Who benefits from a TikTok ban? Youtube!
Before generative AI stole the show, TikTok was the fastest-growing consumer app and one of the hottest topics in Marketing. Now, the most popular app over the last 5 years might be banned in the US (source).
150m US Americans use TikTok as of 2023, and younger audiences now prefer TikTok (and Instagram) search results over Google (as mentioned by Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Search and ads at Google).
But lately, governments around the world have banned the app on government devices. India even banned the app for the whole country in 2020.
In this context, the big question is, "which platform would consumers use if TikTok was banned?"
To find an answer to this question, I surveyed 1,000 US Americans between the age of 16 and 65 about TikTok and its competitors, in partnership with market research platform Appinio.
We asked questions like
"how often do you use TikTok vs. other platforms?"
"if you could only use two platforms for a whole year, which would you pick?"
"what is the most important thing for you when using social media?
The survey has 39 questions, a 50/50 split between men and women, and an even split across 5 age groups. Mind you, age matters for this study. Like Facebook and Snapchat, TikTok started with much younger age groups and then expanded. You will see age playing a role throughout all the answers.
The answers gave us strong insights into how consumers use social media and content platforms, TikTok's biggest competitor and how a ban might play out.
Social media power users prefer Youtube
TikTok is, first and foremost, an entertainment app that competes with Netflix just as much as Instagram for the most valuable resource on earth: attention. The market for attention is big and growing. Most eligible people on earth have a smartphone but use it more and more.
Almost half of the people in the survey use their smartphone for more than 6h every day. There is an age difference here: people 45 and older tend to use their smartphones less often than people below 45.
We're also genuinely bad at estimating how much time we
waste spend on smartphones. 2/3rds of the participants estimated the time spent on their smartphone, and only 1/3rd looked the actual screen time up. When comparing estimates with actuals, it turns out that more people think they only use their phone 3-6h, when it's actually over 6h. Time flies with TikTok & co.
Across all age groups, TikTok only makes it to 4th place of the most used platforms, beaten by YouTube, music streaming apps (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) and Instagram.
Even when we asked participants for their favorite platform by activity (sharing content with friends, waiting for something or relaxing at home), TikTok came in 3rd. People use Instagram to follow their favorite brands, Youtube to inform themselves about products and other platforms to find out what their friends are up to.
But that doesn't mean it's an either/or decision: attention is finite, but users divide their time between several apps. The big question in the context of a potential Tiktok ban then is, "what other platform would consumers most likely use instead?" The answer is Youtube (27.1%), closely followed by Instagram (22%).
Again, younger people (16-34y) would prefer Instagram, while people over 35 prefer Youtube if TikTok wasn't available. Youtube Shorts certainly helped Alphabet to compete with TikTok.
We tried to push participants by asking which 2 platforms they chose if they had to pick two for one whole year: 65.5% would pick Youtube, and 33.5% a music service. Only 25.6% would consider TikTok. This goes to show that TikTok faces stiff competition from Youtube, at least in the US.
Most participants (30.5%) also chose Youtube as the #1 Fomo platform, while TikTok could only come close for 16-24-year-olds. However, the majority of 16-24y olds also chose TikTok as the #1 app they're using more frequently now than at the beginning of the year (Youtube was the preferred choice for older cohorts). Could TikTok become the favorite platform with more time?
On the other side of the coin, most users said to use Pinterest and other platforms less often, especially older age groups.
Next, we wanted to understand what topics people care most about across social media and what platforms to the best job serving them.
Music, cooking and gaming are the hottest topics
Broadly, people value family, health, financial security, honesty and mental health.
However, on social media most people are interested in music, cooking, gaming, sports, restaurants, the economy and art. Seeing what your familiy is up to did not make the list because despite what we say our values are we mostly consume content about entertainment and money. One is a good distraction from not having much of the other.
As we age, our preferences change. Older age groups in the survey are much more interested in the economy, the environment and policy than younger groups. But older age groups are laggards when it comes to social media platforms.
Modern social media (post-Myspace) focused on connecting with your friends and family. That's how Facebook started and got big, but the social media landscape today looks very different. Facebook's and Twitter's feed don't just contain content from your connections anymore, but also their likes, short-form video and content from groups. Youtube and Instagram have added short-form video formats (Reels and Shorts) to compete with TikYok. Social media has become all about entertainment. While Youtube is the top source for entertainment broadly, younger audiences like TikTok just as much.
When it comes to educational and inspirational content, however, Youtube holds the reigns across all age groups. Another reason why Youtube is the closest replacement of TikTok, not Instagram or other platforms.
Conclusion: Youtube is the likely winner if TikTok gets banned
If we would extrapolate the survey results to the broader US population, over 200m would have heard about the ban, almost 180m think the government will move forward with a ban, and almost 200m think it's the right thing to do.
Most people mention two reasons why TikTok should be banned:
1/ The app is incredibly addictive and shortens (kids') attention spans. Being on TikTok is (intentionally) like gambling in a casino - the next swipe might be the best one yet. Quick dopamine hits trigger the brain's reward center and motivate us to repeat the experience. No app is better at that than TikTok. None!
Security and social media experts also warn of potential propaganda since the CCP is so deeply involved with Chinese startups, and the TikTok experience in the West (memes) differs so much from the Chinese counterpart Douyin (national accomplishments).
2/ TikTok doesn't just have the best algorithm in the world; it also collects the most data about its users and makes it accessible to the CCP. TikTok collects so much data that experts are concerned about espionage and wide-ranging privacy infringements.
If a ban happens, which is unclear at this point, Youtube would be first in line to reap the benefits, closely followed by Instagram.
If you want to take a look at the data yourself: