What communicators need to know about … “TikTok”

What communicators need to know about … “TikTok”
23. May 2019 Falk Rehkopf

What communicators need to know about … “TikTok”

TikTok is a hot new social networking app that’s taking the world by storm and now that they’ve launched their first in-app advertising units, communicators and PR professionals should definitely sit up and take note. Read on to learn more about why TikTok is growing at such a rapid pace (it’s amassed over 800 million installs to date!) and how communicators can tap on the enormous pool of consumers that are congregating on TikTok.

What is TikTok?

Simply put, TikTok is a short-form video social networking app that’s famous in Asia (and growing in popularity in Western markets as well). TikTok was launched by artificial intelligence company ByteDance in China in 2016. Back then, the app was called “Douyin” and it was rebranded as “TikTok” a year later. In 2017, ByteDance bought short video-based social media service Musical.ly and merged it with TikTok.

How does TikTok work? It allows users to create videos of up to 15 seconds and add music, stickers, filters and hashtags. Users can also upload pre-shot videos of up to one minute long. On the app, lip-syncing videos, reaction videos and videos of magic tricks and stunts all tend to do well. TikTok also allows users to add specific hashtags to their favourites, so that they can quickly view content that’s been shared with that hashtag.

In China, @ChenHe is the most followed account with more than 50 million fans. Outside of China, the young German twins @lisaandlena were TikTok’s most successful account with more than 31 million fans – the two, however, have deleted their account in March 2019 citing concerns around data security and privacy (more on that below).

As of June 2018, TikTok had 500 million monthly active users and counting. It also lays claim to being the fourth most downloaded app in all of 2018. TikTok is most popular in China but it’s also becoming very popular in other countries such as India. This particular country accounted for 27% of new TikTok installs between December 2017 and December 2018 with downloads of TikTok in India increasing nearly 25x in those 12 months. At the end of 2018, the app also became the most-downloaded free app on the Apple App Store in the US and ranked third in the world as of November 2018. All in all, TikTok is available in 150 markets, in 75 languages and the company also hit $6M in revenue (generated from in-app purchases used to tip live streamers) recently.

What makes TikTok different

What makes TikTok different from all the other social media apps out there? When you create an Instagram or Twitter account, your feed is empty and you’ve got to start following people and liking content in order to populate your feed and train the algorithm to show what you like. On TikTok, however, the content is pushed to you on a page called  “For You” without you having to lift a finger. As John Herrman from the New York Times puts it: “Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.

TikTok is fully reliant on AI and while Instagram, for example, uses AI as a tool, TikTok is AI. More specifically, the app starts “making assumptions” the very second you open the app, even before you’ve given it anything to work with. This helps with driving instant engagement on the app and its content as well as making it easier for new users to overcome the initial inertia they would normally experience with other social networks. This machine-driven aspect is the core difference that TikTok brings to the table and, very likely, to the future of social networks as we know them. 

When it comes to user experience, TikTok also stands out. It highlights group challenges, hashtags or popular songs to its users, making it easy for them to start creating and posting content. On TikTok, you don’t have to first grow your following and get more followers – instead, you’re encouraged to jump from trend to trend as well as to create and interact with content.

How TikTok is redefining social media (and why everybody should try TikTok)

We’ve already discussed some ways in which TikTok is different from the other social media platforms out there but what’s most exciting about TikTok is the fact that it generates insanely large amounts of engagement.

Vox Media reporter Rebecca Jennings says that multiple popular TikTok users she spoke to pointed to the astronomical views, comments and likes that posts can garner as one of biggest draws of TikTok. To be clear, these views, comments and likes easily eclipse those of Instagram, Snapchat or (now shut down) Vine even when these three platforms were at their most popular.

The bottom line? TikTok gives users the best of both worlds; it incorporates the viral nature of Vine and capitalises on the interactive elements of Snapchat. It’s easy-to-use, fun, addictive and users can quickly carve out a niche for themselves and get instant feedback about their content. What’s not to like?

TikTok’s rapid growth

TikTok is growing at a highly impressive, unprecedented pace – not just in China, but in other regions as well. Case in point? According to statistics, TikTok’s daily downloads were higher than those of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in the US at several points in 2018.

TikTok statistics

Why is TikTok becoming so popular in the US? While the app has been growing organically via word-of-mouth, it also received a ton of exposure from Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Back in 2018, the comedian and host issued the #tumbleweedchallenge on The Tonight Show and asked viewers to act like a tumbleweed and upload the video to TikTok. The challenge generated 8,000+ submissions and 10.4 million viewings and was a huge coup for TikTok.

Interestingly, Facebook recently launched a competitor app, Lasso, that’s pretty much a carbon copy of TikTok. That said, TikTok is still miles ahead of Lasso in terms of both app downloads and engagement. Lasso generated approximately 70,000 downloads from US consumers from November 2018 (when it was first launched) to February 2019; in comparison, TikTok saw about 40 million downloads in the same period.

TikTok for businesses: The app’s potential for communicators

For communicators trying to promote their companies or brands, TikTok holds an immense amount of potential. Communicators have different options for using TikTok, such as:

  • Creating videos for consumers to watch
  • Creating challenges, contests or giveaways to engage consumers
  • Sponsoring videos by TikTok’s top influencers

Several companies have already started using TikTok to create and disseminate challenges that drive engagement. For instance, McDonald’s worked with TikTok to create a contest called the #BigMacTikTok Challenge in Malaysia. In the US, fashion brand Guess has also partnered with TikTok to launch a #InMyDenim challenge targeted at millennials and Gen Z consumers.  


When it comes to sponsored videos, BBC worked with the 14-year-old twins Max and Harvey Mills (who have over 6 million followers on TikTok) to promote its kids’ channel CBBC. MTV also partnered with TikTok to stream the MTV European Music Awards recently.

TikTok for brands: Ads and examples

TikTok recently launched its first in-app ad units in January 2019 and it now shows selected users a full-page splash screen ad when said users launch their TikTok app. TikTok also recently collaborated with SportsManias – an officially licensed NFL Players Association partner – to introduce NFL-themed AR animated stickers to promote the Super Bowl.

While TikTok is still testing its in-app ads and hasn’t officially launched its ad products yet, we hear that they’re slated to roll out four different types of ads. These include:

  • Infeed native videos which are similar to Snapchat or Instagram story ads. These videos must range from 9 to 15 seconds in length and they will be skippable
  • Brand takeovers where a brand can take over TikTok for a day and create brand-specific images, GIFs and videos. These takeovers are measured by impressions, unique reach and clicks
  • Hashtag challenges are similar to what Guess did with its #InMyDenim campaign. These challenges can be measured by video interactions, clicks, banners views and other key metrics
  • Branded lenses are similar to Snapchat or Instagram filters that users can apply to their videos.

TikTok for news organisations:

While media companies have embraced emerging platforms rather quickly in the past, when it comes to TikTok however most of them seem rather hesitant. But, there are some examples of news organisations engaging on the platform such as NBC and The Washington Post.

NBC News’ “Stay Tuned – once exclusive to Snapchat – slowly expanded to other platforms and, recently, also to TikTok. Although TikTok doesn’t offer any monetisation opportunities for publishers yet, unlike Snapchat, executive producer Angie Grande says that her team’s current focus is on TikTok as well as YouTube: “In Snapchat, we’ll be able to do a full episode on the presidential debate. On TikTok, we played around with how do you pronounce all the candidates’ names… It’s not as serious, but still touching on a big topic they’re going to listen to.”

NBC stay tuned on TikTok

The Washington Post also recently joined TikTok and teenagers seem to like it as the newspaper garnered almost 40k followers on the platform. As Dave Jorgenson, the creator of the Posts’s TikTok content, puts it: “We’re slowly kind of proving to them that their perception of The Washington Post – wherever they got it from, if it was negative – now they’re looking at our TikTok and they’re saying ‘This is not what I expected. And I think that’s especially important, because as cheesy as it sounds, the people on the platform are the future.”

The Washington Post on TiKTok

Risks of using TikTok

While TikTok does bring plenty of advantages to the table, using TikTok also brings about certain risks, including the issue of privacy. In February 2019, TikTok was slapped with a $5.7 million fine from the US government for illegally collecting the personal information of its underage users.

Generally speaking, cybersecurity experts also agree that TikTok has a lack of privacy settings and that it doesn’t protect its users. Young Wo-sang, the convenor of the Internet Security and Privacy Working Group at the Internet Society Hong Kong, noted that the app should do a better job at verifying a user’s age at the point of account registration.

Why B2B marketers should pay attention to TikTok

Now, some B2B marketers have chosen to turn up their noses at TikTok, saying that it’s an app for teenagers and that it’s got no place in B2B marketing. That said, it is only a matter of time before TikTok’s pool of users matures and therefore it would definitely be a mistake for B2B marketers to ignore TikTok altogether.

As Gary Vaynerchuk states, both Facebook and Snapchat first captured a younger demographic and only later gained popularity in other age groups. As he predicts, TikTok will evolve the same way as these other apps – its strategies will eventually start to “skew older” and the app will become appealing to a larger demographic. When this happens, B2B marketers can then capitalise on the opportunity to use the app to market to their defined target groups.

Is TikTok really the next big thing for brands?

TikTok might very well be the next big things for brands but it’s not just that! Besides being a great channel that communicators should leverage, it’s also a cutting-edge tech product that has changed the way social networks work and elevate “machine-human” interaction. TikTok has established a never seen before machine-driven content experience which transformed user engagement away from something that implied an intent from users.

TikTok’s virality and engagement are unlike any other app we’ve seen and, so far, it’s only gone from strength to strength. Now that ByteDance is opening up the platform and allowing businesses to run ads on it, the app will definitely become a force to be reckoned with and an important part of many companies’ marketing mix.

If you’re a communicator in the B2C space, you’ll want to get on TikTok ASAP; for B2B communicators, make the effort to familiarise yourself with the platform, then bide your time! 

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