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October 15, 2019 - Scale

Is TikTok the next big thing?

TikTok, a social video platform from China (first known as musical.ly), entered the social media landscape with a bang. While many expected it to be just another hype for kids only, the number of its users grew beyond expectation. In the latest social media reports, TikTok has made it to the top in many aspects. What makes it so successful? How is it different from other, well-established social platforms? And how can your brand profit from joining it? Let’s find out.

A close look at the platform

On TikTok, you can post 6 to 15 second videos with music or audio in the background. The rest is left to your creativity, trends and machine learning. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but it seems like they did figure out something others didn’t. Let’s break the 4 main drivers down behind TikTok: video and sound, teenagers, AI and pop culture.

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1. TikTok content is all about video and sound

This doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking, right? There’s YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram Stories and hey, we even used to have Vine — and look how that one ended. For a while now, we’ve been repeating that video performs best on social. On TikTok, it’s the only way of expressing yourself, it’s vertical, it’s 100% mobile-proof. The latter is something that Facebook, for example, is working hard to become, being originally a desktop application. TikTok’s participation threshold is also very low: unlike on YouTube, content doesn’t need to be of ‘professional’ or high quality. Creativity and sense of humor are more important, as they trigger participation and contribution. Engagement wins over passive consumption of content.

And then, there’s music. In the last few years, we’ve been figuring out how to make sure that our Facebook and Instagram posts are less sound-dependent. Because eventually, it’s the (still) image that matters most on those platforms. On TikTok, sound is the main driver of stories. And it’s not even about what people are saying; most of the videos posted contain snippets of songs that serve as a basis for each idea. From lip-synching, choreography routines, situational and tactical jokes, absurd humour, to tiny slices of everyday life. TikTok feels like an algorithm-driven hybrid of Instagram stories, Vine and… Spotify. Thanks to this formula, TikTok’s content can easily spread globally, because it’s not limited by linguistic borders. That’s probably one of the reasons why it has grown so fast. 

Music is not only an international language of entertainment; it’s also a catalyst for emotions and experiences. This is particularly relevant at the coming-of-age period of your life. Because whether you’d like to admit it or not, music means a lot in your adolescence. Even years later, it can still strike a nostalgic chord. Early Arctic Monkeys, anyone?

2. TikTok’s early adopters are mostly teenagers 

Teenagers and young adults are usually the early adopters of digital trends, and it’s no different in this case. Teens are a big asset for TikTok, since this group has a strong tendency to both set and emulate trends. When you think about it, that’s exactly what keeps this app running. 

The need for belonging and acceptance is something characteristic of teenagers. They fulfil it, among others, by emulating trends and following chosen role models. This need for “sameness”, however, coincides with something completely at odds with it— the need to individualize. This ultimate paradox of youth is actually something that TikTok is channeling perfectly: one day you’re riding the wave of hype (your individual interpretation of it), tomorrow you come up with something for others to follow. 

That being said, the point is not that older users should be discouraged from joining the platform, they’re doing it already. Assuming that TikTok’s users number has already exceeded 1 billion globally, rather than early adopters, adults would classify as followers. Most probably they will have their own input that will further shape and diversify the platform.

3. TikTok uses machine learning to boost content

…and so does Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube… yet, your content can go viral on TikTok even when you post it for the first time, with zero followers. How’s that possible?

Algorithms behind the mainstream social networks are tailoring content proposals based on the recipient’s behavior. For example, Twitter explains: “Top Tweets are ones you are likely to care about most, and we choose them based on accounts you interact with most, Tweets you engage with, and much more.“ From the content creator’s perspective, their popularity is highly dependent on the existing community. On top of that, building a community is time consuming and efforts may not always pay off. 

On TikTok, going viral is more like a rule, not an exception. The popularity of your content is purely dependent on the content itself. Or at least, that’s the most popular guess on how the algorithm might work. The supposition is that the AI of TikTok is designed to assess quality of each piece of content by putting it to some kind of sample testing. It starts by showing a new video to a smaller batch of users and if it scores well, it reaches broader circles of audience. This means you don’t need any initial followers to be successful with your content: each piece you post gets another chance to go viral, ad infinitum. You can help it happen by following trends that are currently scoring high. Be fast though; as a life span of trends here is very short.

4. TikTok is a sign of the times

Today, pop culture and internet culture are so closely related, that they might even be considered as one. And TikTok is like a melting pot that smartly combines different mechanisms that make the internet culture what it is today: entertainment, mobility, virality, multiplication, music, binge watching… and this list is certainly not final.

TikTok is rooted in the principle of memes: fast-spreading humorous images or videos that are being copied, reproduced, and that become a circulating reference. On TikTok, memes are the main stream of content, with an environment designed to make them viral. Since this environment is fast moving, memes become perishable, unstable, temporary and quickly forgotten. TikTok is a self-sustaining meme machine that never stops working. It creates an endless loop of content streamlined by an algorithm that easily triggers binge watching — similarly to the autoplay feature on YouTube or the automatic play of next episodes on Netflix.

TikTok takes the good old pop-cultural principle of multiplication (think as far as music records or Andy Warhol) to its extreme. Here, copycats are rewarded for recreating the same action, but also for adding an individual touch to each multiplication. So, you’re watching yet another rendition of that exact same song, but somehow the individual touch of each of them makes you continue swiping. Could it be that TikTok has figured out what the internet is all about and merged it into one giant, condensed postmodern experience?

What it can mean for your brand

Social media have their life cycles. In the initial phases of a platform’s development, early adopters explore possibilities and work with natural reach. At this point there’s still plenty of room for experimenting. Once a platform goes mainstream and saturated with users and content, developing its own codes, it usually becomes monetized. As a brand, you choose if and at which point you join. 

Despite its impressive number of users, TikTok is not yet inhabited by brands. So from a marketing point of view, it’s still in the early adoption phase. It’s definitely an interesting opportunity to join in at this point and start experimenting! How?

  1. Don’t go all in, but start by exploring

    Invest small batches of innovation/experiment marketing budgets into your TikTok account. Learn as much as you can about the platform and understand its language.

  2. Develop your own concept for this channel
    There are very few ‘good practices’ for brand presence on TikTok, which means a lot of seeking with trial and error experimentation for those who dare to accept the challenge. One thing is highly probable though: that it’ll pay off to be an early adopter in the future. When others will only be getting started, your brand will have it all figured out by then. 

  3. Team up with digital creative natives

    Mastering the language of a new platform, especially one that’s mostly used by youth, is not an easy task. Talk to influencers and creative agencies that can help you shape your TikTok brand presence. Since the medium is particularly raw and natural (at this point, at least), it’s important to find the sweet spot between its raw, humorous aesthetic and your brand’s personality.

Go on TikTok. Try. Fail miserably. Try again. 

And maybe one day, you’ll get the hang of it. There are no golden rules, so we started our own experiments, too. See you on the ‘TikTok famous’ side? 

All the numbers come from https://www.konstructdigital.com/social-media/tiktok-stats-roundup-2019/

Eliza Kowal-Bourgonjon

Eliza Kowal-Bourgonjon

Creative Strategist

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