With over a billion downloads and counting, TikTok is one of the fastest-growing social platforms ever. If you’re over the age of 21, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve never even heard of it.

Join us as we discuss what TikTok is, who is using it, and how marketers are tapping into the app’s user base to promote their brands. It’s the vast new social platform used by Coca-Cola, Calvin Klein and Jimmy Fallon – but is TikTok viable as a marketing channel?

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social platform based around user-generated, short-form videos.

The videos are uploaded via users’ phones, can be up to 15 seconds long, and are shown in vertical orientation. They are paired with music clips which can either be uploaded by the user or taken from TikTok’s library, which has millions of options to choose from.

TikTok was called Musical.ly until September 2017, when its name was changed to “better reflect the breadth of content created on our platform that extends beyond music to comedy, performance art and more,” as a TikTok rep put it. (source: Slate).

The best way to understand TikTok is to use it yourself. It’s available as a free download for smartphones running Android and iOS:

The user experience of TikTok is similar to other leading social platforms with video creation features, such as Instagram, Snapchat and the now-defunct Vine.

When you first open the app, you’ll see a full-screen video posted by another TikTok user. There’ll also be buttons to like, share or comment on the content, plus links to the music featured in the clip and to the user’s profile. You can view another video by swiping down.

As you interact with posts and follow users, TikTok uses AI to personalise the content delivered to your feed. This should theoretically make what you see on TikTok more relevant to you, but we recommend holding off on the like and follow buttons while you familiarise yourself with the app. Your first experiences with TikTok will give you your most accurate insight into its overall mix of demographics and content, which will be important to your ability to market via the platform.

TikTok’s users: who and where are they?

The Telegraph reports that TikTok has half a billion active users, with 40% of that number in China, and 3.7mn in the UK. It was the world’s most downloaded iOS app in Q1 2018, and notched up a total of 663mn downloads over the year – comfortably more than Instagram attracted in the same period (444mn).

Simply using TikTok will give you a feel for who is posting content on the app. If your experience is anything like ours, you’ll encounter lots of teenagers and young adults who post content such as lip syncs, prank videos, comedy skits and vlogs. 

Do not confuse this as a measure of TikTok’s overall usership. Users who regularly post content on the app are far outnumbered by those who simply consume content. Just 49.10% of posts on the platform are made by regular users, while the rest is posted by brands, celebrities and internet celebrities. 

This Mediakix.com article shares some interesting stats on TikTok’s users. Here are some highlights:

  • TikTok is more popular on Android than iOS, with Android users accounting for 80% of sessions
  • 66% of users are under 30
  • Users typically spend about 52 minutes per day on the app
  • 29% of monthly users open TikTok every day

TikTok has met with political opposition in some parts of the world. In April 2019, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) banned citizens from downloading the app. The government of Indonesia did the same in July 2018.

How to create content on TikTok

Soon we’re going to look at how businesses are using TikTok for marketing – but first, we need to cover how content is posted by ordinary users. This is how many marketers will post content on TikTok in the first instance, as the app’s advertising options are currently limited.

TikTok users have two ways to post content via their account:

  • Create a video in-app; or
  • Upload a video or photo from their smartphone library.

These approaches both have their advantages from a marketer’s perspective.

Creating videos in-app lets you add effects that are familiar to TikTok users, such as slow-motion and filters. This communicates authenticity to app users. 

Meanwhile, uploading photos or videos makes it possible to edit the media before upload.

If you have experience of making videos with the likes of SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook, the functionality of posting videos on TikTok will feel familiar. Even if not, the user experience is literally designed to be child’s play, so jump right in and have fun applying filters and other effects. 

Marketing via TikTok

Let’s look at some examples of businesses using organic TikTok posts for marketing:

Using TikTok as a shop window

The TikTok account @motherofpaint is used by a UK-based artist to promote her work. The user posts step-by-step clips of her paintings, with a regular focus on brightly coloured paints and satisfying brushstrokes.

The account had earned over 114,000 followers, and 2.6m “Hearts” on its posts, when we checked it out in April 2019.

@motherofpaint is a Featured TikTok profile – meaning the platform has given it heightened visibility in users’ feeds.

Getting featured is clearly a great way for users to quickly build a following on TikTok. TikTok Fame has the following tips on how to earn Featured status.

TikTok as a top-of-funnel lead magnet

@maddiescookieco has used TikTok to gain exposure for a bakery business. One video, which you can view below, shows a cookie being decorated as a bowling ball. The post uses some relevant hashtags – “bowling”, “cookies”, “satisfying” – along with some relatively tenuous, popular hashtags – “hilariousjokes”, “bemyfriend”, “pls” – to generate interest.

The video is watermarked with the user’s handle, while the @maddiescookieco profile encourages visitors to “see my finished cookies on Instagram!” (We loved their “Gotta Risk it for the biscuit” strapline. Genius)

The @maddiescookieco profile on TikTok has 1.4m followers, and its posts have received a total of 26.1m Hearts.

We can see how this fits into the business’ lead acquisition funnel by visiting its Instagram profile, where the description links to the business’ own website and instructs visitors to get in touch via email with any enquiries.

TIKTOK links to Instagram profile

Building brand visibility and audience participation

Just like Twitter and Instagram, TikTok uses hashtags to label content and make it easier to explore. This creates opportunity for brands to be seen and grow their audience, either by using trending TikTok hashtags or creating their own.

A prominent use of hashtags on TikTok is to enable participation in challenges, where lots of users all video themselves doing a certain thing. Popular examples from last year include the “trust fall” challenge, the “hair art” challenge and the “bad makeup” challenge. Here’s a video compilation of recent TikTok challenges:

There’s great scope for brands to gain visibility by getting involved in TikTok challenges. Let’s take the example of NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”. Fallon took a liking to TikTok last year, and his show has since built a regular segment around setting challenges via the app. The Fallon team have set several popular TikTok challenges, including “the tumbleweed challenge”, which drew over 10 million engagements

From a marketing perspective, the brilliance of this move lies in its audience development potential. Whereas 18-24 year olds in the United States watched around 25 hours of traditional TV per week in 2011, they were watching closer to 14 hours per week by 2017. We suspect Fallon’s team saw an opportunity in TikTok to keep their brand relevant to a Generation Z audience with limited time to spare for television.

Influencer marketing

Another TikTok marketing method is product placement in influencer posts.

In April 2019, The Telegraph reported that brands including Coca-Cola, Sony, FIFA and Calvin Klein have turned to TikTok to run cut-price influencer campaigns.

Tom Peters, head of influencer marketing at Social Chain, told The Telegraph, “TikTok is substantially more affordable than Instagram. A lot of brands are still learning and understanding TikTok’s potential value.”  

One route to setting up influencer marketing via TikTok is to engage an influencer marketing agency, such as The Influencer Marketing Factory.

A cheaper – albeit more work-intensive – option is to independently scout for suitable TikTok users who could help promote your brand. To do this, set up a TikTok account, then follow accounts and engage with content based on your audience’s interests. This should focus your content feed on content producers who are relevant to your audience. Scroll through and note the profiles of users with potential to promote your products. This approach can help brands strike better deals with influencers – especially those who haven’t been snapped up by an agency. 

Paid advertising via TikTok

Larger companies have the option for guaranteed visibility on TikTok via IO (insertion order) buys, where adverts can be directly inserted for a fee. This service reportedly costs around $50,000-$100,000, and is only available to new clients via email enquiry.

In February 2019, Adweek reported that TikTok is working on implementing a biddable advertising option. This could allow advertisers to bid for individual ad placements, presumably via a similar system to the PPC bidding used on Google Ads. With biddable advertising, paid TikTok ads could potentially open up to brands with lower ad budgets. Currently, you can find out more about the TikTok Advertising service through what looks to be a self-service ad placement portal much like the ones available on other social media channels. At the time of this article being published the service was only available to users in India, but you can express your interest in the channel.

How viable is TikTok as a marketing channel?

The above examples show that TikTok has the potential to give businesses good exposure. However, as there are no figures available on how many businesses are using TikTok, it is not currently possible to measure the average success rate of marketing activities on the platform.

As would be the case with any new marketing channel, we advise businesses interested in using TikTok to start off by allowing it a relatively small budget.

This should be done within a framework for measuring success and ROI. For advice on how to set this up, see our article on digital strategy measurement frameworks

As of April 2019, TikTok had 500mn active users, while Instagram had 1bn and Facebook 2.3bn. You could take that as meaning TikTok is not yet a top-tier social platform – or you could take it as evidence of the platform’s extraordinary potential. Just be aware that this is a global audience and not necessarily reflective of the active user base in your country of operation…yet.

What’s really impressive is the pace of TikTok’s growth. It has acquired roughly the same volume of active users in two years as Facebook did between 2004 and 2010. In other words, it hit the 500mn mark thrice as fast. 

The question we’re asking today is whether TikTok is viable as a marketing channel. While there’s strong evidence to suggest it could be, the jury’s out.

Based on its current rate of user acquisition, we could be asking a very different question about TikTok in a few years’ time: is it the most important social marketing channel of all?