Facebook is known for its strategy of spotting a competitor and copying the best parts; with Lasso, it has cloned the popular ByteDance app TikTok and, following some leaked audio, there are now a few hints as to what it involves.
Speaking at two all-hands Facebook meetings in July, CEO Mark Zuckerberg expanded on several key topics of importance to the company; the audio and transcripts were obtained by The Verge.
“So yeah,” Zuckerberg says, “I mean, TikTok is doing well.” He was responding to a question about Facebook’s plan of attack towards TikTok, and specifically its draw on teen audiences. Since its launch in 2016 in China (as Douyin), the app has been downloaded more than one billion times, according to Sensor Tower.
While this is small compared to Facebook Inc.’s total, it is driving at another form of social experiment: more entertainment than the typical idea of social media.
“So it’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram, which is today primarily about feed posts and highlighting different feed posts. I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app,” he continued.
As TechCrunch reported in November of last year, Facebook’s intended TikTok killer is called Lasso. It’s very similar: the app lets users shoot 15 second videos backed by a large catalogue of tracks that users can overlay.
The feed is based on algorithmic recommendations, with the additional options of browsing themed collections or hashtags. Logging in with Facebook (whose name the app bears) or Instagram brings users instant personalisation.
Zuckerberg’s comments in the July meetings indicate what the next steps are: taking the app into markets where TikTok is not properly present – like Mexico – rather than competing in its well-established markets.
Meanwhile, Facebook is also “taking a number of approaches with Instagram, including making it so that Explore is more focused on stories, which is increasingly becoming the primary way that people consume content on Instagram, as well as a couple of other things there.”
The second option seems more fruitful. Facebook has rarely had success with new apps that haven’t built on the scale of either its core product or popular products that it has bought. He notes, meanwhile, that TikTok is spending huge amounts of money promoting the app. Lasso’s efforts have so far been relatively soft.
An opportunity exists, however, and the focus is retention. “What we’ve found is that [TikTok’s] retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising. So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do here.”
Facebook’s core apps have been famously sticky, but they still depend on consistent user growth in key markets – which happen to be the markets in which TikTok excels.
Despite user interest at the moment, Facebook is well known to advertisers in a way that TikTok is not. James Whatley, a strategy partner at Digitas argued that “neomania” is the app’s primary appeal. “TikTok today is what Snapchat was in 2012, Vine in 2013, and Instagram every year thereafter.”
Successful social media are built off a balance of attention and revenues. If creators are getting more money elsewhere then they will happily leave a platform; though replacements will come, it is ultimately an economy, one that creators, audiences, and brands can choose. Facebook is hoping that its own will remain more attractive to both sides.