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As TikTok’s sister app Lemon8 climbs the charts, experts debate its staying power

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By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

April 6, 2023 | 10 min read

A new content-sharing social platform owned by TikTok parent ByteDance aims to capitalize on its sister app’s success – despite growing regulatory scrutiny of TikTok and its business practices.

ByteDance logo on company building

ByteDance is pushing to maintain a strong foothold in the US market despite growing regulatory scrutiny / Adobe Stock

A new app has been quickly rising in app store charts in recent weeks: an Instagramesque social- and video-sharing platform that describes itself as a “lifestyle community,” dubbed Lemon8.

The app has already garnered over 1,000 (mostly-positive) reviews on Apple’s App Store, despite having not yet launched. Available for early download, the app, which is owned by TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance, is expected to be launched later this year. ByteDance has been quietly promoting the platform to potential users. One invite sent to creators last month said: “ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, invites you to become a launching creator on their new Lemon8 platform before it officially rolls out in the US!,” according to a report by The New York Times.

The platform is being billed by some as an Instagram-Pinterest crossover platform focused on lifestyle content around food, wellness, fashion, beauty and travel. Like Instagram, Lemon8 will support product promotion and sales via tagging. It also features a TikTok-like ‘For You’ tab for content discovery.

Some users invited to Lemon8‘s beta launch are already raving about the experience.

The app’s ascent coincides with growing scrutiny of TikTok across the globe. Both the US and the UK have officially banned the app from being installed on government devices over national security concerns. On the heels of this decision, US President Joe Biden issued an ultimatum to ByteDance, urging it to sell the app or face a wholesale ban in the country.

The debate reached a new boiling point when TikTok’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew testified before a Congressional committee on March 23, where lawmakers grilled him about data security, children‘s safety, content moderation and the app’s connection to the Chinese Communist Party.

With TikTok on a tight leash, is Lemon8 positioned to fare any better in the US market? Experts are somewhat divided on the matter.

Translating TikTok scrutiny

Some leaders in the industry see Lemon8 as a ploy for US users and ad spend that could help maintain ByteDance‘s foothold in the market even if TikTok loses out.

“In the face of a TikTok ban, Lemon8 is Bytedance's backup plan to stay relevant in the US,” says Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst at Insider Intelligence’s eMarketer specializing in social media.

She predicts that if Lemon8 gains traction in the market, it too will come under regulatory scrutiny for the same reasons – and may even fuel the fire. It “could give further ammunition to lawmakers who are already concerned about ByteDance’s – and by extension, China’s – influence in the US,” she says.

But not all experts share this assessment. In fact, some, like Mike Allton, a social media marketing influencer and the head of strategic partnerships at social media management platform Agorapulse, believe an influx of apps made by Chinese companies could force regulators to see that their hyper-focus on TikTok is misguided. “It's going to force lawmakers to come to terms with the fact that TikTok is not the only Chinese-owned app being downloaded and circulated throughout the US – in fact, there are several atop the app download charts,” he says. “And that's a good thing for TikTok. Many lawmakers were parroting the calls for a TikTok ban for geopolitical reasons, not technical or national security interests. When forced to address multiple apps, such gaps in reasoning could be exposed and arguments weakened.”

Ultimately, Allton says, “it seems unlikely that the US government will be prepared and empowered to enact a ban on all apps owned by Chinese companies.”

On the money

Of course, a key component of TikTok’s rise to the top has been its rapidly growing advertising business. The platform is an attractive channel to many advertisers; its uber-accurate recommendation algorithm promises to deliver brands’ messages to critical audience segments in the right place at the right time. It’s a fact that’s helped TikTok gobble up about 2% of all digital ad spend in the US, putting it above Twitter and on par with YouTube.

Plus, Lemon8 is already targeting creators as potential power users. Influencers and popular creators have served as the backbone for much of TikTok’s success – so it makes sense that ByteDance would double down on this strategy with Lemon8.

It’s an approach that some believe will pay off. “ByteDance is trying to get critical mass for network effects and leveraging its built-in community of TikTok creators to drive downloads of Lemon8. If their pre-launch efforts – [which have involved] amassing the support of hundreds of content creators – are any indication of what’s to come, Lemon8 is going to see tremendous growth in the US over the next few months,” says Teresa Day, president of Planoly, a social content planning and scheduling tool.

This early focus on creator buy-in is crucial for Lemon8, says Day. Content produced by popular creators is likely to attract new users to the platform, and eventually, ad spend. Despite the fact that Lemon8 has yet to launch, it’s shaping up to be “extremely creator-friendly,” promising “industry-leading native content editing capabilities and caption support” that empower creators to push out fresh content with ease, she says.

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ByteDance has reportedly teamed up with influencer agencies including New York-based Obviously – which was acquired by global holding company WPP just last week – to invite popular creators to apply to join an initial cohort to help launch the app. Lemon8 will provide guidelines around content creation and topics of interest to selected creators, per a New York Times report. Creators will be asked to make posts throughout April before Lemon8 begins introducing regular users in May.

Lemon8 will then open up monetization opportunities through brand and agency deals beginning in September. Outside of influencer deals, paid ad offerings have not yet been announced.

Day, for her part, anticipates that Lemon8 could raise the bar for social media broadly and incentivize other platforms to invest in more advanced creator tools. “This could be an indication of more table-stakes capabilities that other platforms need to offer to keep quality creators coming back to their platforms,” she says.

Tempering expectations

Not everyone is so bullish on the app’s potential for success. “Creators pitching Lemon8 as a ‘Pinterest-meets-Instagram’ isn't enough to set Lemon8 apart from TikTok. Between the lines is the fact that some of TikTok's meteoric growth in the US has come at the expense of US-based social platforms. If the same holds true for Lemon8, its fate in the US is likely to be at just as much risk as TikTok‘s,” says eMarketer’s Enberg.

Right now, the app is all buzz, she suggests. “Lemon8 is making headlines … because of its ties to TikTok, but its staying power will depend on user adoption, its ability to efficiently monetize – and mostly whether it can escape the regulatory hurdles TikTok is facing.”

And as for attracting brands’ attention and advertising investments, the jury is out, according to Enberg. “Turmoil at Twitter and Meta, and the potential US TikTok ban have been catalysts for further fragmentation of the social landscape. Not every app that emerges will be worth marketers and advertisers paying attention to.”

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