What is TikTok? The down-low for marketers

What is TikTok?

Judging by their rampant advertising on social networks, and outdoors, you’ve probably heard of TikTok. However, going by the conversations I've had with other marketers, you’ve probably deemed it yet another ‘fad app’. Perhaps you asked someone younger in your life to explain it, and you still didn’t quite get it. Fear not. In this post I’ll share why I believe it to be special, and how you, as a brand, can take advantage of the new social media phenomenon.

What exactly is TikTok?

TikTok is an app for making and sharing short, vertical videos. These videos are full-screen, not square, and can be navigated by an endless scrolling up and down. In one single place, you can experience Snapchat-like augmented reality filters, the ability to search for music and sounds for your videos, and the ability to create joint user-generated videos called ‘duets’. TikTok’s parent company is the Chinese company ByteDance, recently valued at $75bn. As the story goes, ByteDance merged with Musical.ly - the social network built around lip-syncing and dancing, which previously took the teen social media world by storm.

Why it matters.

One of the most powerful things about TikTok is that it’s a level playing field. Across all audience sizes, from hundreds to millions, creators have the same likelihood of going viral. This is because the mechanism of discovery on TikTok is through hashtags and therefore, with enough creativity and speed on the platform, anyone can jump on an existing hashtag, and create something that is engaging enough for fans to hit the follow button. Additionally, there is a reduced need to appear ‘polished’ on the platform. In a world where influencers have full teams of people to synthesize perfect, evocative pictures for platforms such as Instagram, it’s a breath of fresh air to creators whereby the goofier content wins.

TikTok has been responsible for launching the careers of many artists through the marriage of memes and music. Due to its subculture of fun, celebrating silliness, and not taking oneself too seriously, it has provided a bedrock for UGC content created by fans. Take the now viral song “Old Town Road”, for example. Before climbing the Billboard charts, it caught fire on TikTok when creators generated funny memes of the lyric “take my horse to the old town road”. This shot the track up in the Billboard charts, before a remix with country legend Billy Ray Cyrus certified it as an official chart-topper.

It’s difficult to overstate the weirdness of TikTok. Videos on the platform include everything from puppies leading a procession of ducklings, to cucumbers being sliced to a rhythm - it all makes for jaw-dropping content.

Even celebrities are beginning to take notice of the app. Jimmy Fallon recently prompted his fans to upload videos of them rolling like tumbleweed, and Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a workout video of him chasing a mini pony, while riding a bike. Due to this massive virality, and the addition of celebrities to the bandwagon, TikTok is now dominating the conversation for people wanting to target smaller audiences.

Is this a fad?

On first viewing, it might appear to be. It’s similar in nature to Vine (the former popular short video app), and has cultivated an army of stars in a similar fashion. It has messaging, and works in a similar way to other platforms.

Although, there have been growing pains. Rather like Facebook and Twitter, TikTok has come under fire for hosting offensive, violent and hateful content. In India, they were pulled from the App Store as they were deemed to be ‘encouraging pornography’. This hasn’t been due to a lack of policing on the platform, however. Not only have TikTok developed staunch rules against hate speech, nudity and harassment, but the community has a self-policing structure which is unparalleled on other platforms. Many a time, posts have quickly been taken down because enough people in a short space of time have flagged it as offensive.

My belief is that TikTok is no fad. And this is for two main reasons. Firstly, TikTok seems to be learning from those before it, adopting a creator first approach which its predecessors like Vine and Snapchat didn’t until it was too late. Creators and influencers on any social network form the bulk of content creation on the platform, resulting in there being evergreen content present. It’s no secret that Vine’s quick demise came about due to the negligence of the influencers who made it popular, and TikTok seems to be learning from that mistake. This approach further means there is a constant fresh influx of content on the hyper-addictive platform.

Secondly, there is something particularly refreshing about a platform which enables you to dip into several, distinct tribes in one sitting. Scroll down and you can get immersed in a Fortnite community, scroll further down and you can tap into a community remaking old Shrek videos. And in each of these communities, you can be an influencer - not through your follower count but rather through your creativity. The dopamine rush that comes from this is one which will have you keep coming back for more.

How brands should create TikTok content.

Self Identification

There is a particularly strong emphasis of self-expression on TikTok. As indicated earlier, it’s seen as a safe haven for young people away from the pressures of other social networks which demand a more polished look. If social media is seen as the new form of TV (and this is never truer than on TikTok), then your role as a brand is to help them create the best possible TV shows as opposed to being an advert. Everyone skips the adverts. If you’re a fashion brand, rather than doing the standard ad inviting people to sell, you can go ahead and create a hashtag challenge where people have to swap through your clothes in a short space of time.

Content Cliffhangers

One of the most powerful pieces of content on TikTok is the duet function where users can complete another person’s video. This has led to often hilarious videos where creators provide radical endings to videos. This opens up the ability to develop 'content cliffhangers' - funny videos which can be started by brands but finished by potential consumers, who are sold on the identity of your brand. In our experience, this is one of the most powerful forms of going viral on the platform.

Comedy Wins

Above all, the most successful content on TikTok is funny, and your potential to go viral is strongly correlated with your ability to create comedic content around your brand. The barriers to entry on humour are virtually non-existent: from finding lyrics that relate to your products, or capitalizing on trending moments that your audience would understand, e.g. Missguided’s promo codes based off Love Island jokes. TikTok allows you to easily tap into cultural nuances.

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. Marketers who commit to understanding it are the ones who are going to win in the future. We saw it with YouTube, Instagram and Facebook and we’re beginning to see it with Tiktok.

Timothy Armoo is the CEO of Fanbytes

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