The Rise of TikTok: A Guide for Marketers

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 has quickly become the darling of Gen Z. Around 41% of its users fall within the age of 16–24. More impressively, the app’s downloads in 2019 surpassed Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. With this in mind, marketers looking to reach a younger audience can no longer afford to ignore the marketing opportunities that TikTok provides. 

What makes TikTok so popular?

TikTok marketing

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

TikTok’s main selling point is its short-form 15-second videos. Social media users are no stranger to this format. Vine, for one, arguably popularised the short-video social app. 6-second Vines turned everyday people into overnight sensations and populated the meme community with fresh viral content. In 2020, however, it is TikTok that flourishes. 

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 addition, its autoplay features and ease of use — including support for longer videos and those filmed in other applications — keep them hooked. 

Tiktok marketing

Users are able to use various sound effects and music tracks of up to 60 seconds 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 users on TikTok never run out of new content. TikTok’s algorithm consistently serves new material based on what users have watched or engaged with from the moment that the app is launched.

The app has also had an immense cultural impact on its markets, contributing to everything from the revival of the neighbourhood corner-store and ‘scene’ subculture to the rise of rapper Lil Nas X. On the same thread, every brand, product, or service has the potential to catch the eye of a user and gain immense popularity.

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.

Here are some of the features that brands can utilise:

1. 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

The Washington Post, for example, uses its Instagram page to recap the top developments in the 2020 United States presidential election. Their TikTok videos, on the other hand, offer 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. 

2. Influencer campaigns

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

One brand that has seen success in using TikTok for such purposes is Chipotle. With two prior influencer campaigns under its belt (an annual Halloween Boorito promotion and the #ChipotleLidFlip challenge), the brand harnessed the power of TikTok stars David Dobrik, Zach King, and Brittany Broski for its recent Super Bowl campaign

Titled "TikTok Timeout", the challenge encouraged people to publicise 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, with the campaign hashtag garnering over 45 million views.

#tiktoktimeout

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

3. TikTok advertising functions

Like Instagram, TikTok has several advertising functions catered towards brands who wish to host their campaigns on the platform. Here are the commonly-used functions that brands should familiarise themselves with:

Hashtag Challenge

Videos uploaded without hashtags can only be accessed by the user’s followers. As such, almost all TikTok videos are hashtagged for greater exposure. This makes TikTok the only platform where branded campaigns utilising unique hashtags are the dominant advertising format. 

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.

As a formal feature, hashtag challenges make full use of user-generated content and unique hashtags. Brands that launch a hashtag challenge prompt users to upload videos that fulfil 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.

#UTPlayYourWorld

A #UTPlayYourWorld submission includes the campaign hashtag and brand soundtrack

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

Another hashtag challenge that gained momentum was Fortnite’s #EmoteRoyaleContest, which encouraged users to create their own dance for a chance to be featured as a Fortnite Emote. As part of a creator tie-in for added publicity, Fortnite also introduced a custom Emote dance made by Pokimane, a Twitch streamer with almost 4 million followers. 

#EmoteRoyaleContest

Pokimane’s custom Fortnite Emote

The campaign, which aimed to sustain Fortnite’s share of mind after the game’s decreased popularity in 2019, saw over 250 million submissions and over 437 million views. 

Social Commerce: Hashtag Challenge Plus

#TransformUrDorm

Kroger’s #TransformUrDorm campaign allowed users to shop straight from the app

A nascent function that adds to the Hashtag Challenge, TikTok’s Hashtag Challenge Plus allows users to shop from a selection of products within the app itself. 

Branded Stickers / Lenses

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 utilised 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. 

#SmileDayChallenge

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.

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. These ads appear while a user is scrolling through their feed. In-feed advertisements are most useful as supplements to other forms of branded campaigns. Their call-to-action can be customised to lead to a particular website, hashtag challenge, or app. 

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.

Top View Ads

This ad format merges the best of both in-feed ads and brand takeovers — 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.

Consolidated Ad Campaigns

Brands with a strong TikTok presence often integrate multiple advertising functions into a single campaign. Here are a few brands that have made full use of the TikTok platform:

Nike: ‘You’re It’ Campaign

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 customised brand stickers.

#youreit Nike

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. These videos were then posted as in-feed ads.

#youreit Nike

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

By literally 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. 

Ralph Lauren: 2019 U.S. Open Tournament

Having been the official sponsor for the U.S. Open’s on-court tournament staff since 2005, Ralph Lauren broke ground with its recent TikTok campaign. The brand became the first in the United States to launch a TikTok campaign tied to a sporting event. 

With the help of actress Diana Silvers, the brand launched a series of TikTok ads linked to its #WinningRL challenge. Users were encouraged to submit their own entries for a chance to receive a package of official Polo Ralph Lauren U.S. Open apparel. 

#WinningRL

Ralph Lauren’s feed post publicising the #WinningRL campaign

Instead of using the typical Hashtag Challenge campaign, Ralph Lauren made use of TikTok’s Hashtag Challenge Plus, which allowed users to shop its U.S. Open Collection straight from the app. 

#WinningRL

TikTok’s social commerce function, the Hashtag Challenge Plus

TikTok’s social commerce function has yet to be widely utilised. In November 2019, TikTok confirmed that it was also testing a shoppable ad function that would allow influencers to embed social commerce links in TikTok videos. With similar functions available on other social apps such as Pinterest and Instagram, it is only a matter of time before this extended hashtag challenge format becomes commonplace.

What’s next for TikTok marketing?

The TikTok bubble remains largely a mystery to outsiders, but as brands continue to become more digital-forward, it’s likely that they will begin to see TikTok as a means of reaching the younger generation. 

This means that the platform will see more branded content and more evolved advertising functions for marketers. Shoppable ads, challenges and influencer campaigns have been a mainstay on the app’s Chinese counterpart Douyin for some time, and TikTok will likely follow this trajectory. 

TikTok has the advantage of being a nascent platform not yet awash with sponsored posts and paid ads. This leaves a significant amount of unchartered territory waiting to be explored. As such, brands that enter this space while the tide is still rising can avoid ad fatigue and gain greater campaign impact.