Why we can't ignore TikTok

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If you’re tempted to write off the app as just a song and dance or a fleeting trend, think again.

Vanessa Low

Having had exponential growth, TikTok has disrupted the social media landscape (the company announced in September that it has surpassed 1 billion users), leading the way with short form, user-generated videos. 

@madelaineturner happens all the time ✂️ #shortfilm #fyp ♬ original sound - Madelaine

Where did TikTok come from? 

As with the emergence of any new platform, TikTok has faced healthy scepticism about its format and staying power. Considerably younger than its heavyweight contemporaries Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter (all of which have been occupying our screens for over a decade), TikTok has had huge growth in an exceptionally short time. Originally launched in 2017 by Chinese company ByteDance, its merge with the lipsyncing app Musical.ly in 2018 made it a hotbed of fast-moving, serotonin-spiking, short video trends. 

The app spoke to a growing demand for quick, digestible content. But there’s more to its success than brevity. We can contrast it to the company Quibi, a short-format streaming platform that was launched in April 2020 after receiving almost $2 billion in backing from Hollywood film studios and investment companies. Quibi promised star-studded, professionally produced, mini-series with familiar names such as Jennifer Lopez and Liam Hemsworth. However, just months after launching, Quibi was dead in the water

A hand holds a smartphone that displays a TikTok Homepage

In contrast, TikTok skyrocketed as the second most downloaded app in Australia in 2020 (only falling behind Zoom) and even opened a local Australian office staffed by the likes of former Google executive Lee Hunter as General Manager and Ollie Wards (formerly a host on Triple J) as Director of Music. So, how did this app beat out the competition and capture audiences in an already saturated social media landscape? 

“I’ve never seen a platform move as fast as TikTok… I come from a background where I was lucky enough to be involved with Google and YouTube…I thought that shit moved fast. I’m here to tell you that TikTok is on an incredible trajectory, very similar, only we’re getting there much, much faster.” – Lee Hunter, General Manager, TikTok Australia & New Zealand, source.

User-generated content is the beating heart of TikTok 

The breadth and volume of user-generated content on TikTok has resulted in a rich diversity of niche communities and highly engaged user-creators. TikTok’s simple swipe function allows people to scroll through videos quickly and endlessly to discover new content (similar to the addictive dating app Tinder). If videos receive high engagement – measured via playthroughs, comments, saves and duets – they get shared to more people. This is a refreshing contrast to, say, Instagram or Facebook, where content is increasingly more polished and exposure monetised or pay-to-play. 

While some content on TikTok is professionally produced, you are just as likely to watch a single-take video of someone talking to their phone from their couch or car. This glimpse into someone’s personal space, enabled by the ubiquity of smartphones with high-quality in-built cameras, makes TikTok videos and communities feel intimate, personal and authentic. In fact, videos that look like highly-produced ads often don’t perform well on TikTok; the company has even created a mantra – “Don’t Make Ads. Make TikToks” – to challenge brands to adapt with their users by being more creative and personal. 

Getting that behind-the-scenes look into someone’s individual experience drives many TikTok communities. For example, while the Tokyo 2020 Olympics captivated our TVs last year, many athletes took to TikTok to document their experiences including Australian diver Sam Fricker (who now has over 1.2 million followers). Sam shared his time in the Olympic Village, answered fan questions, and shared his quarantine experience

The intimacy and immediacy of sharing videos such as these have helped brands and individuals gain fans and followers at a much faster rate than other social media platforms. Australian beauty brand My Glow 2, for example, had a 1077% increase in sales largely attributed to their loyal TikTok following

@samfrickerr AUS Tower #olympics #olympicspirit #tokyo #aus #japan ♬ BEE GEES VS 50 cent - EZ

TikTok can reach niches almost instantly

Unlike other social media platforms, the TikTok app does not seem to care if you have zero or low followers. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people’s very first videos go viral. TikTok’s algorithm will push a video to its niche with surprising specificity. Most people browse TikTok’s recommendations (known as the ‘For You Page’) rather than the channels they’re subscribed to – people are more open to discovering new content and accounts. 

Using other platforms, marketers might choose to focus on top of funnel (TOF) content to speak to the audience average and raise awareness. In contrast, content on TikTok is most likely to make its way to a niche, to the people who are most passionate and engaged. 

Whatever your niche, there’s probably already a thriving TikTok community. Communities are often referred to by nicknames with “Tok” at the end, for example #BookTok for people talking about books or #FarmTok for agriculture-related content. 

@gregwilliamstt #photobreakdown of #katewinslet for #britishvogue ♬ original sound - gregwilliamstt

TikTok is a playground of creativity

Creativity thrives on TikTok; people use the app to share short stories, creative transitions or behind-the-scenes tips on video-making. For those working in marketing or content creation, TikTok is the place to watch the newest, most experimental ideas come to life (before they trickle down to Instagram months later). For example, watch Wes-Anderson-esque short videos by Madelaine Turner, listen to photographer Greg Williams break down his latest Vogue portrait, or learn new video editing tricks with Victoria Sholomko.

TikTok is important for minority communities 

By highlighting user-generated content, TikTok enables many people who identify with a minority group to find their community and express themselves (for example, see How TikTok became a haven for queer and questioning kids and It’s here and queer: how TikTok became the Gen Z tool of LGBTQ+ education). 

It also enables social groups or issues to gain traction. In their document TikTok Syllabus, A/Prof Crystal Abidin (Curtin University) and Dr D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye (Sorbonne University Paris Nord) explain, “TikTok has become a key social arena for communicating critical messages through the innovative use of attractive internet paralanguages and viral trends, fostering advocacy and activism among young populations, and mobilizing reactions to crises.”

Another example of this, is people offering education or insight into industries that have previously been gatekept. For example, sharing financial literacy (especially for women) is a popular niche on the app. 

@_theiconoclass Fun fact: the petty guy was my ancestor 👀 #booktok #librarytok #arthistorytiktok #typography ♬ Cartoon-like rhythmic jazz - Kohrogi

Reach younger audiences 

To assume that TikTok is exclusively for younger users is a misconception. However, it is no secret that younger audiences are using other apps less and less: “[Facebook] employees estimated that teens spend 2–3 x more time on TikTok than on Instagram and that Snapchat is the preferred method of communicating with best friends for young people,” writes Alex Heath in Facebook’s lost generation. As content marketers, it’s essential that we meet our audiences where they’re at and create content that speaks their language (whether that be hashtags, emojis or trending sounds). 

It’s not as different as you think 

Although TikTok is new in many ways, you already know more about it than you think. TikTok is an evolution of what’s come before it; principles of best-practice marketing and content creation still apply and can thrive on the app with some tweaking. It’s important to remember that – although they are ubiquitous now – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also relatively recent inventions and we have come to adapt to them over time. Being an adaptable storyteller will be the critical difference for content creators in the future. 

Vanessa Low, digital content creator, Heads & Tales

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