the company is tripling its engineer count outside of China in a matter of years.
This is a common theme in technology hiring – huge bumps in recruitment as companies are forced to scale quickly. It means that with your finger on the pulse – not all companies are hiring on the same scale as TikTok, even if they are rapidly boosting their numbers – a technology worker can find great opportunities even in dark times.
It’s not just TikTok – research has shown from the start of the pandemic that some of the only companies continuing to hire and grow were technology firms. It stands to reason, as we all remain stuck indoors, that digital products will flourish. Forbes, for example, reported that 24 of the 50 companies who posted the most remote job openings on FlexJobs between March 1 and September 15, 2020, were software and technology-based.
But this is where Quibi’s failure also serves as an important lesson. It seemed the short-form video platform had everything it needed to succeed: a growing market, money, backing from Hollywood figures, industry buzz.
Yet in the end, it failed. In an open letter, Quibi executives said that was “likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing”.
The timing was undoubtedly difficult – it was going to launch in the middle of the pandemic. But, as we’ve already observed, lots of technology and digital companies have thrived even in these difficult times.
Perhaps more significantly, there were some elements of the platform that just didn’t make sense for what Quibi was supposed to do. For a start, says an analysis by Quartz, its content wasn’t good enough. No matter how good the tech, if the content isn’t right, the platform will never grow. Others have pointed out that the platform’s shareability just wasn’t good enough – things like screenshotting and sharing buttons weren’t right. Any platform like this relies completely and utterly on virality – making that even slightly difficult can kill it.
What this all goes to show is that though tech looks like an exceedingly strong industry – and consumer screen time is at an all-time high – it’s definitely not a ready-made winner. You need talent of all stripes: pure technologists, marketing people, content creators, a strong sales team, designers, and so on, to make a business work. Maybe that’s where Quibi went wrong, and maybe it’s why TikTok is doing so well.