What the Trump effect means for TikTok

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To be a mega-influencer on social media, you need 1mn followers. That is no easy feat. But for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, it took less than a day to go from zero to 3mn followers on TikTok. For ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of the short video social media platform that he tried to ban in 2020 as president, it is the best thing that could have happened to it.

The race between Trump and Democratic incumbent Joe Biden in this year’s US presidential election is expected to be a close one. But on TikTok Trump is winning by a good margin. Trump’s TikTok account has surpassed 5.5mn followers with Biden’s campaign at roughly 365,000. Campaign officials for Biden, who has signed a bill that would ban the app, have said TikTok could help him reach younger voters.

Their presence on TikTok highlights how important the platform has become in the daily lives of people in the US. Around half the US digital population and most people under the age of 30 use TikTok, with approximately 170mn users in the country.

That popularity has underpinned the $268bn private valuation of ByteDance, which has remained China’s most valuable start-up for years. ByteDance sales are growing rapidly, with revenues reported to have more than doubled to more than $110bn last year

The fact that the US, where lawmakers have raised concerns over national security, is one of its biggest revenue contributors is one factor that makes a listing of the company complicated. ByteDance has instead been repurchasing shares from its institutional investors, which own 60 per cent of the company and include Carlyle Group and General Atlantic, as a listing is pushed back.

Yet in the past year, TikTok has also been enjoying a surge in user growth and engagement in unexpected places, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In south-east Asia, countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia have grown to become some of TikTok’s biggest markets. In the latter, it completed a deal to take over the country’s largest ecommerce platform this year.

It looks increasingly possible that the growth of ByteDance’s domestic version Douyin (which has more than 750mn daily active users), its other businesses such as news platform Jinri Toutiao and video-sharing platform Xigua, and its rapidly growing new markets could be enough to soften the blow from a hit to US revenues from potential bans.

Trump and Biden joining the platform, after seeking to ban the app, is its best marketing.

june.yoon@ft.com

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