If you have not yet heard of musical.ly you probably don't have teens or tweens living in your home. The network - which launched in late 2014, but "broke out" last summer - boasts about 70-million users - including half of all American teenagers - and has millions of new users joining per month.

musical.ly began as an app that allowed users to make 15-second instant music videos (singing their own songs, doing covers, lip-syncing to popular music supplied by the app, etc.), but has expanded into much more. There are people sharing short comedy skits, bands and performers launching new songs on the platform, and professional entertainers (including A-List musicians) using the system to increase the popularity of their music. I myself have joined the network, and have been running a series of #FunFacts - quick, interesting facts explained by video (I encourage you to follow me there - I'm @JosephSteinberg). The engagement that I have seen both on my own account, and by watching the performance of others' accounts, seems much better than is typical on most other social platforms.  

Such a phenomenon is actually not surprising; Alex Zhu, one of the founders of musical.ly who is now serving as one of the firm's two Co-CEOs, told me that while many social platform teams focus on growing the number of users or downloads of their app, musical.ly has been focused primarily on increasing the engagement of existing users. While, like most modern social platforms musical.ly offers capabilities for followers (uni-directional following), friends (bi-directional following), likes, and comments, musical.ly has added multiple new forms of engagement not found on other social platforms, including "Best Follower Forever" relationships which allow popular users to give special status and privileges to loyal fans (i.e., followers), as well as Duets - which allows people to virtually create content with other users even if they are not online at the same time.

Considering that social media is all about people engaging with one another, it should come as no surprise that a platform focused on building engagement is doing well; today, musical.ly has about 10 million daily users who share 11 million videos per day - and that number is growing. Focusing on engagement also provides another benefit - many apps become popular downloads and then rapidly decline when their audiences shift to other platforms (remember Meerkat for livestreaming?); high levels of engagement can help keep apps and platforms popular over the long term.

Ironically, musical.ly's success also serves as a lesson to entrepreneurs about the importance of knowing when to pivot. The founders originally intended to create an educational social network that would allow people to share knowledge using short-form videos. According to Zhu, it was literally on the day that the original app launched that he and his colleagues realized that the app would fail in its then current form as it took much time and effort for people to create content; after observing that nearly all teenagers on a train were listening to music and/or sharing photos and videos amongst themselves, the team decided to restructure their offering, and focus on a relevant form of entertainment, and, as such, the idea for the modern musical.ly was born.

According to musical.ly's US President, Alex Hofmann, the initial musical.ly app attracted significant attention, but the explosion in users and engagement began when the platform added various social capabilities - a leaderboard showing whose content was most popular at any particular point, and the ability to like and comment on videos. By July of 2015 musical.ly was a top app in the Apple AppStore across several categories, and the app remains in a top-tier position today.

For popular musers (as musical.ly users are known), musical.ly has created life-changing opportunities. At the Shorty Awards I met four top musers -  Ariel Martin, Ariana Trejos, Loren Beech,  and Jacob Sartorious -- three of whom I interviewed afterwards. Their spectacular, blazingly fast rise to social media stardom using the platform (they each have many millions of highly-engaged followers) provides lessons for everyone in business; I will be running a separate article about them and the lessons that I learned from them about how to succeed with social media. Watch my column or Twitter feed for the upcoming piece.

Brands seeking to target today's tween and teen markets obviously need to check out musical.ly. But, other businesses should take note as well; not only is musical.ly increasing its reach into other demographics, but, in just a few years, the people in today's teen demographic will be entering the workforce and spending their own money. Time passes quickly - it may seem impossible, but many of the college kids who used Facebook when it first launched are now in their 30s.

If it plays its cards correctly, musical.ly could become a formidable competitor for Vine (Twitter's short-form video service), and expand well beyond the tween and teen markets. Remember, most successful social platforms begin with younger user bases, and, over time, spread to much larger demographics; when it first launched just over a decade ago, Facebook was available only to college students, and, in their first years of operation, both Instagram and SnapChat were used almost entirely by teens and twenty-somethings.

Social platforms themselves also evolve - today's Facebook is obviously a lot more than just the directory of faces for which it was named, Instagram supports video, and Snapchat disseminates news. musical.ly is already expanding well beyond music, and I expect that trend to continue. Ironically, it may end up as a great venue for people to share the type of short-form educational videos that the founders originally hoped the platform would be used to disseminate.

As evidence of musical.ly's evolution, consider the responses that I received when I asked musers to create short videos explaining why they love musical.ly:


The accompanying video is a compilation of eleven responses that were among those that earned the most likes on the musical.ly platform as of the time that I wrote this article: As you can see, the people in them span multiple age groups, and range from professional entertainers at   Collab (a digital content studio which represents various popular musers for both rights management and facilitating brand deals) to amateur teens relatively new to the platform, and the content which the muser community best liked encompasses both serious and comedic material, some music-related and some not.

As I mentioned in my piece about the Shorty Awards, I expect most social video platforms to ultimately support both live streaming and recorded content; as such, I suspect that, over time, musical.ly may end up competing with today's livestreaming platforms as well. Time will certainly tell.

For now, my advice is simple - check out musical.ly.

Jun 2, 2016