TikTok: What It Is and Why Marketers Need to Pay Attention

  • Amy Hunt 
TikTok icon

The social media platform TikTok has now been downloaded more times than Instagram and there are some really interesting differences with this platform that its predecessors were never able to emulate. I downloaded TikTok recently as it reminded me of an old platform I used to cherish so dearly – Vine. And I’ve got some thoughts…

My last post on the Boom blog was about marketing to Generation Z and this feels like a natural extension of that. Because if you want to reach Gen Z, well they’re all using TikTok. So how are brands using TikTok so far? What potential does it have for your business and what the hell is it?  

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a video-sharing social media platform. Owned by parent company ByteDance who are based in China, they first released the app as ‘Douyin’ in China in 2016. It had a meteoric rise and a worldwide version called TikTok was released in September 2017. 

Now, there was already an app that had been around for a while that was similar to TikTok called ‘Musical.ly’. Musical.ly is from a Shanghai startup, but they had an office in California and their app had quite a solid foothold in the US market already. Essentially a ‘lip-syncing app’, users would make short videos of them lip-syncing their favourite tunes combined with dance routines. 

With a plethora of video-editing tools at hand, Musical.ly videos definitely had their own distinctive look. For lots of kids, the video editing power you had there was definitely a draw. 

TikTok merged with Musical.ly in November 2017 in a $1 billion deal and since then, TikTok has been all-conquering. Now available in over 75 languages and in 150 different countries, TikTok is officially one of the largest social media platforms in the world. Its numbers generally carried by its massive popularity in countries like China and India, and they’ve been downloaded over a billion times worldwide.

2019 has definitely been a formative year for TikTok in the Western world, and it shows no sign of slowing down here in the UK, US and Europe.

Understanding TikTok’s Growth and Popularity

So just how did this platform attain such a meteoric rise? In 3 years, they now have more downloads than Instagram, who were founded in 2010 and were acquired by the behemoth that is Facebook in 2012. 

The Vine-Shaped Hole

Well as I mentioned, before TikTok there was Vine. Vine was the pre-eminent video-sharing app and it consisted of six-second looping videos. Vine opened its service in June 2012 and Twitter had bought it within 4 months. From there, Vine blew up. They were easy and fun to make, its functionality allowed you to create videos that you couldn’t do on your actual camera app which encouraged creativity, and the six-second limit meant there was often a special chaos to it all.

Four years later, Vine discontinued its service. A truly tragic day. Instagram, seeing how popular Vine was getting, integrated video functions into their platform, the killer blow being that you could upload videos longer than six seconds. Popular creators on Vine moved to Instagram and Vine was left in the lurch. 

But Instagram was still no Vine. There hasn’t been a platform that has stepped up in its absence that could really match its chaotic energy and reckless abandon. YouTube has thousands of hours of Vine compilations to watch but until TikTok came along, there has been a big Vine-shaped hole in social media.

Musical.ly was gaining traction at around the same time as Vine was in use and there was some crossover of content. I had personally always thought that Musical.ly was pretty much invented to let Vine lip-syncers make longer videos. Musical.ly had a very young audience and lip-syncing videos had no appeal to me, but for some reason, a large audience of younger Gen Z kids loved it, and still do.   

Image credit: SensorTower

Losing the Lip-Sync Label

So, fast forwarding to the Musical.ly/TikTok merger in 2018 and to be honest, I don’t think anyone paid that much attention to it. Not many people could really understand the appeal of these lip-syncing videos and even young people like myself saw Musical.ly as a platform for those even younger. 

But after that merger, they lost their lip-syncing label. Merging Muscial.ly with TikTok meant that it wasn’t just a lip-syncing platform anymore and what you have now is a video-sharing platform, like Vine, except you can post 1 minute videos and when I say you have an arsenal of video editing tools, you really do. Now lip-syncing videos are their own niche on TikTok, rather than the entire platform.

Vine on Steroids

TikTok are always releasing special effects and functionality that keep its users interested and engaged. These effects are also great for creating content, and more importantly, memes. You can slow your video down whilst recording so it’s easy to get involved in the latest dance trend, you can change the sound of your voice, you can multiply yourself 100 times, you can have a green screen, you have face tracking, strobe lighting, and so much more. And now that this wasn’t strictly a lip-syncing platform anymore, what we basically see is Vine 2.0. 

Where YouTube had been consistently pumping out vine compilations, all of a sudden there were ‘TikTok but it’s basically Vine’ videos, ‘TikToks with Vine energy’, ‘TikToks that remind me of Vine’. So not only do you have a platform that’s already been successful with younger kids as Musical.ly but you have the essential return of a platform missed by so many people that they hadn’t been able to replace. 

So these downloads are as driven by older Gen Z kids (like myself) and people even older than that who are trying to fill the hole Vine left in our lives, creating this perfect storm of interest and popularity. But TikTok really is a different beast, this platform is like nothing else I’ve ever seen and seems to have really gone right where others have gone so wrong. 

Image credit: SensorTower

How TikTok Works

So how is the app laid out and what are its key features? 

Segmentation

The app is split in to your ‘Home’ page, which is your feed, the ‘Discover’ page, where you can see trends, your ‘Inbox’ where you can send and receive messages and videos and your profile. Videos appear in the feed on your home page.

The ‘Discover’ page has a list of trending hashtags. There’s a small advertising space at the top of the page. I don’t think this is necessarily signposted as advertising but it has some of the top hashtags in a funky graphic and some of those are definitely linked to brands. 

You can then scroll through the top hashtags. There are some regular ones like #uktalent, #ukfashion, #okboomer, #petsoftiktok, #ukcomedy etc. Then there are topical ones like #movember has been trending throughout the month and whatever the latest dance trend, meme, craze is will be on here too.

Watermarks as Standard

TikToks have all their videos watermarked as standard which is a big draw for budding content creators who are fed up of their work getting aggregated by bigger sites and other content accounts that would just post their content without asking or crediting them to drive traffic and clicks to their own accounts. 

TikTok Audio

It’s a music and sound oriented platform. Any TikTok that is recorded, you can use the audio of. This works as an almost secondary hashtag, as not only can you explore the app via hashtags and trends, you can click on the audio of a video and see all the people who have made videos using that audio. 

If it’s a very popular trend, TikTok mark the first video as original content, (on the app, this viral TikTok which is being used for its audio comes up with ‘Original’ if you click on it) another way to guarantee credit for your viral fame. This means that the audio is also essentially watermarked on the platform.

If it is a song that is being played, the song title, artist and a small icon with the artwork displays in the bottom left hand corner. If it is an audio you have recorded yourself, that is also displayed as ‘original sound – @username’, or you can give your audio a name.

This is massive for music artists and the music industry who have a new viral marketing avenue. If their song is used in a ‘viral challenge’ for example, the song title and artist is going to be projected onto the screens of literally hundreds of millions of kids’ screens who already have streaming apps and so on. TikTok could be about to change the world of pop music as we know it.

Duets

Instead of ‘sharing’, ‘retweeting’ or ‘reblogging’, you can do what is called a Duet. This is where a TikTok is played alongside another. These are often used for reaction videos, but are another way to be creative on the app.

I personally think that they’re a sneaky way of hijacking someone else’s content for your own exposure, as often you’ll see a reaction video of someone watching what is clearly a viral video. Similar to how quote tweets on Twitter seem to massively outperform the original tweet even if someone is sharing it with the caption ‘this’.

Potluck Culture

There’s a wild democratisation of its users as literally anyone on the app can go viral. Whilst it’s true that anyone on any social media app has the potential to go viral, it seems to happen a hell of a lot more on TikTok.

Its main feed is segmented into ‘Following’ and ‘For You’ sections. As far as I can tell, the ‘For You’ page is just a shared feed that is 75% viral videos that are being engaged with in your part of the world, 20% slightly less viral videos that are picking up some steam and 5% completely random videos from anyone using the ‘For Your Page’ tag. In the UK, it is by and large videos from the US and the UK that you’ll see on the ‘For You’ page. The ‘Following’ segment is a feed of TikToks from people you follow, naturally.

Where on Twitter and Instagram, you have to diligently build a following, on TikTok the very first video you post has the potential to garner millions of views simply by tagging it with ‘#fyp’. It’s this almost potluck feel to going viral on TikTok that feeds into the culture of the app.

It has become a joke in itself as people upload videos of themselves doing completely senseless stuff and then telling you that they are doing it just to see if it goes viral. I watched someone pour ketchup on their sock and then put their foot in the toilet the other day, and this had over 300K likes! There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to going viral on TikTok.

And that’s probably TikTok’s biggest draw, or at least it is to me, and that is it’s absolutely unabashed ridiculousness. No one’s taking themselves too seriously, and everyone is having a crazy amount of fun. The majority of the videos you see are completely ridiculous and in a world that loves to ridicule Gen Z, TikTok really has given me concrete evidence that the kids are alright. It’s also a kind of safe space where these kids can post their wacky, wild videos without boomers wading in to tell them this is why they shouldn’t be allowed the vote.

How Is TikTok Different to Other Platforms?

What sets TikTok apart from its rivals? I am going to broach the topic from my own personal experiences with these apps, and what I think TikTok has that others don’t, but I don’t speak for everyone.

Facebook has become a major disappointment, with a large population of older users, it’s not a platform for the kids anymore. You likely have family members as friends on there which can be restricting.  It’s where your old mate from school goes to talk about their new radical politics or a place for a distant relative to overshare about their lives. Plus all the privacy issues, global currency sketchiness and just general evil tech monolith vibes they give off, it just doesn’t bring me the same enjoyment.

The general discourse on Twitter is in the absolute gutter, even though I think there is plenty to still be enjoyed on the platform, you just can’t escape the toxic headlines and conversations going on. Instagram has a culture that is too polished to me, and isn’t real. This is where people really curate their outward appearances, with group chat discussions on what pun to caption your post with. It feels very fake, very forced and is really just a place for people to ‘flex’.

And Snapchat, well I’m told that people do still use Snapchat, and not just to send naked pictures of themselves. Snapchat Stories was a mistake. What was sound in theory and started off as a great way to quickly share a video with your friends turned into Amateur Vlogger Hour. I found Snapchat became incredibly tedious, as people used it to just basically record and share everything they do and when you’re tapping your way through someone’s 18-minute story of their night out you just have a real moment of realisation that you just need to delete this app and save yourself the pain. 

Now, I am speaking from a personal perspective and Instagram continues to be an incredibly popular platform among people my age; I often get a bit of a funny look when I say I deleted my Instagram and Snapchat accounts.

But for me, TikTok is yet to fall into any of these traps.

Why TikTok Is Better Than the Rest

It has a distinctly apolitical feel, and it is very refreshing to be able to kill time on an app where the fact the world around you is falling apart isn’t rammed down your throat every other post. This might be its biggest positive, it is true escapism and it’s a laugh a minute. And when people do make a rare political reference on TikTok, it’s normally done in a light-hearted, humorous way.

It has the same wild, chaotic energy as Vine where you really don’t know what video is going to come next. It doesn’t feel as invasive. You have a profile, but people can’t see your likes. It feels more outwardly private (we’ll discuss data later) and there’s a greater sense of being able to watch and engage with whatever you want without people seeing. You don’t have to worry too much about creating a profile if you don’t want to, you can just strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. 

One of the things that has been discussed about TikTok, that I personally see as a blessing and a curse, is censorship. TikTok have done a rare thing as a social media platform, and that is take responsibility towards protecting their audience on the platform. They are well aware that the majority of their users are young kids, and as a result they do actually take some measures to look after them.

Lots of the videos will have people saying things like ‘TikTok keeps taking my video down’ and from what I can gather, if the content is too explicit, features things like weapons, is very sweary (with written text, not speech or music) or too overtly sexual (there is sadly an excruciating amount of 14 year olds being h*rny on there), it instantly gets taken down. Sometimes they can be heavy handed but it does mean that I haven’t come across some of the absolute scenes you can come across on other apps. 

They will even mark some videos with health warnings like ‘this was done by a trained professional’ type messages. It’s encouraging to me that TikTok as a platform is showing that they are concerned about the content that’s being posted on their app, and are actively doing something to protect its users. 

The same can’t be said for Facebook and Instagram for example, who often crop up in discussions of mental health, negative self image and cyber-bullying. Twitter only recently have taken a positive step in the right direction with the decision to remove political adverts but other than that, the harassment, abuse and violent threats on there remain a serious issue.

Make TikTok Work for You

Hopefully, I’ve been able to contextualise the rise of TikTok, as its surge in popularity is truly something to behold. And it’s hard to understand TikTok without understanding the video-sharing apps came before it. 

I’ll be going over how TikTok is being used by brands in my next blog post, and how you can harness the reach and relevance of TikTok to get a foothold in the burgeoning Gen Z market. Keep your eyes peeled!

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