What is TikTok? Here’s what marketers need to know

I’m hailing it the most cringeworthy social platform yet. But then again, my mom never let me have MySpace. Plus, it’s the first platform where I am older than the primary target audience, so maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety?


The what

Remember Vine? RIP. And how about Musical.ly? Similar to both those ghosts of app pasts, TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos. In fact, TikTok used to be Musical.ly until it was purchased by the Chinese company, ByteDance and merged into what it is now.

In the app, video creators, normal people like you and me (but usually younger), post original content—lip syncs to prerecorded audio files, “duets” with other TikTok-ers and glom on to the latest “trends” and challenges. Yee Haw! Even for someone video-challenged, the app is extremely user friendly, offering users filters, timers, music and video effects in one place for easy creation.

Part of our job here at Hodges is to stay apprised of all the latest social platforms, after all, it might be a good fit for a client, so when I heard that TikTok was a thing [read: has been downloaded over a billion times, has surpassed both Twitter and Snapchat in users and in 2018, trumped Instagram in app downloads], I downloaded the app myself and began browsing.

I immediately noticed TikTok’s addicting nature. From the get-go, the app curates a “For You” page of endless content. I can scroll and scroll and scroll but will never reach the end. I hopped on the app to do research for this article, and an hour later I found myself watching a girl revealing her self-proclaimed large nose, backed by a track with the lyrics, “I’m not perfect. I’m flawed, and if you don’t like that, get lost.”

My all-time favorite TikTok video is the Adele gummy bear (below). There is just something about the beautiful choir music against the never-ending squad of colorful gummy bears that cracks me up. Truly TikTok at its best. This video went on to inspire the ‘Someone Like You’ challenge where users came up with their own spinoff versions of the original.

Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, TikTok is a free for all when it comes to who and what you engage with. Users don’t begin with a blank slate and need to build an audience of friends and interests to engage with the platform’s content. Instead, users open the app and immediately are served content to take in, and of course, the content they choose to engage with affects the content they’re served moving forward.

The who

Teens are the main demographic for the TikTok app, followed by individuals in their 20s, and then, wild card, individuals in their 40s. I will be scrolling past silly, often awkward, videos posted by teens, but then all of a sudden, I come across a 40-something’s beauty transformation, and all I want to know is what kid let their mom have a TikTok account?

Okay, but now what?

Good question. TikTok does seem like a smart platform to be on to reach the elusive 13-18-year-old age demographic, which has caused some trouble for the platform over concerns for children’s data privacy. And the platform is growing fast.  But what does it mean for brands? What does it mean for advertisers?

Right now, it is refreshing to be on a platform with little to no ads. Throughout my thorough exploration into TikTok, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for work, I was served one ad. Just one. I didn’t screenshot it in time before it disappeared from my screen, and I haven’t come across another ad since, but it was for some kind of Korean bubble tea, and it popped up on my screen after I came back to the app after being away from it for a bit.

Editor’s note: At the time this post was written, the author had come into contact with one ad during her TikTok ventures. At the time of publishing, TikTok’s ad loads had increased.

There is definitely an influencer opportunity where brands can approach popular TikTok users and pay to have their products to be used in a video. But I haven’t seen it yet, and when it happens, brands better get ready to relinquish some of the editorial control, after all, TikTok turns normal people into videographers, and the platform’s authenticity is part of its draw.

And while we haven’t seen much influencer action on the platform itself, TikTok has taken advantage of some cross promotional influencer marketing; I’ve seen influencers on Instagram promoting TikTok in their stories using the #tiktokpartner hashtag. An influencer I follow from “The Bachelorette” franchise (don’t judge) posted a swipe-up story promoting the app with a challenge and giveaway.

Lily McManus of “The Bachelor: Winter Games” posted this “swipe-up” instagram story to promote the Tik Tok app.

There is an opportunity for brands to own an account for content sharing. Right now, big name brands like Nike and Red Bull have verified accounts for sharing content – but the content showcases users doing things that fit into their brand’s persona. No hard sells. Again, it’s authentic. The Red Bull page is chocked full of snowboarders landing ~sick flips~, parkour clips, and of course, sky diving, because Red Bull gives you wings. #notspon

Don’t worry, this is not an ad on The Gong Blog.
It is, in fact, an actual Tik Tok ad.

All this is to say that advertising on TikTok doesn’t seem to be fully rolled out, but it’s coming. Big brands can afford to put time and money into the platform before advertising has been streamlined for the everyday advertiser. It seems like TikTok is shopping its ad capabilities to some brands; currently the app offers video ads that show up between user-generated videos, branded hashtag challenges, where brands encourage users to create their own videos using a promoted hashtag, and brand takeover ads, where a full-page ad appears when a user first opens the app (the full-screen ad was the one ad I encountered in my time spent on the platform).

As TikTok continues to grow in popularity, we can expect more transparency and accessibility concerning pay-to-play opportunities, and we’ll be sure to share. But for now, we’ll just keep cringing.

Aidan Newbold

In both her professional and personal life, Aidan is a storyteller and makes it known in her writing, strategic thinking and creativity. Aidan’s experience at Hodges ranges from engaging NASCAR fans through a social media campaign to writing regular content for Swedish Match’s Umgås Magazine, to pitching media for Richmond Region Tourism and planning press and influencer events.

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