Why TikTok is still happy to hand over its marketing to 1 billion users

For The Drum’s Deep Dive into the world’s fastest-growing brands we delve into the marketing secrets of TikTok, the social media app that pulled in over 1 billion users in four short years.

Throughout the past 12 months, TikTok has cemented itself as one of the biggest players in the social media game, even becoming the most-visited site of 2021 and knocking Google off the coveted top spot in the process.

“When I look at what really drives the success of marketing at TikTok, I think there is a true, deep passion for creativity,” says TikTok’s head of marketing for EMEA James Rothwell.

It’s not news to anyone that the global pandemic played a huge role in TikTok’s upward trajectory. People wanted an outlet, a way to connect and to be entertained – three things that the app offers in abundance – and unlike rival platforms such as Instagram, the content doesn’t have to be polished.

“People couldn’t stand perfect content anymore, especially during the peak of the pandemic,” says Alessandro Bogliari, co-founder and chief executive officer of The Influencer Marketing Factory on the app’s phenomenal rise.

Its users, then, are TikTok’s greatest marketing asset. “Our job as marketers really is to give our community a megaphone and help them to tell our story on our behalf, and I think that that’s proven to be really successful for us,” Rothwell continued.

Somewhat naively, there are people who associate the app solely with the gen Z age group, but it actually boasts a high number of older users. According to Business of Apps 19% of TikTok’s global users are over the age of 39. From cosplay communities to frog fanatics, there are so many unique individuals on the platform. The key to TikTok’s rapid success lies in tapping into those subcultures.

Fanbytes is a social media and influencer marketing agency. Its chief executive officer Timothy Armoo highlights that one of its most successful campaigns came in the form of a gardening brand that was targeted at an older audience and really utilized a very specific sub-genre on the app. He attributes TikTok’s growth to the fact that “people see [it] almost like the people’s app.”

“We’ve learned to hand over our brand voice to the people who have defined it,” added Rothwell. “It’s not really our place to articulate what TikTok is and how it could be used because we have a billion people telling us every day.”

TikTok prides itself on the innovation of its user’s imaginations and, creatively, its own marketing has to live up to that. Culture moves quickly and Rothwell’s team has learned they need to stay agile, which he says they have tried to embrace. One of the biggest challenges for them as they continue to grow will be “protecting that kind of appetite for risk at speed.”

Marketing within TikTok itself is the organization’s “bread and butter,” but the brand has also found a sweet spot through its partnerships with the Euros, Six Nations and the Women’s Six Nations – a play that Rothwell is extremely proud of. The aim is to “move beyond more traditional media buying through partnerships to tell our brand story,” and adds that if they get that right they hope “consumers will be seeking out our brands [and] marketing our partnerships because they carry the content that people want and they are truly entertaining in isolation.”

Still in its infancy, TikTok’s next big focus is to grow its e-commerce, entertainment and culture offerings. As with some of its rivals, Bogliari believes one of the biggest hurdles for the app will be content moderation, “especially for livestreaming.”

In the future, Rothwell predicts that TikTok will keep “zigging when people expect us to zag.”

The success of TikTok ultimately has been down to its users creating engaging content on the app and for its marketing efforts leaning into those communities has been crucial. Rothwell concludes that “we’ve learned to embrace the culture of our platform, our community, and have fun with being creative.

“Which is actually why everyone gets into marketing, ironically, but [is] something that you can lose when brands reach a certain scale.”