TikTok – it’s only a matter of time for brands

By Elise Bailey

9th April 2019

Another day, another platform—and this time the attention is on TikTok.

Anticipation has long been building about the impending takeover of the tech world by Chinese digital giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and WeChat. But, while Chinese businesses are leading the way in hardware in global markets, software success has been more difficult to come by.

That is, until now.

Chinese company ByteDance launched an app called Douyin in 2016, which was later renamed TikTok. Having merged with Musical.ly, the platform became one of 2018’s most downloaded mobile apps in the US and Europe and, this year, it has already surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube—reaching 500 million monthly active users.

It’s therefore no surprise that some are calling TikTok ‘the next Instagram’.

What is TikTok?

Filling a void left by the demise of Vine in 2017, TikTok is a video sharing platform with a twist—providing an alternative outlet for creative expression. The platform allows its users, mostly teenagers, to create videos up to 60-seconds long with their smartphone cameras, before using in-app editing tools and adding animation.

The videos tend to be funny or goofy, with people lip-syncing to music, movies and sound bites, or showing off their creativity or athletic skills. Challenges – such as shouting “hit or miss” in a public space and hoping somebody responds – are also very popular due to their high entertainment value and instant gratification.

What are the options for advertisers?

For now, TikTok only offers advertisers direct IO (insertion order) buys, in which an advertiser works directly with the platform to buy and place ads. And, in order to do this, the only option is to email an enquiry address and hope they get back in touch.

However, the platform has announced it is working on improving targeting, biddable advertising, and four different ad formats—music to marketers’ ears. Bearing in mind the limitations at present, however, it’s highly recommended that brands invest in influencer marketing within the app until a dedicated ad platform is introduced.

But, while brands can create accounts and post organically, TikTok is based predominantly on viral content—so brands need to embrace that in their own collaborations, or risk being ignored by users altogether.

What does this mean for brands?

With a growing expectation from customers for more transparency from brands, TikTok opens up an opportunity to target specific groups of people with a unique experience—something other platforms are struggling with.

In addition, the rise of social media features such as ‘Close Friends’ on Instagram Stories shows demand for private groups and specialism. With FOMO (fear of missing out) becoming a consideration for online social media strategy, TikTok can create a sense of community through private videos and hashtag challenges.

And brands are already starting to make the jump. GrubHub, for instance, ran a brand takeover ad campaign in February, while denim brand Guess last year rolled out a branded hashtag challenge, #InMyDenim, recruiting popular content creators to promote it.

In November, Jimmy Fallon promoted the app with a hashtag challenge. Within three months, videos tagged with his #tumbleweedchallenge on TikTok had amassed more than 26 million views.

What are the risks?

There’s a clear opportunity for B2C brands with young, fun, risk-taking personas. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it for brands with an older target audience. Instagram and Snapchat, for example, were once only really used by teenagers, and getting to know the app now will help businesses easily transition into using the platform for emerging age groups in the future.

But, before any brand plunges head-first into experimenting with hashtag challenges – and as with every platform that predominantly targets young people – it’s important to understand the potential for controversy, too.

While the platform’s privacy policy states that a user needs to be at least 13 years old to sign up, there’s no age verification step in place to ensure this is upheld—meaning some users may very well be younger. And, with no warnings or filters for explicit content, there’s a serious brand safety risk.

The platform has also struggled to tackle cyber-bullying, and even more concerning are the frequent cases of sexual harassment—with underage girls often the targets. This is an issue Musical.ly had been dealing with long before its merger.

What’s next for TikTok?

Despite making waves, TikTok’s continued success is far from guaranteed and there are still important questions around brand safety that remain unanswered. Facebook also launched Lasso, its answer to the viral video trend, in November—and has already tempted several TikTok influencers to its platform.

Additionally, marketers aren’t yet able to easily measure success and ROI—although there has been talk that improvements are on the horizon. For now, it may be a case of ‘wait and see’ for brands that want trackable results from their campaigns.

But the TikTok clock is ticking, and – if it can find a way to guarantee brand safety and prove ROI – there’s a big chance that platforms of this nature will soon have a major part to play in marketers’ media plans.