TikTok India: wellness is trending and influencers are diversifying

Fitness and health videos are growing on TikTok, not least because of the pandemic. And with advertisers looking to the platform for brand promotions, influencers are learning to diversify

Kavita Makhija (@imkavy) stands atop a wall, dressed in grey leggings and a black top. An EDM track crescendos, she bends her knees, swings her arms, and readies to jump. At the last second, she stops and breaks into a dance. This video, at the time of writing, has over 11 million views, 3.5 lakh likes and 1,122 comments. It is inexplicable. It is viral. It is TikTok.

Delhi-based Makhija says she expected “a lot of views” for the video. “I created an anticipation in the viewers, by trying to jump. But at the last minute, I deceived them with a dance,” she says, as if explaining a magic trick.

Wellness stars

  • Sahil Khan, @sahilkhan 2.9M followers, 28.7 M likes: The Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner shares snippets from his life and travels. He also uses the short video format to run through basic training moves and showcase his daily [somewhat intimidating] workouts. We might not attain his chiselled body, but as his catchphrase goes, #onelifebaby.
  • Indian Psychiatric Society, @indianpsychiatricsoc — 19.6K followers, 116.3K likes: The pandemic pushed these experts from the national organisation to share their tips on mental well-being. They talk about how to manage anger and negative thoughts, address issues like domestic violence, alcohol and stigma, as well as social responsibility.
  • Sakshi Khattar, @fitness365days — 1.8M followers, 15.6M likes: With a huge following on YouTube and Instagram, this influencer has adapted her quick tips for weight loss and general fitness in a shorter format. During lockdown, she shared a 21-day diet plan, which she also followed. Expect myths — will eating mango make you pile on the kilos? — to be busted as well.
  • Mahendra Dogney, @mdmotivation1648.4M followers, 209.6M likes: The staggering numbers for this motivational speaker, who shares his views in Hindi, show how much need there is for open conversations on mental health. He talks about the importance of building good relationships, keeping your mind occupied in a healthy way, and why people’s opinions should not matter.
  • Pooja Sharma, @iampoojas — 96.1K followers, 575.9K likes: If you are looking for nutrition-related information from the Indian context, Sharma breaks down facts about macronutrients, low GI foods and more in her channel. She intersperses it with lifestyle content, exercises and recipes.
  • Urmi Pandya, @yogaurmi.india — 2.6M followers, 29M likes: The yogis are not to be left out: for those who do not want to watch a long intro before getting to the actual pose, this is perfect. Pandya shares quick tutorials on breathing techniques like Anulom Vilom as well as strengthening exercises for different poses.

Even if 11 million views for a video of a girl dancing on a wall escapes logic, her 8.2 million followers for her TikTok page, Fitness Freak, can be explained. Indian users spend 38 minutes on the app every day, according to a businessofapps.com report, and health and fitness are among the most followed topics on the Chinese video-sharing platform (owned by Beijing-based ByteDance).

In fact, India’s 200 million-strong user community form a big chunk of the views raked up by #HomeFitness (two billion) and #MentalHealthMatters (289.6 million) videos. Also, unsurprisingly, as of November 2019, India had the most TikTok downloads (over 190 million) outside China, according to app analytics firm Priori Data.

15-seconds of fame

The short-video format app’s popularity is being pushed not only by its no-frills approach, but also its lack of an elitist tag — while Instagram has a more urban clientele, the Hinglish and regional language-friendly TikTok is popular across tier 1, 2 and 3 cities. “They came to India [in 2017] when millions, especially in rural areas, were buying low-cost smartphones. Most people found it easy to use, with its simple editing and uploading tools,” says David Appasamy, head of brand and strategy at digital marketing agency Social Beat.

Gujan Taneja’s page, Gunjan Shouts, has over 3.6 million followers. She, like Makhija, predominantly posts fitness videos accompanied by peppy music and, occasionally, silly humour. Being upbeat and silly sells here, because, as a video can’t exceed a minute, it has to hook the viewer within the first few seconds. “I want as many people as possible to watch. So I try to come up with different challenges that would make them participate and share my videos with others,” says the 30-year-old from Gurugram. Trend and challenge hashtags related to fitness and health — #PlankChallenge, #HomeFitness and #SafeHands were especially popular during lockdown — fetching views in the millions and billions.

Everyone from meditation experts, dieticians and gym nuts to doctors and mental health workers are turning content creators now. For instance, Sangeeta Jain (@theofficialgeet), a social worker from Delhi dealing with mental health, has garnered over four million followers within a year of joining, with her motivational videos. In fact, the views for videos with #StayPositive (4.7 billion) and #WholesomeMemes (175.3 million) reveal the robust following for mental health-related topics. Liu Chuen Chen, a Delhi-based journalist who uses TikTok, says the app helps her de-stress. “Other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a lot of newsy content. There are arguments and debates. Consuming too much of that takes a toll on me. TikTok, meanwhile, is more entertainment and fun,” she says.

Know your game

  • #KeepingActive: Joined by the likes of singer Lizzo, this challenge is a go-to for brands looking to make inroads on TikTok.
  • Pushup #ToosieSlideChallenge: Drake’s latest hit song took some #fitspo inspiration and was modified into a push-up, where you lift your “right foot up” and then let your “left foot slide”. You can also do the same with Ciara’s ‘Level Up’.
  • #BoxChallenge: This one is for active couples. One partner lies flat, while the other is in the plank position. When the person on the bottom sits up, it creates an epic box shape with their bodies!
  • #FitTok is a popular hashtag to find a wide variety of workouts and influencers to follow.

Bad press and court orders

The pandemic has increased interest in the platform and its wellness content. Last month, TikTok pledged $250 million towards Covid-19 support, of which $50 million was channelled towards its Creative Learning Fund (to support creators producing content that educates and engages). The lockdown has also meant more time to create content. Urmi Pandya (@yogaurmi) has never been more active as she has been in the last two months. “I gained more followers and even started an online yoga course [some of her students live abroad],” says the 26-year-old yoga teacher from Ahmedabad.

But with the good comes the bad. Along with useful content, misinformation, especially about Covid-19, has increased. According to a Reuters report, India’s IT ministry wrote to TikTok and Facebook in April, asking them to remove users who are misguiding others. Dr Animesh Gupta (@surgeryonline) joined TikTok last year to counter such misinformation. “People share [things like] how one can treat gall bladder with medicine and not opt for surgery,” exclaims the 30-year-old general surgeon from Ballia, UP. “There are a lot of false claims and treatment methods about Covid-19 too. So since January, I’ve been making videos about the latter; they’re getting more views than my other videos.”

Misinformation, however, is just one of the complaints that’s come up against TikTok. Last year, they came under fire for “promoting suicides” (the Madras High Court even temporarily banned new downloads of the app). Recent border tensions between India and China instigated a campaign to boycott it, among other Chinese products — a few celebrities, including Milind Soman and Arshad Warsi, quit the app. And last month, #BanTikTok trended on Twitter India following a controversial video on acid attacks. Online mudslinging between YouTubers and TikTokers also contributed to the hashtag, and a 1.3-star organised downrating of the app on Google Play Store.

But cyber crime advocate, NS Nappinai, reckons a blanket ban would be a knee-jerk reaction. “In case of violations by any platform or service, we need effective enforcement of existing laws,” she says, “It’s this lack of enforcement that needs to be addressed.”

Tapping brands

Despite the recent criticisms, India is among TikTok’s biggest markets. Jain, who visits slums in Delhi for her social work, says, “The youngsters have smartphones and they use TikTok more than other platforms because they find a lot of regional content there, and the videos are short, so it doesn’t consume a lot of data. They are the kind of audience I want to reach.”

The toxic side of TikTok

  • #Weightloss on TikTok has over 5.6 billion views worldwide. But, just like the detox tea scams on Instagram, this platform has its fair share of “tips and tricks” — from an egg diet to the popular one that uses various iterations of cinnamon and lemon in water. Most recently in the US, a company called Rae Wellness had to pull their “Metabolism Drops” because it had become a challenge/fad among teens on the site. With a demographic that is young and impressionable, the platform has to look at ways to make it a safer environment.

TikTok’s users — primarily between 18 and 35 years in India — are also what sets it apart from other social media platforms, says Gautam Mehra, CEO of Programmatic at digital marketing firm Dentsu Aegis Network. “Unlike Twitter, which is opinionated and text-heavy, and Instagram, which is about having an aspirational lifestyle, TikTok is more raw and is about your real self,” he says, adding that brands are looking to leverage this, especially as they tap a new audience outside tier 1 cities. Many targeted campaigns — from brand takeovers to in-feed native videos and hashtag challenges — have done really well. Take for example, skincare brand Clean & Clear’s #UnBottleApnaSwag challenge last year which got over 15 billion views, or Pepsi’s #SwagStepChallenge that had 50 billion-plus views.

Sangeeta Jain

Sangeeta Jain
 

The problem, however, is data transparency. TikTok doesn’t allow the tracking of any data related to performance — be it viewership, watch time or engagement. “Since there is a lack of such metrics, we are still learning the platform and are concentrating on finding the right influencers,” says Mehra, whose TikTok budget is expected to grow by 70% quarter on quarter.

With twice the amount of profiles on TikTok (a million-plus followers compared to Instagram) this is only going to grow. “As people continue to use it, brands will have more opportunity for marketing,” shares Appasamy, adding that the big names handled by his firm are willing to pay between ₹5,000 and ₹2 lakh for influencers. So a sports apparel brand wanting to reach fitness enthusiasts in tier-2 and tier-3 cities can now reach them through… a girl who dances on walls.

With inputs from Susanna Myrtle Lazarus

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