As US lawmakers push ahead with plans to ban or force the sale of TikTok, the app’s Chinese parent company ByteDance is propelling another of its social platforms to the top charts of the US app store. ByteDance-owned app Lemon8, an Instagram rival that bills itself as a “lifestyle community,” jumped to the top of the US app store chart on Monday, becoming #10 for both apps and games of the app overall. Today, it’s ranked 9th on the App Store’s top apps list, excluding games.
It’s a dramatic move for the little-known app, and one that points to paid user acquisition efforts that are driving this surge. As of yesterday, the Lemon8 app had never before landed in the top 200 overall charts in the US, according to App Store Intelligence provided by data.ai to TechCrunch.
The company confirms that moving so quickly from an unranked app to the #9 best free app in the US – ahead of YouTube, WhatsApp, Gmail and Facebook – implies a “significant” and “recent” boost in user acquisition Part of the App Publisher. Unfortunately, because the app is so new to the App Store top charts, third-party app analytics providers don’t yet have accurate data on Lemon8 installs in the US or how those installs have changed over the past few days.
However, given that the app launched globally back in March 2020, the most likely scenario is that it was quietly released on the US App Store, but only for testing purposes. Then sometime in the last few days it was launched more “officially”, meaning that it was accompanied by those clearly sizeable spends on paid discovery or app installs ads.
According to data from app intelligence provider Apptopia, Lemon8 debuted on both iOS and Android in March 2020 and has since garnered 16 million downloads worldwide, with Japan being the top market and accounting for 38% of total installs. While the company doesn’t have figures on its installs in the US either, it was able to estimate that the app currently has 4.25 million monthly active users.
Apptopia noted that Lemon8 has not yet spent on paid searches on the App Store or Google Play, but warned that there may be paid install campaigns that aren’t already in its system, or spends made on networks will, who does not have insight.
However, we believe ByteDance is simply using one of its own channels to drive app installs: TikTok.
Over on TikTok, we noticed that a number of creators have recently started posting about Lemon8, with many new videos appearing just in the last 24 hours. Worryingly, many of their reviews are not flagged as sponsored content.
For example, one YouTuber, Gabrielle Victor, tells her 435,300 followers, “It’s so freaking cute. Aesthetically pleasing. It’s like Pinterest and Instagram got together and had a baby.”
Another creator, Passion Willems (73.9K followers), recommends, “If you haven’t heard of it, I recommend you go to the App Store and download it!”
However, other creators are more suspicious of the TikTok community’s sudden interest in the new app. Alexandrea Brumfield reflects: “Is it a conspiracy that I’ve seen so many of them? [Lemon8] Videos back-to-back with the TikTok ban in the news right now?”
Your concerns should not be unfounded.
Last month, Insider reported that ByteDance quietly launched Lemon8 in the US and UK and had paid developers to post on the app to release their first US content. The influencers had shared with the news agency the steps they had to take to get paid for their posts. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of these new overly positive TikTok videos about Lemon8 were also a form of ByteDance’s paid influencer marketing.
What makes us think — timing aside, of course — has to do with the language the creators used in the inside story to describe Lemon8 — for example, calling it a cross between Pinterest and Instagram. Now that very description is being ratted out by the TikTok creators who are posting these overly positive videos.
In addition to the example cited above, when scrolling through videos matching a Lemon8 keyword search on TikTok, developers repeated the phrase “Pinterest meets Instagram” or “like Instagram and Pinterest had a baby” while calling the app “sooo cute.” “ described.
None of the YouTubers who posted these positive reviews disclosed whether they were paid to post their videos.
After searching for the keyword “Lemon8” and then filtering for videos published in the last 24 hours, we found over 350 videos that matched the search term. A large number of them were positive reviews that make users download the app. In fact, some developers have even said that if TikTok gets banned, they will get the app.
Of course, Lemon8 may not be a viable backup plan to a TikTok ban, as lawmakers could consider a wide-ranging set of restrictions on Chinese technology, including mobile apps, well beyond TikTok. But ByteDance isn’t above leaning on the creators to make its case — the company sent influencers to Washington to lobby for TikTok ahead of last week’s congressional hearing. But even beyond direct involvement efforts, a number of developers are frustrated by the US lawmakers’ proposed national ban — not to mention the clear lack of technical understanding that House representatives demonstrated when they asked TikTok’s CEO questioned.
Currently, the Lemon8 hashtag has 2.3 billion views on TikTok; However, this includes a lot of non-American, non-English language content from a longer period of time. The New York Times recently reported that the hashtag #TikTokBan has grown to 1.7 billion views on TikTok as of yesterday, with many objecting to the ban.