With latest hit Lemon8, ByteDance again learns from the China playbook


ByteDance’s Lemon8, a new short-video sharing app, has swiftly climbed into the top 10 of America’s app stores, sparking comparisons to the early days of TikTok’s meteoric rise. Observers suggest that Lemon8 is at the intersection of Instagram, Pinterest, and Amazon, but its similarities with Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social commerce platform, are particularly noteworthy.

Chinese tech companies have a history of emulating trends that are already popular in the US and creating similar offerings for the Chinese market. However, with the increasing sophistication of China’s homegrown tech talent, we are seeing more unique and novel services that are yet to exist elsewhere. Lemon8, with its photo-heavy layout and peer-to-peer reviews, bears striking resemblance to Xiaohongshu, which has become the go-to online community for Chinese youths to learn life hacks and exchange information on various topics.

Unlike Instagram, which emphasizes glamorous images and professionally made influencer posts, Xiaohongshu favors the discovery of long-tail content and relevance over entertainment. The app encourages users to contextualize their posts with images and notes, such as sharing a COVID-19 PCR test result needed to board a flight to China. The platform also popularized the concept of “zhongcao,” which conveys the effect of wanting to buy something after seeing someone else, whether a friend or influencer, recommends it.

With 260 million monthly active users, Xiaohongshu is still going strong, even as its valuation reportedly dropped to $10-$16 billion last year amid China’s tech crackdown. Lemon8, on the other hand, is in its infancy and has gained traction largely through splashy advertisements and influencer endorsements via TikTok. There are signs that Lemon8 is paying influencers to post content, a common practice among Chinese social media platforms, but authenticity is the reason Xiaohongshu’s content has stood the test of time.

As it accumulates a sizable user base, Lemon8 may look to Xiaohongshu’s monetization model of ads and e-commerce commissions. However, it’s never easy to transplant a business model from one country to another, especially when it comes to copying from or to China. ByteDance has struggled to evangelize live shopping, which is driving a significant portion of Douyin’s China revenues, in Western countries.

While Lemon8’s future remains uncertain, its sudden rise and comparison to TikTok certainly warrant attention. As the tech world continues to evolve, we can expect to see more companies from China and beyond emulating successful business models and creating new offerings that resonate with users around the world.

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