If you work in marketing or lead a brand, you’re probably over 24. If you are over 24, there’s a good chance you’re not on TikTok.
TikTok is a social media network, not unlike the now-defunct Vine but with more features and better tech. Its core offering lies in short videos created by and fed to its users as one continuous, full-screen video feed. You may remember it as Musical.ly before it was bought by Chinese company Bytedance, merged with an app called Douyin and rebranded as TikTok (it’s still called Douyin in China).
Much like Musical.ly, it’s full of lipsyncing teens and dance routines, but a crucial difference is that TikTok is the most downloaded app on the App Store. It’s currently the fastest-growing social media network in the world, and it has a plan to keep it that way.
Like social media giants often are, TikTok has been surrounded by its fair share of controversies. As it’s a Chinese-owned company, there have been questions about government involvement, data safety and content moderation. The latter is its biggest controversy to date. In late 2019, The Guardian revealed Tik Tok’s content guidelines, which include heavy moderation of LGBT content in countries like Turkey. Users have reported content restrictions on topics that don’t align with China’s international interests, most notably Hong Kong protests. For what it’s worth, TikTok is determined to prove its independence from China — but it’s a developing story, so it’s always a good idea to catch up on all the latest coverage.
So, how do you market a brand on TikTok?
You’ll be delighted to know you have plenty of options. For ease of reading, I’ll break these into organic and paid. If you lead up UK marketing for a pretty big brand, you might want to skip straight to paid, but also - hi! I run an agency.
TikTok’s algorithm is quite welcoming - for now. Assuming your content is both interesting and relevant, you’ll have a better shot at sustained organic growth than you would on Instagram or Twitter. When scrolling through TikTok, you may notice videos from people you don’t follow with no engagement popping up in your discovery feed. I have no way of verifying it, but I’m pretty certain a photo with zero likes from a user I’m not familiar with has a slim chance of ever appearing on my discovery page on Instagram.
You might be thinking, 'ok, and?' You’re not a teenager with too much time; you’re trying to market a brand here. You don’t want to be on TikTok. That’s fair — but your brand may have a mascot. Or, you could create a mascot. Or, you could find an enthusiastic employee who’d make a great host.
Take Big Potato, a London-based board game studio. It amassed almost 13k followers organically in just a few months, mostly using the company mascot (a plush potato) and their employees to host TikToks and take part in challenges.
It is creating content that feels both relevant and native. Brands often misunderstand TikTok and end up creating TikToks that end up relentlessly mocked and torn apart by teenagers in the comments. Big Potato’s marketing team deserve credit for not falling into that trap.
We can learn a couple of things from Big Potato:
First of all, don’t jump on every trend. The perfect sound or hashtag challenge will come along sooner or later. Observe and wait until there’s an opportunity to create content which feels true to both your brand and TikTok as a platform.
You need to spend some time on TikTok in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. You want to create content that offers entertainment, not causes second-hand embarrassment. Enlist a Gen Z consultant, even if it’s someone’s teenage child. They’ll tell you if you’re accidentally participating in an insensitive trend or just being painfully uncool.
And, lastly - don’t overproduce your content. The beauty of TikTok lies in how DIY everything feels. High production values give brands away, and the aim here is to feel native to the platform. Leave your best-looking content for Instagram.
But, if you’re looking for more… there is more. So, so much more.
TikTok offers a wide variety of choices, from conventional in-feed ads (which look a lot like Instagram stories) to elaborate hashtag challenges and custom effects.
A hashtag challenge is probably the most innovative ad format on TikTok. It allows you to create a challenge that will then get promoted on the app’s explore page. The challenge itself could really be anything: a dance routine, a lip-sync, a short comedy sketch, creative use of a filter or a sound that TikTok offers. There are plenty of options and very little limits.
One of the most notable hashtag challenge examples comes from Chipotle with their #lidflip campaign. Users had to - you guessed it - flip the lid of a Chipotle box and showcase their skills. To take part, you obviously had to have a Chipotle box, and because TikTok users want to take part in challenges (that’s how they grow their following), they flocked to Chipotle. Talk about a healthy ROI!
What about something more traditional?
If the hashtag challenge is too wild for your brand, you have a couple of extra options.
In-feed ads appear as users scroll through the app, between two creator videos. It sounds intrusive, but as long as the ad feels native, this format can be very successful. Keeping your production value low helps your view-through rate, too, as users will watch for longer before realising they’re staring at an ad.
To take your in-feed ad to another level, you could go with a top view ad. It’s a full-screen video that users see immediately when opening the app.
Another step further is a brand takeover. Much like a top view ad, it’s the first thing you see when you open TikTok, but this will be a three-second gif or an image that allows you to link to something like a hashtag challenge.
The platform also offers high-end custom filters (similarly to Snapchat) and influencer tools to boost your campaigns.
If this all sounds great and you’re ready to spend all your hard-earned paid budget on TikTok, I have some semi-bad news for you: while TikTok’s advertising is still in its infancy, you will have to go through their internal team to do any media buying. The downside is that it may take a bit longer than it would with other platforms but on the upside, you’ll be establishing a relationship with TikTok before they grow so big as to not pay attention to brands with budgets not in the millions.
So, should you do it?
The answer is a resounding maybe. If your brand appeals to Gen Zs, probably, yes. If you have trust in your team or agency and think you can create compelling, funny, relevant content — definitely.
But, don’t expect TikTok to be the next Instagram or Snapchat. It’s its own, rather specific platform that is never going to work for everyone. Brand presence on TikTok isn’t required. If you feel like it’s not going to do you any good, it probably won’t. At least not organically.
MJ Widomska, founder and creative director, YRS TRULY