How YouTube’s brewing TikTok rivalry could impact mobile video strategies

    Google this month revealed that YouTube Shorts has 1.5 billion viewers every month, making the short-video service one of the biggest rivals to TikTok worldwide. As the platforms compete for the attention of viewers and the loyalty of content creators, marketers have more choices in the ways they reach consumers.

    YouTube introduced its short-video format less than two years ago as TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, emerged as the fastest-growing social media platform worldwide. TikTok in September disclosed it had more than 1 billion monthly active users, and the number was estimated to have grown to about 1.6 billion by the end of March.

    “Consumers find short-form videos to be the No. 1 most engaging type of in-feed social content,” Rachael Samuels, senior social media manager at Sprout Social, said. “As social commerce and short-form video gain traction — and become more intertwined — it’s imperative that brands create a strong foundation on platforms that prioritize this content type.”

    Differing tastes 

    YouTube’s advertising revenue last year jumped 46% to $28.8 billion, making the video-sharing site a key growth driver for parent company Alphabet. However, YouTube has also shown some weakness of late, speaking to a few factors: A tougher macroeconomic environment, increased competition, waning pandemic digital media habits and challenges to mobile ad-targeting and measurement brought on by Apple’s privacy policies. 

    TikTok is a younger platform with a higher growth rate. The social video app’s global ad revenue last year hit almost $3.9 billion and this year will nearly triple to $11.6 billion, Insider Intelligence estimated in April.

    As brands pour ad dollars into short-form video, marketing strategies are emerging to optimize each platform’s strengths. Some of the differences will be geographic: India’s ban on TikTok for political reasons has opened a huge market for YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, the short-video section of the photo-sharing app owned by Meta Platforms. In the United States, the contrasting demographics of TikTok and YouTube users are more apparent.

    “YouTube Shorts currently has a slightly older demographic and larger user base than TikTok, particularly in the U.S.,” Lauren Zoltick, director of performance marketing at stock-footage provider Storyblocks, said. “Unlike Instagram Reels, which often feels like a stream of repurposed TikTok videos with a worse algorithm, YouTube Shorts feels like it has its own identity separate from TikTok.”

    Brands that have dabbled with campaigns on TikTok may find that their results aren’t necessarily applicable to YouTube Shorts because of differences in tastes and sensibilities among generational groups. Those considerations will help to define their strategies for each platform.

    “Millennials and older generations are more active on YouTube Shorts than Gen Z, so the lessons they’ve learned on TikTok may not apply as well on YouTube Shorts,” said Joshua DuBois, co-founder and CEO of market research firm Gauge. “Brands that think with audience specificity –– not just platform specificity –– will do well.”

    Legacy vs. newcomer

    As a unit of Google, YouTube has an established infrastructure for ad placements and audience targeting. TikTok in the past few years has worked to build out services that advertisers have grown to expect from social media platforms.

    “Google will have an advantage over TikTok in terms of ad measurement and ad platform usability as they already have a robust ad platform that brands and agencies use every day,” Calla Murphy, vice president of digital strategy and integrated marketing at marketing agency Belardi Wong, said. “The real test will be if they can gain attention share from consumers.”

    YouTube Shorts is another way for the video-sharing platform to expand its audience through connected devices. YouTube has a strong presence in households that have hooked up their televisions to the internet, capturing 50% of ad-supported streaming watch time on connected TV among viewers 18 and older, according to Nielsen data cited by Google.


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