TikTok: What you need to know

Twelve months ago, if you were to hear the phrase “Tik Tok”, you’d either think someone was counting down until you had to do something – or if you’re a music fan, you may have thought about the hit single by the singer Ke$ha. Today, TikTok often triggers an entirely different response among millennials – a new social media platform that is taking the world by storm. And it was created only three years ago.

TikTok became the world’s most downloaded app in 2018 after surging in popularity in Asia, capturing more than one billion downloads. Now it has become one of the first Asian digital properties to break into the Western market and it is starting to gather traction across Australia – all of this without a sustained mass fanfare compared with other platforms. Much of this was driven by its music-based heritage, which fuelled memes, lip-syncing and comedy routines that captured attention.

The premise of the site is simple: create short-form video content that lasts up to 60 seconds. Many videos last between 15 and 30 seconds.

It is this simplicity that has seen the platform generate a huge groundswell among a young audience: No gimmicks, and a central theme around fun and popular culture. A platform for people to entertain and be entertained. While some platforms focus on “things”, TikTok is very much about the people. So much so that there are now many in the TikTok community – or TikTokers as the cool kids would refer to them – who are giving up their day jobs to make a living solely through the platform.

This is where brand marketing comes in. As any platform grows in popularity, the interest in brands unsurprisingly rises fairly dramatically. With the platform having a large teenage audience base – a notoriously difficult audience to break through – the appeal to marketers to reach them is huge. The key consideration, however, is to ensure they are reached in a way that doesn’t detract from what got the teens on the platform in the first place and, if anything, complements their experience.

The attraction to TikTok and its distinction from the rest of the crowd stems from its penchant for “real people” and “real content”. There is no polish or filters on this platform. It’s raw, real-time and led by trends rather than perceptions.

A number of brands have begun dabbling in the world of TikTok and are beginning to see results. Superdry is one that has openly revealed it is working with TikTok to target Asian-Australian consumers and build relevance on a platform where they are highly engaged. Its primary use to date has been around store openings, leveraging so-called TikTok celebrities who would share content on the platform to encourage others to visit while also creating their own channel – one of the first brands to do so – to showcase more content in and around their stores.

At this point, TikTok does not have a specific commercial platform for advertisers, unlike other channels. However, that is expected to launch in the near future. Instead, many brands are signed up as individuals vs official advertisers which can be advantageous at this early stage in terms of “blending into the community”. Chipotle is one such brand to succeed with this in the US with a “lid-flip” challenge led by a TikTok “influencer” who simply asked his fans to flip a container and land it perfectly. For a relatively low cost and easy call-to-action, this generated over 100,000 entries and more than 200 million views.

Another key action to highlight is the way consumers interact. User-generated content has long been an activity and behaviour that marketers have struggled with, attempting to find the careful balance between authenticity and feeling forced. TikTok is seeking to break through that barrier, with encouraging early signs around the prevalence of “video responses” on the platform – a more active response than a “like” or text comment as seen elsewhere.

While its early success and rapid proliferation certainly represents an exciting opportunity for marketers, it is still very early days and brands should consider approaching it as an experimental channel as it continues to find its feet and grow its community.

For those brands and businesses targeting teens, where cultural trends among this audience move faster than Usain Bolt at full speed, it’s worth considering entering into the TikTok world sooner rather than later to earn you valued “street cred” and the opportunity to be a trailblazer. But it’s important to continue to retain presence on other digital channels so your TikTok presence remains complementary to expand your reach further.

For those looking to dabble, attention should be paid to consumer behaviour. It is worth taking the time to become a real TikToker and embrace how the community interacts to find inspiration for content generation from a brand perspective. The key is to ensure your brand is talking to the audience based on real insights rather than at them and presenting information in a passive, non-engaging way.

A question to pose to your internal team: how and what would you talk about to represent your business in 15 seconds? Based on your initial exploration and if you are brave enough, it may even be worth taking this experiment into a store and have staff ask customers for feedback. Getting your audience involved early will help to optimise your content in the longer term and ensure you remain on-trend and not be seen as a brand trying too hard.

Doing you homework properly in the short term could set you up nicely in the long term.

Adam Freedman is head of consumer at Red Havas and has consulted numerous brands and retailers across Australia and the UK on their marketing and communications strategies.

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