Despite the lack of a formal advertising product, more brands are experimenting with fledgling video app TikTok in the hopes of discovering what content works and the kind of business outcomes they can expect.
Liverpool FC, the week before its Champions League final appearance in Madrid, became the first Premier League team to test it. The club already boasts 66 million social media followers but hopes this new platform can help it crack China, the app's home market.
Markus Breglec, the club's senior vice president of marketing and media said it was looking for a new "creative and innovative way to strengthen" ties with fans globally. The app had "a lot of potential to reach a new and younger audience," he added.
In less than a week the account has accumulated more than 100,000 fans. The so-called 'TikToks' go behind-the-scenes at training, give a second look at top-goals, and stitch licensed, contemporary music onto the club's celebrations (a step up from the monotony of social video stock music).
Elsewhere, German Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich have been on the platform since April.
They now boast 211,600 fans thanks to a wave of content giving a behind the scenes glimpse on celebrations at the club. One 15-second clip featuring veteran winger Arjen Robben hit 243,700 likes while another popular video saw the team crowned champions to Queen's 'We Are The Champions'. What appears to work for Bayern Munich has been the willingness to let players take control of the account, choosing songs and filming on their own.
Away from football, the United Nations is testing the water through a 'virtual dance petition', which essentially encourage users to upload videos of themselves with the hashtag #DanceForChange. To kick off the activity, the organisation enlisted Afrobeat artists Sherrie Silver and Mr Eazi to fuel the first phase of user-generated content.
To date, there have been 22,492 fan-generated responses which have generated 73,599,211 views, indicating the potential the platform has to mobilise young people.
Brands using TikTok to create some 'viral' moment has been the most common approach. Katy Young, a consumer behavioural analyst at Canvas8, pointed to Calvin Klein’s ‘My Calvins’ work as the gold standard of brands on TikTok.
It reused video ads run for its jeans and underwear, as worn by influencers including Shawn Mendes, Kendall Jenner and A$AP Rocky, to kickstart a branded hashtag challenge asking users to upload similar content in response using the 'Duet' feature.
It was the fashion company’s most-viewed ever digital campaign, with metrics reported to be ten times greater than Calvin Klein’s 2015 Justin Bieber My Calvins drive.
“As the platform is still populated mostly by organic content, users are open to ads that fit with the app’s participatory nature,” explained Young.
“Part of the app’s popularity is that users feel it belongs to them. Brands that experiment on the platform will be most engaging if they embrace its participatory challenge-based nature, placing user-generated content front and centre.”
It’s an approach slush brand Starslush recently used to “raise awareness of its products and create desirability” among a Gen Z audience. A low budget drive with an influencer called ‘Sherice’ saw it issue two challenges - 'Slushface' and 'Slushjump' – these generated more than 25,000 views a piece and a stream of user-generated content (using slush).
Tom Gibson, a senior account manager at Tangerine, the creative comms agency behind the work, said that TikTok leant itself perfectly to leaning into "the gamification element" of its wider campaign urging fans to guess mystery slush flavours.
He said: "TikTok has capitalised on the market created by Snapchat for short-form video, and has driven great results through the use of influencers in terms of raising brand awareness and generating engagement with Gen Zs." These early efforts attracted more than 150 followers to the Instagram account.
These small gambles on TikTok come as speculation mounts on when TikTok will introduce ads.
But some agencies are in two minds about how successful it would be. The appeal for advertisers is reaching a younger audience dropping away from other social networks.
"The key is all about being as organic as possible. It is a creative platform, and true advertising value really comes from mobilising the users to actively participate in, and share, what is essentially your marketing message,” said Jim Stannard, digital strategy lead of entertainment at media agency the7stars.
Inserting an ad into the experience risks alienating core users. The app does not currently have a concrete ad model in place, however, it has been in discussions with US agency partners to create such a product. It has been testing ads since January, the first out the gate was an app-install ad for GrubHub in the US.
TikTok told The Drum: "Currently, we are focused on creating the best possible experience for our users but in the near future, we will be looking at the various options down the line.
"When brands approach TikTok, they see TikTok as a platform of choice to reach a broader audience. TikTok is designed in a way that encourages audience engagement, for example, with the hashtag challenges, brands can establish a direct channel to engage with their audiences."
James Duffy, head of paid media at Agenda21, said the introduction of ads to the platform risks "alienating core users, especially the younger audience who currently use the app religiously," he added. "The warning is there, Facebook has done this in the past, and they may follow suit."
Previously writing in The Drum, Timothy Armoo, chief executive of Fanbytes, dismissed notions it is a “fad app”. He outlined how brands can take advantage of its unique qualities, chiefly, issuing creative challenges for viewers and fans, content cliffhangers where fans can finish videos and the humour the format enables.
He predicted: “With the celebrity endorsements, the creator-first approach and the evergreen content machine, it’s obvious that TikTok has longevity, with the possibility of becoming the next big social platform.”