Short-form video app Triller has reported higher numbers of monthly active users to the public than it reports to rights holders, a source with direct knowledge of the situation tells Billboard — and Triller doesn’t deny it.
The Los Angeles-based company, expected to go public in coming weeks as part of a special purpose acquisition company, known as a SPAC, claimed in a press release it had over 26.5 million monthly active users in December 2019, but a source with direct knowledge says the company’s user base was around half of that in January 2020. In July 2020, Triller claimed in a press release it had hit 50 million monthly active users, noting it had grown 600% year-over-year. Billboard has learned that Triller’s user base at that time was closer to 25 million monthly active users, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
In a statement to Billboard, Triller CEO Mike Lu says there is no legal definition of monthly active users, and Triller will no longer share monthly active users (MAU) or daily active users (DAU) as they don’t accurately represent the company’s value.
“There is no legal definition of MAU/DAU,” Lu says. “For example, if someone is trying to compare TikTok’s MAU/DAU to ours — which means they are saying we have the same definition of MAU/DAU — there is an inherent misunderstanding about Triller’s business and business model. It’s like trying to compare a fish and a bicycle.”
Triller, which was acquired by Proxima Media in October 2019, rose to prominence on the heels of its December 2019 press release announcing that it had as many users as TikTok — which had 26.5 million monthly active users in 2019 according to a report from Reuters — positioning itself as the chief competitor to the Chinese-owned short-form video service that now has over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S. as of August 2020, and 689 million monthly active users globally as of July 2020, according to numbers included in TikTok’s lawsuit against the U.S. government filed last year.
Triller’s claims have helped bolster its pitch to potential investors, but the different numbers it has reported to rights holders highlight the gulf between it and its larger rival. (Last September, a few weeks after TikTok’s user numbers became public, Triller told The Verge that it had 100 million monthly active users and more than 27 million daily users.) Lu says the company is focused on growing “off network” content, which devalues the use of metrics like monthly and daily active users.
“We are an open ecosystem, not a walled garden app like TikTok or other social networks,” Lu continues. “Triller’s value is in monetizing users, not MAU or DAU. In the past, the press has had a hard time understanding this. Therefore, last year we elected to stop sharing any MAU or DAU data and have no intention of doing so in the future. It has no relevance to our value or our monetization. Unique to Triller, our model encourages users to interact with our content ‘off network,’ which by very definition says we are pushing away MAU and DAU,” Lu says. “We value Triller on its ability to monetize our users and we believe we do it better than any of our competitors. We proudly stand by the fact that we are the only app to ever reach number 1 in the app store in over 50 countries simultaneously.”
As it prepares to become a public company, Triller has hired music industry heavyweights including former Warner Chappell CFO Paul Kahn in January to the same position, following the hire of Tuhin Roy — formerly Universal Music Group’s senior vp new digital business and innovation — as Triller’s president of business operations and Proxima Media operating principal last November.
If Triller becomes a public company, it will have to report its financials, including key performance metrics that traditionally include monthly active users for social networks, to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In 2018, the SEC charged online marketing company Endurance International Group Holdings Inc $8 million for inflating subscriber numbers, and two of the company’s former top officers paid over $1.5 million in “disgorgement, interest, and penalties” to settle similar charges without admitting guilt.
While TikTok has maintained its growth despite heavy scrutiny from the Trump Administration, Triller has been repeatedly accused of inflating its user numbers over the past year, denying all claims.
Six former employees told Business Insider that the 13 million monthly active users Triller claimed to have in October 2019 when Proxima Media acquired the company was inaccurate and fluctuated between 1 million and 2.5 million monthly active users, which Lu called “inaccurate information.”
Last August, Triller threatened to sue the intelligence firm Apptopia for telling TechCrunch that Triller had been downloaded 52 million times, a few weeks after Triller put out a press release claiming it had topped 250 million global downloads across Android and iOS. Apptopia backed away from its claims after the lawsuit threat, but its competing intelligence firm Sensor Tower told the publication that Triller had been downloaded 45.6 million times until that point, echoing Apptopia’s original report. “No app intelligence firm has been provided our data,” Lu told TechCrunch at the time. “Any numbers they provide have no relevance or accuracy to our numbers.”
The video service is currently in a fight with Universal Music Group, after the music label pulled its catalog off the platform, stating that Triller withheld payments and refuses to negotiate a new licensing agreement. In response, a Triller spokesperson claimed it did not withhold any payments, and that the company “does not need a deal with UMG to continue operating as it has been since the relevant artists are already shareholders or partners on Triller, and thus can authorize their usage directly.”