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Indian TikTok copycats are hardly a match for the real deal

Geetha Sridhar makes a video on her miniature cooking with her daughter Sarada Sridhar, in Mumbai
Reuters/Hemanshi Kamani
REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani
Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

It’s been nearly two months since TikTok was banned in India but the Chinese short-video app’s Indian copycats are still far from really replacing it.

Before the Narendra Modi government banned it over data security concerns, India was TikTok’s biggest overseas market with over 200 million users. Besides the users, the ban also left more than 200,000 influencers in the lurch.

Once TikTok was not accessible, some of its Indian users and creators moved to incumbents such as YouTube and Instagram, and a slew of homegrown apps like Chingari, Mitron, Roposo (acquired by Glance), and Bolo Indya, stepped up to woo them. Seeing the opportunity to cash in on TikTok’s audience, vernacular language social network platform ShareChat launched Moj, entertainment company Zee5 released HiPi, and music-streaming giant Gaana created HotShots.

But none of the Indian apps have succeeded so far.

Over 60% of Indians still hope the ban on TikTok is lifted, according to a recent survey by market research and data analytics firm YouGov.

One of the reasons why Indian apps have failed to impress users is their short-sighted vision to simply become the “TikTok of India.”

“They (Indian apps) have the capabilities to create a replacement but it does take several key items such as the ability to find the right spin or marketing that will be favourable to a specific demographic. Just because you come out as a TikTok alternative does not mean you can replace TikTok,” said Chris Carter, CEO of cloud security firm Approyo.

Blurry vision

For several weeks after TikTok was banned, its Indian rivals rode the anti-China sentiment that was prevalent due to border tension between the two countries.

For instance, the Mitron app’s growth strategy was heavily dependent on its “made in India” narrative, because many people have started valuing domestic offerings,” co-founder Shivank Agarwal told Quartz in an interview.

Chingari, another Indian TikTok rival that shot to fame overnight after the ban, tried hard to establish its “Indian-ness.”

“We are not going to raise a single cent from China or any Chinese company,” Chingari’s co-founder Sumit Ghosh told Quartz in July. “Raising money from Chinese companies makes you Chinese. They’re on your board and they have all your information.”

But most of these Indian players struggled to deliver quality to new users who were flocking to them in hundreds. The influx in the first few days revealed weaknesses when the apps couldn’t handle the load and kept crashing.

In addition, the interface and functionality of most of these apps were so similar to TikTok that it was clear that none of them had a truly distinct vision that would offer users something new and keep them loyal in the long-run. Within a few weeks, the market was so crowded that the “Made in India” tag alone was not enough to win.

“The number of initial downloads is not a metric that counts now for the competitors, what matters most is audience engagement and retention. Interestingly, multiple apps that were among the top three short video apps within the first month of launch have now fallen off the charts. This leads us to believe that the initial rush of inorganic app downloads has proven ineffective,” said Prashan Agarwal, CEO of music streaming app Gaana, which launched HotShots in July.

Indian rip-offs of TikTok still have to get the basics right—a tough feat considering the lack of expertise in short-video in the country, said Gautam Madhavan, founder and CEO of influencer marketing firm MAD Influence.

Security holes

In July, a security researcher exposed flaws in Chingari that made it easy to gain complete access to an account and its details. The researcher was able to hack the platform in a way that allowed pretty much anyone to share and comment on restricted videos. (The company has since patched the issue.)

Mitron, on the other hand, launched without even having an explicit privacy policy in place. The app, which was launched in April, added a privacy policy only in June after it was briefly taken down from the Google app store.

“At present most local alternatives seem to be lacking even in basic user expectations with overbroad privacy policies which give extremely broad device access and retention of a user’s personal data,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “To avoid the problems that TikTok faced beyond the focus on the security risks, clear regulatory guidance is necessary on elements of data protection, misinformation, and its impact on elections as well as a clear framework for law enforcement access to information.”

Funding frenzy freeze

Fundraising has been a bright spot for some of the players, but it’s unlikely to be a long-term trend.

In July, Mitron made headlines when it received $268,000 (Rs2 crore) in seed funding. It raised another $5 million from Nexus Venture Partners, according to an Aug. 17 Bloomberg report. Earlier in August, rival Chingari raised $1.3 million dollars in seed funding.

This may be the end of the funding spree for these apps, for now, experts say. Investors are in the wait-and-watch mode because if the ban on TikTok is lifted, the fate of its Indian rivals is most likely to reverse.

News reports have suggested that that Reliance Industries, headed by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, may acquire TikTok’s business in the country.

Even if TikTok doesn’t make a comeback, there’s still stiff competition from the West.

Reel it in

Instagram rolled out its TikTok-like Reels feature shortly after the Chinese app was banned in India. Then, the US-based app, Triller, also accelerated its foray into India.

Chingari’s Ghosh disregarded Reels as a competitor saying “people don’t go to Instagram to discover random videos of random people. Reels will be another IGTV, which failed to take off as a replacement for YouTube.” He also said that Triller did not understand “Bharat’s DNA,” which is what Chingari is going after.

But numbers tell a different story.

Posts on Reels get much more traction than other posts on Instagram, several creators told Quartz. Triller, meanwhile, went from less than a million users in India to nearly 30 million overnight after the TikTok ban—more than the 25 million users Chingari has garnered.

Unfortunately for Ghosh, it looks like India doesn’t care how Indian an app is. Audiences are lapping up foreign apps and homegrown players are already falling by the wayside, an August 2020 YouGov survey shows.

No matter their funding rounds and updates, Instagram, with its 88 million Indian users, is always going to be one to contend with, experts say.

The matured platform already has takers “that use it for their daily content consumption. Now, with the launch of Reels and the fun features that come with it, it is easier for the app to get onboard the younger audience,” said Irfan Khan, influencer marketing expert and partner at content creation firm Yaap. “This is a huge advantage for Instagram in comparison to new players not only to be an effective marketing tool for brands but also for content creators to build up their audience base.”

Niharika Sharma contributed to this article.

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