TikTok ban backup plan? ByteDance-owned Instagram rival Lemon8 hits the US App Store's Top 10

As U.S. lawmakers move forward with their plans for a TikTok ban or forced sale, the app's Chinese parent company ByteDance is driving another of its social platforms into the Top Charts of the U.S. App Store. ByteDance-owned app Lemon8, an Instagram rival that describes itself as a "lifestyle community," jumped into the U.S. App Store's Top Charts on Monday, becoming the No. 10 Overall app, across both apps and games. Today, it's ranked No. 9 on the App Store's Top Apps chart, excluding games.

This is a dramatic move for the little-known app and one that points to paid user acquisition efforts powering this surge. Prior to yesterday, the Lemon8 app had never before ranked in the Top 200 Overall Charts in the U.S., according to app store intelligence provided to TechCrunch by data.ai.

The firm confirms that such a fast move from being an unranked app to being No. 9 among the top free apps in the U.S. -- ahead of YouTube, WhatsApp, Gmail and Facebook -- implies a "significant" and "recent" user acquisition push on the app publisher's part. Unfortunately, because the app is so new to the App Store's Top Charts, third-party app analytics firms don't yet have precise data on Lemon8's U.S. installs, or how those installs have recently changed over the past few days.

But given the app was launched globally back in March 2020, what's most likely is that it was quietly released on the U.S. App Store, but only for testing purposes. Then, sometime over the past few days it was more "officially" launched, meaning it was accompanied by this clearly sizable spend on paid discovery or app install ads.

Image Credits: Lemon8

According to app intelligence provider Apptopia's data, Lemon8 debuted on both iOS and Android in March 2020 and has since gained 16 million global downloads, with Japan as its top market, accounting for 38% of its total installs. While the firm also doesn't have a figure for its U.S. installs, it was able to estimate the app currently has 4.25 million monthly active users.

Apptopia noted it didn't yet see Lemon8 having spent on paid search on either the App Store or Google Play, but cautioned it may have paid install campaigns that just haven't populated in its system yet or spend that's on networks it doesn't have insight into.

However, we believe ByteDance might simply be leveraging one of its own channels to drive app installs: TikTok.

Over on TikTok, we noticed a number of creators recently began posting about Lemon8, with many new videos appearing in just the past 24 hours. Concerningly, many of their reviews are extremely positive but are not marked as sponsored content.

For example, says one creator, Gabrielle Victor speaking to her 435.3K followers, "it's so f***ing cute. Aesthetically pleasing. It's like Pinterest and Instagram came together and had a baby."

Another creator, Passion Willems (73.9K followers) recommends, "if you haven't heard of it, I recommend you run over to the App Store and download it!"

Other creators, though, are more suspicious about the TikTok community's sudden interest in the new app. Ponders Alexandrea Brumfield, "is it a conspiracy that I've seen so many of these [Lemon8] videos back to back to back with the TikTok ban being in the news right now?"

Her concerns may not be unfounded.

Last month, Insider reported that ByteDance was quietly rolling out Lemon8 in the U.S. and U.K. and had been paying creators to post on the app to seed its initial U.S. content. The influencers had shared with the news outlet the steps they needed to take to receive payment for their posts. It wouldn't be surprising if some of these new, overly positive TikTok videos about Lemon8 were also a form of paid influencer marketing on ByteDance's part.

What makes us think that -- beyond the timing, of course -- has to do with the language the creators in the Insider story were using to describe Lemon8 -- for example, calling it a mix of Pinterest and Instagram. Now, that exact same description is being regurgitated by the TikTok creators who are publishing these overly positive videos.

In addition to the example quoted above, a scroll through videos matching a Lemon8 keyword search on TikTok has creators repeating the phrase "Pinterest meets Instagram" or "like Instagram and Pinterest had a baby," while describing the app as "sooo cute."

None of the creators we found posting these positive reviews disclosed if they had been paid to publish their videos.

After searching for the keyword "Lemon8" and then filtering for videos published in the last 24 hours, we encountered over 350 videos that matched the search term. A large number of them were positive reviews that push users to download the app. In fact, some creators even said they're getting the app in case TikTok gets banned.

Of course, Lemon8 may not be a viable backup plan for a TikTok ban, as lawmakers could consider a wide-ranging set of restrictions on Chinese tech, including on mobile applications far beyond TikTok alone. But ByteDance is not above leaning on creators to make its case -- the company sent influencers to Washington ahead of last week's congressional hearing to lobby on behalf of TikTok. But even beyond efforts with its direct involvement, a number of creators are frustrated with the national ban proposed by U.S. lawmakers -- not to mention the clear lack of technical understanding demonstrated by the House reps questioning TikTok's CEO.

Currently, the Lemon8 hashtag has 2.3 billion views on TikTok; however, this includes a lot of non-U.S., non-English language content from over a larger period of time. The New York Times recently reported the #TikTokBan hashtag had grown to 1.7 billion views on TikTok as of yesterday, with many objecting to the ban.