TORONTO — When President Donald Trump was ramping up his efforts to ban social media platform TikTok in the U.S. over security concerns earlier this year, the company behind the Chinese-bred app was quietly making inroads in another market: Canada.
TikTok, a smartphone app for making and watching short videos, spent the last few months setting up an office in Toronto and hired 50 employees to work there while entertaining Walmart, Oracle and Microsoft bids for its business south of the border.
The Trump administration has tried to ban TikTok on the grounds that it is a security threat, citing its Chinese owner, ByteDance and the possibility that the Chinese government could spy on users. Trump's executive order to cut TikTok off from vital technical services was set to take effect Nov. 12, but is now on hold as a lawsuit from several U.S. content creators proceeds.
In the meantime, the "bite-sized" video app's new Canadian general manager Daniel Habashi wants users here to know "we are here to stay and we are excited about our future in Canada without question."
"Our commitment to grow the platform locally is unchanged," Habashi told The Canadian Press recently.
While he wouldn't discuss the U.S. situation due to the ongoing court case, Habashi opened up about how TikTok plans to find its groove in Canada — even during a pandemic.
With most people at home for longer periods and COVID-19 boredom setting in, the app is bustling with millions of users lip syncing, dancing and singing and brands like Tim Hortons and Wealthsimple vying for their attention.
TikTok, which was founded by Beijing tech company ByteDance in 2016 and merged with competitor platform Musical.ly in August 2018, has been catapulted to top download lists and become a favourite to just about every member of Generation Z in North America.
Habashi, whose resume includes stints at Microsoft, Instagram, Facebook and even the Soho House members' club, is keen on keeping that hype and engagement up — and the stakes are high.
Trendy social media apps don't always stay successful for long. Explosive growth can create unwieldy companies, and international growth comes with a host of regulatory and legal navigational challenges. And despite popularity, apps may fail to catch on with a wide enough audience.
Just 9 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 64 were using TikTok by the end of 2019, a study from We Are Social Media marketing insights firm and B.C. tech company HootSuite revealed.
A 2020 study from Ryerson University found TikTok found that while the portion of social media users in Canada on TikTok is relatively small, those with accounts use it regularly. Engagement levels are a commonly used success measurement for social media companies.
Keeping TikTok growing in Canada will involve capitalizing on local trends, said Habashi.
"We take a market-led approach, which means we focus on content that resonates with Canadians and there's a huge appetite from Canadians around learning content specifically, he said, mentioning instructional TikToks about how to cook a steak or chemistry projects you can do with your kids as an example.
"If the audience finds it engaging, we ensure that it's readily available and accessible on TikTok."
Aside from educational content, the app is seeing spikes in posts about #greatoutdoors (230 million video views), #hockeytok (214 million views) and #familyfun (2.4 billion views).
Public health TikTok videos are also proving popular these days in Canada, Habashi said.
Government officials, mayors and doctors have all used the app to share messages about staying home, when and how to get tested for COVID-19 and changing policies around bubbles and gatherings.
They know TikTok's younger user base isn't tuning into the evening news or visiting public health websites, but they'll spend hours watching people lip sync and shake and shimmy on TikTok.
Habashi is quick to argue that it's not just youth on the platform, especially during the new work-from-home era.
"TikTok has been called the last funny corner of the internet and the sense of positivity and entertainment has been really attractive … for all ages and walks of life," he said.
"We continue to see growth across all demographics and especially around the COVID period, we saw a lot of multi-generational TikToks, where you saw not just the creators themselves, but millennials all the way through to grandparents getting involved in TikTok."
Amid all the buzz, TikTok signed the lease on a new office space in Toronto's Liberty Village neighbourhood, complete with dedicated space for creators and brands and access to a full production studio.
It also teamed up with Ottawa's Shopify Inc. to offer U.S. merchants "shoppable" videos and boosted staffing levels in Canada and abroad. The company has snagged Gave Lindo, a CBC exec who led the broadcaster's programming and later streaming efforts, and earlier this month welcomed Vanessa Craft, Elle Canada's former editor-in-chief.
That's just the beginning, Habashi says.
Over the next three years, TikTok has plans to hire about 3,000 engineers. The bulk will be in Canada, Singapore and parts of Europe.
The company didn't say how many of the engineers will land in Canada, but Habashi hinted that the company is thinking broadly and ambitiously.
"Stay tuned on that, but absolutely the plan is to expand beyond Ontario."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020.
With files from The Associated Press
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Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press