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TikTok May Be Losing Its Appeal

Zheping Huang and Shelly Banjo

(Bloomberg) -- TikTok, the viral short video app run by Chinese upstart ByteDance Inc., saw global user-downloads fall for the first time since its inception two years ago, new data from Sensor Tower shows.

The app amassed an estimated 177 million first-time users across the Apple App Store and Google Play for the third quarter ended September. That represents a 4% decline from a year ago. It’s the first time the hit app saw new installs drop on a quarterly basis, the mobile data provider said. In total, TikTok has been installed by around 564 million users so far this year and has been installed 1.45 billion times since launching.

TikTok has evolved to become a global phenomenon known for lighthearted content -- including lip syncing and dancing -- uploaded by teenage users from Boston to Bangalore. It’s also one of the few examples of a Chinese social media platform that has achieved global success. Beijing-based ByteDance is the world’s largest startup with a valuation of $75 billion according to CB Insights.

ByteDance has long splashed huge chunks of money to advertise TikTok on Facebook, essentially buying users away from its biggest rival. But more recently, the company appears to have curtailed that spending. According to Sensor Tower, TikTok was the top app-install advertiser on Facebook in the U.S. for four quarters in a row -- until it dropped out of the Top 10 in the second quarter. That coincided with a sharp plunge in new user growth in the country -- from the first quarter’s 182% year on year to just 16% in the second quarter.

A ByteDance spokeswoman said TikTok doesn’t comment on third-party numbers.

“With any app growth, there will come a time when it plateaus, especially since TikTok had grown so much,” said Alvin Foo, managing director of Reprise Digital, a Shanghai-based online marketing agency under the Interpublic Group of Cos Inc. “They should worry more about monetization and evolving.”

The company is also facing greater scrutiny overseas, including from Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. He called out the Chinese app earlier this month over privacy and freedom of speech concerns.

Zuckerberg’s remarks came after TikTok drew criticism for its alleged censorship of politically sensitive content such as videos of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to appease Beijing. TikTok has denied those allegations. It announced last week it has formed a team that includes two former U.S. lawmakers to review its content moderation policy.

(Updates with context on TikTok’s advertising spending pattern in the fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at zhuang245@bloomberg.net;Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Colum Murphy

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