What marketers need to know about ByteDance-owned Lemon8 — and its link to TikTok

Chances are you’ve not heard of Lemon8. The ByteDance-owned Instagram alternative has kept a low profile since it launched in Japan in 2020. But the name won’t be unrecognizable for too much longer. Not when Lemon8 is getting ready to officially launch in the U.S. later this year. 

Worried about missing out? Don’t worry, Digiday has done the hard work for you. What follows is the inside track on the app, what it means for marketers, how it fits into the wider TikTok drama and much more. 

First up, what is Lemon8?

Lemon8 describes itself as a “content sharing platform for a youthful community” where its users can discover “beautiful, authentic, and diverse content.” 

Think of it like Instagram and Pinterest, for a Gen Z-type audience, merged together: the polished photos that you’d find on Instagram, alongside the focus on products and categorization features from Pinterest with a sprinkle of the lifestyle topics including fashion and food that have helped set the platform apart from its peers. It could be argued, Lemon8 has taken the best bits of both worlds (or rather apps).

And Lemon8 seems to boast the same algorithm as TikTok, according to a report by The New York Times last week, which said that ByteDance contacted a number of creators last month about the app. In the message, ByteDance made it clear that Lemon8 shares the same “recommendation engine” as TikTok — the one feature that no other social network has been able to replicate or match and put TikTok streets ahead of its competition.

Marketers who spoke to Digiday have said the platform, at least right now, seems to be putting creators first — maybe too much if the oversaturation of influencers on the platform is anything to go on. 

TikTokers Passion Williems (@passionwilliems), Natasha Mathurent (@natashascloset) and Gabrielle Victor (@gabivictorr), for example, are among a number of creators that have already hopped on the Lemon8 bandwagon in the past week or so, in a bid to be the early adopters of the app. They have already amassed 2011, 807 and 186 followers on ByteDance’s other app, respectively.

However, despite the abundance of creator content on the app, there doesn’t appear to be a clear way for them to monetize it. Perhaps that’s why not many of the larger influencers have made the jump to the social network just yet. 

The lack of a creator commercial plan is surprising given the app has existed since at least March 2020, according to Apptopia, which cited the date as when the app launched on both the Apple App Store and Android Google Play store. The social platform, formerly known as Sharee, was launched as an international version of Chinese app Xiaohongshu, just as TikTok mirrors its Chinese counterpart Douyin.

But since 2020, Lemon8 has reportedly made headway across Asia, including Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ok, so what do marketers think of Lemon8?

The marketers who do know about Lemon8 are interested. And the ones who don’t will be once they discover it. Marketers are always on the lookout for platforms on an upswing. But the ones who are sizing up Lemon8 now want to be sure there is scalability before investing any significant resource into it.

Or to be more specific, they want to know more about the momentum behind the app and whether it’s likely to become the next TikTok or the next clubhouse. So far, Lemon8’s users are rising. The platform has currently seen 6.3 million downloads worldwide in the last six months, per Apptopia data. And since its soft launch in the U.S. in February, the app has already received more than 256K downloads.

This quick rise has seen the social network take pride of place in the number one spot in the App store’s Top 10 chart for lifestyle apps in the U.S. in the week after TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before Congress. Though perhaps that timing is just a coincidence because the app wasn’t once mentioned during the hearing. Understandably, this recognition has sparked curiosity about Lemon8 among marketers, including the five Digiday caught up with, firmly planting it on their radars.

MMI Agency, for example, is currently exploring the app and is active on Lemon8 to get a feel for the app before they consider introducing it to clients. “My team is keeping a pulse on anyone of influence using the platform, whether consumers are active and what the engagement looks like,” said Jordan Robuck, director of communications at the company. “We are constantly looking for the next emerging platform to see if it would fulfill any one of our clients’ goals within our roster.”

But while advertisers are in exploratory mode, there’s still been minimal action from brands.

Take Movers+Shakers, for example, which is often at the forefront of any new social platforms on the horizon. Evan Horowitz, co-founder and CEO of the agency noted that while they are exploring Lemon8 with some clients (though Horowitz did not specify which ones), the team has not yet activated with any.

Aside from it still being too early for any marketer to invest heavily in the platform, Lemon8’s links to ByteDance have caused understandable hesitation.

Ties to TikTok

The connection between Lemon8 and TikTok has undoubtedly grown in the weeks since TikTok CEO was grilled by U.S. lawmakers, and yet it’s still not crystal clear to many. There is no listing of Lemon8 on the ByteDance website or vice versa.

Lemon8 instead lists Singapore-based private company Heliophilia Pte. Ltd as its owner — a company which was incorporated on May 25, 2022, according to the Singapore Company Registry.

That same registry shows that Heliophilia is located at 1 Raffles Quay, #26-10, Postal 048583 — the exact same address as TikTok’s local Singapore office. Furthermore, Reuters reported last year that Lemon8 is overseen by Alex Zhu, svp of product and strategy at ByteDance, and also the former CEO of TikTok.

So while it appears that there are little to no digital links between ByteDance and Lemon8 — and the jury is still out on whether or not that has been a more recent strategic move to distance the app from the company and any sister ties, given the incredulous scrutiny TikTok is currently under — its becoming easier to spot the connections between the two. 

For instance, when ByteDance contacted a number of creators last month, the company was inviting them to become launching creators on its “new Lemon8 platform” before it officially rolls out in the United States, while further noting the success of its “sister company TikTok”.

Added to that a number of Lemon8’s employees on LinkedIn have either previously worked at ByteDance, TikTok, or both, before joining the lifestyle app or they explicitly mention that they joined the platform to launch “TikTok’s sister brand” in new geographies.

So there are clear signs. ByteDance just isn’t shouting publicly about them.

Are brands getting involved?

But it comes as no surprise that until the official TikTok verdict is announced, brands are watching from the sidelines. MMI’s clients for one, won’t be signing up to Lemon8 just yet.

And that agency is not the only one with this view. Keith Bendes, vp of strategy at Linqia said, “As TikTok ban conversations have intensified, brands are more concerned with how that saga will unfold rather than adopting a new app that is owned by the same parent company.”

Indeed, as thrilling as it may be to be the first to an emerging platform, the fact is, Lemon8 is owned by ByteDance. And until Congress makes up its mind about TikTok’s future, marketers will remain cautious.

“Advertisers that are already wary about placing their budgets on TikTok are not going to risk rebuilding an audience on yet another app that could be blocked from the U.S. market,” said Babar Javed, director of public affairs at Z2C Limited. “It remains to be seen whether all apps of Bytedance are taken down or only those that reach critical mass and threaten the duopoly of Alphabet and Meta.”

The fact is nowadays more marketers are well versed in how closely linked TikTok employees are to ByteDance employees. And given that Lemon8 is another app by the Beijing-based parent company, it’s likely that at some stage it will be under similar scrutiny with regards to its links to ByteDance and the Chinese Government. 

“With shared resources, the source code and wireframes stay the same, making Lemon8 the perceptual wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Javed.

It’s understandable then why ByteDance has seemingly let the app fly under the radar of Congress, rather than turn it into its next big project. There’s a chance that it gets pulled into attempts to dilute ByteDance’s influence over tech platforms in the U.S. Simply put, Lemon8 isn’t really a backup plan given how U.S. lawmakers are averse to all things ByteDance these days. 

Still, it’s easy to understand why ByteDance might want to hedge its bets with its Lemon8. So far the U.S. government discussions have not been around Chinese-owned companies as a whole, but rather just TikTok, Bendes pointed out. “So the more diversified ByteDance is in the U.S., the better for them should a [TikTok] ban take place,” he said.

https://digiday.com/?p=498412

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