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What Is TikTok And How Did It Become So Successful?

Violet Zhang

Sep 5, 2023

TikTok has become a leading player among short-form video social apps since its inception in 2017. With over a billion global users, the app quickly became the darling of Gen Z. What began as a place to share 15-second, user-generated videos, often focused on people dancing, singing, talking, or lip-synching to various movement and audio trends, has emerged as a powerhouse in influencer marketing, creativity, branded challenges, and advertising.

The app’s downloads in 2019 surpassed Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. By January 2020, users in their teens accounted for 37.2% of TikTok's active user accounts in the U.S. People aged 20 to 29 years were the second-largest user group. 

The demographics are shifting though. As of January 2022, the teen percentage has actually dropped to 25% — a fairly significant decrease from 37%. The 20 to 29 cohort is still the second-largest at 22%, followed closely by 30 to 39 age group at 21%. So safe to say the widening user base provides way more opportunity for brands to get in front of their target audiences.

With this in mind, marketers looking to reach a younger audience can no longer afford to ignore the marketing opportunities that TikTok provides. 

Table of Contents

What Is TikTok?

Launched by Chinese-owned company ByteDance, TikTok is a video creation, discovery, and sharing platform. Content has since evolved to include viral videos, user-generated content (UGC), TikTok challenges, inspirational content, behind-the-scenes footage, and more. Creators have access to ready-made tools that add music, animations, original sound effects, and other features to the videos.

Using the TikTok Creator Fund, anyone can be a creator. And unlike other social media apps, users’ feeds aren’t limited to just their friends or brands they’ve engaged with. The recommendation system is truly a place for discovery, and users never know what they’ll see next.

The platform is also increasingly being used by brands and celebrities to cross-promote their content and reach new audiences. It's a hot spot for influencer marketing and user-generated content, both of which are helping small businesses to grow their brand awareness affordably.

Also worth noting: Don't confuse TikTok with Douyin, another app in China made by the same company. Douyin is considered the international version of TikTok, but the two are separate apps and platforms.

What Makes TikTok So Popular?

TikTok marketing

TikTok videos (L to R): cute pets, challenges, dances, and effects

To date, TikTok has been downloaded from the App store more than 2.6 billion times worldwide and boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users.

TikTok’s massive success comes from a combination of...

  • Celebrity endorsements
  • A user-friendly interface
  • Localized content
  • The ease of use in sharing content with others, even outside of the platform.

Perhaps TikTok’s main selling point is its well curated "For You Page" (fyp in TikTok lingo) of short-form videos. Social media users are no stranger to this format. Vine, for one, arguably popularized these types of posts. 6-second Vines turned everyday people into overnight sensations and populated the meme community with fresh viral content.  

While Vine failed to keep up with its competitors’ new features, TikTok’s roster of sound effects, songs, filters, and interaction tools unlock new creative opportunities for its users. In fact, TikTok has done what Vine could not, and continued to evolve while maintaining its loyal user base.

Tiktok marketing

Users are able to use various sound effects and music tracks of up to 10 minutes in length

TikTok's experience-first model circumvents the limits of a self-directed social feed. Users on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter may well run out of new material after scrolling for some time, but the TikTok algorithm ensures never-ending content. In addition, its autoplay features and ease of use — including support for longer videos and those filmed in other applications — keep them hooked. 

Did you know? You can use TikTok scheduling tools to stay on top of your TikTok strategy. Also, you can now schedule and post TikTok videos with Meltwater! Our blog about the best times to post on TikTok might also be helpful.

The app has also had an immense cultural impact on its markets, contributing to everything from the revival of the neighborhood corner-store and ‘scene’ subculture to the rise of rapper Lil Nas X.

Given the speed at which TikTok videos gain momentum as well as their interest-based algorithm, TikTok is an ideal platform for brands to showcase a ‘younger’ touch while connecting with existing fans.

How often should you post on TikTok?

Knowing the best time to post on TikTok is just part of a good strategy. TikTok is a busy place, so you may need to post more than once per day.

TikTok recommends posting one to four times per day. That said, you also want to make sure you’re posting quality content and not just trying to make a quota. Great content will go a lot further than filler.

Tip: Take a look at the best times to post on TikTok.

What Is TikTok For?

For many users, the TikTok app is purely for entertainment. You’ll find everything from comedy videos, lip-syncing to popular songs, content creators making their own videos, and users recreating Fortnite dances.

For others, it’s all about e-commerce and discovering new products. Some products have surged in popularity because of the platform, like TikTok leggings, fluffy headbands, and rechargeable candle lighters. All in all, it's no secret that business owners and influencers know how to make money on TikTok and use it for growth. The “TikTok made me buy it” line carries some real weight!

For brands, TikTok presents a massive marketing opportunity. From working with TikTok influencers to creating branded videos, special effects, and hashtag challenges to reach your target audience, there are lots of things you can do to make an impact on the social platform.

Who’s on TikTok?

The vast majority of TikTok’s audience (about 80%) are between the ages of 16 and 34. TikTok users skew mostly female, with a 60/40 ratio.

Overall, the platform boasts about 80 million daily active users in the United States alone.

TikTok users are among the most engaged of any social media site. Nearly 83% of all users have posted at least one video. The average user opens the app eight times per day and spends over 1.5 hours on the app.

Tip: Take a look at these global TikTok accounts with the most followers and discover more important TikTok stats here!

It’s a great place for brands to be, especially if you want to reach a younger crowd.

How Can Brands Use TikTok?

Person holding a phone reflecting light.

TikTok features several features and advertising functions within the platform. Check out our other blog for more on using TikTok as a business!

Here are the commonly used promotional formats brands should familiarize themselves with:

1. Hashtag Challenge (HTC)

User-generated content is the lifeblood of TikTok campaigns. These campaigns appeal strongly to Gen Z’s drive to create. With TikTok, brands take a backseat, allowing original content to drive positive appeal for their product or service.

#UTPlayYourWorld hashtag challenge on TikTok

Hashtag videos and challenges make full use of user-generated content and unique hashtags. Brands that launch a hashtag challenge prompt users to upload videos that fulfill a certain task. This can include dancing to a specific tune, voting on a specific product, or sharing their opinion on an issue — all while including the campaign hashtag, of course.

For example, Uniqlo UT partnered with TikTok in its #UTPlayYourWorld challenge. The challenge, which was launched in Japan, Taiwan, and France, encouraged users to share their experiences while wearing a Uniqlo UT outfit. Selected participants then won the chance to appear on screen in Uniqlo stores and social media pages worldwide.

The two-week campaign prompted over 185 thousand submissions, with over 95 thousand participants and over 330 million views on submissions. 

There’s also the Hashtag Challenge Plus, which integrates challenges with social commerce. Users can shop from a selection of products within the app itself.

Tip: Take a look at the best TikTok hashtags for you to use.

2. Branded Stickers and Lenses

#SmileDayChallenge branded sticker example on TikTok

Branded campaigns often include smaller ad features like branded lenses and downloadable AR stickers. With GIPHY stickers now integrated into TikTok, brands and users alike are also able to create and add stickers to their videos that reflect popular TikTok memes.

Brands that have utilized these features include Colgate-Palmolive, which launched its #SmileDayChallenge in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. The brand introduced a custom sticker that automatically detects a user’s smile and provides it with a smile rating. 

A #SmileDayChallenge submission with Colgate’s custom brand sticker

Colgate-Palmolive’s campaign produced 1.6 million submissions and has over 6.3 billion video views to date.

3. In-Feed Advertisements

Hollister's Tiktok in-feed ad

Hollister’s in-feed ad

This feature involves native full-screen ads that can be up to 15 seconds in length and include a call to action to a website, hashtag challenge, or app. Ads appear while a user is scrolling through their feed. They’re most useful as supplements to other forms of branded campaigns.

4. Brand takeover

Nike's #youreit

Nike’s #YoureIt challenge included a Brand Takeover ad

Limited to one brand per category each day, brand takeover ads launch the moment that the app is opened. Each ad runs as either a 3-second image or 3–5 second gif. Similarly, these ads can lead to a brand’s landing page or hashtag challenge.

5. Top View Ads

This ad format merges the best of both in-feed ads and brand takeover. The video functions as a brand takeover for the first few seconds then seamlessly becomes an ad at the top of the user’s feed.

6. Consolidated Ad Campaigns

Brands with a strong TikTok presence often integrate multiple advertising functions into a single campaign. For example, Nike’s #YoureIt campaign was framed as an international game of tag. The brand prompts girls all around Europe to showcase their athletic skills and tag their friends on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok with customized brand stickers.

#youreit Nike campaign on TikTok

One of the custom TikTok effects and GIPHY stickers created for the campaign

Athletes and influencers were also engaged to drive more challenge submissions. Their entries were paired using TikTok’s ‘duet’ video function, which allows two videos to be displayed side-by-side in a split-screen format, giving the illusion of interaction.

#youreit Nike

@_mollymarsh_’s #You’reIt entry as an in-feed ad and ‘duet’ video

These videos were then posted as in-feed ads. By empowering young girls to create their own content, Nike hit home with their goal to promote female agency through movement. The campaign has garnered over 49 million views to date. 

7. Feed Posts

Regardless of whether or not they choose to conduct a TikTok campaign, brands should maintain a regular TikTok feed the way they would with any other social app. A consistent brand presence increases the chance that their content will be noticed. In addition, brands can use their feed posts as a means of re-establishing their brand image. 

This is especially useful for typically ‘serious’ brands like news outlets, where the same topic can be covered in dramatically different ways across various channels. 

Washington Post Tiktok

Spot the difference: the Washington Post showcases different facets of its brand on TikTok and Instagram

For example, The Washington Post used its Instagram page to recap the top developments in the 2020 United States presidential election. Their TikTok videos offered a more tongue-in-cheek perspective on the same topic. By adapting what they show to different audiences, the paper ensures that it maintains its appeal across demographics.

Brands that cultivate a strong TikTok presence tap on the casual nature of videos on the app. By remaining largely unedited, these videos convey a sense of authenticity that cannot be gained through a fiercely curated, clean Instagram feed. 

8. Influencer Campaigns

Top TikTok creators command over tens of millions of followers. This makes TikTok ideal territory for influencer campaigns. TikTok themselves have recognized this potential, launching their Creator Marketplace as a platform for formal collaborations between brands and TikTok creators. 

Chipotle is a great example. With two prior influencer campaigns under its belt (an annual Halloween Boorito promotion and the #ChipotleLidFlip challenge), the brand harnessed the power of TikTokers David Dobrik, Zach King, and Brittany Broski for a Super Bowl campaign

Titled "TikTok Timeout," the challenge encouraged people to publicize Chipotle’s February "Free Delivery Sundays" with videos set to Justin Bieber’s song, "Yummy." The brand reached over 95 million people on social media, and the campaign hashtag garnered over 45 million views.


In Zach King’s video for #tiktoktimeout, a giant burrito materializes when he ‘orders’ a burrito on the Chipotle app

How Meltwater Supports TikTok Marketing

Meltwater helps brands get ahead by following TikTok trends as they’re emerging and helping you be wherever your audience is. For many brands, that place is TikTok.

Meltwater’s platform helps you create, schedule, and publish content to TikTok. Get content ideas based on what other users love and make your TikTok account work for you!

Schedule a demo to learn how by filling out the form below. 

Tip: Also check out these TikTok scheduling tools to automate your posting processes.