TikTok: What Is It? Who’s on It? And Is It Right for Your Brand?

hand holding a mobile phone with the TikTok logo on it
hand holding a mobile phone with the TikTok logo on it

TikTok is one of the more popular, newer social media platforms online today, having first arrived in 2016. Upon first interaction with the service, you might assume it’s simply a place for Gen Z users to channel their creativity. 

In recent months however, you may have begun seeing TikTok videos appear on your Instagram or Facebook feeds. Maybe a friend has shared an entertaining TikTok from a celebrity like the one here from Justin Bieber and his wife that has amassed 3.7 million views.

You might be wondering if TikTok is a reliable ad service for reaching one or more of your company’s target audience segments. As it turns out, the data doesn’t look promising… yet. Read ahead to learn why, and see when may be the best time to help grow your business using the service.

Getting to Know TikTok

Beijing-based ByteDance started TikTok as a video-sharing, social networking service. It’s a place to share 15-second, user-generated videos, which often focus on people dancing, singing, talking, or lip-synching. Members can search for and browse other users' content by song, dance style, or topic. 

I talked with Monish Datta, who worked with Facebook’s direct response ad team for five years and now works at NYC-startup Glamsquad. He refers to TikTok as “Instagram videos on steroids” because of how it lets users do more with their videos than other platforms, as well as add over-the-top visuals. 

TikTok has only truly started to get traction in the U.S over the last couple of years. As of 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. 

How to Know If Now Is the Time to Advertise on TikTok

Although young users may not have much disposable income, they probably will in the coming years. As the site becomes more mainstream, millennials and older age groups are starting to join. As this happens, more national brands are paying attention. 

Datta, who does pro bono consulting with companies to help them grow their business using online ads, is a good source for learning more about the platform. He says the first thing marketers should keep in mind is that TikTok is still new to the scene.

“It’s an aggressively fast-growing and fast-learning company,” Datta says. “But as things stand right now the platform is very new. So they're not necessarily sticking their neck out and saying (about their verticals) 'This is great for retail,’ or 'This is great for restaurants,’ or 'This is great for travel.' More sophisticated platforms have that ability simply because they have data that validates that their platforms work better for certain verticals than others.” 

According to Datta, there are still a lot of questions about the site. Most potential advertisers are still working to determine how the ad platform works and how much time users are actually spending on TikTok in general.

Ad Options on TikTok

According to TikTok, there are four ways to advertise on the service. The first is known as a brand takeover, where a company can dominate a specific topic for the day on TikTok through image, GIF, or video ads. 

Other ad options include in-feed native video, which are quick, 15-second (or less) videos that show up on a user’s “For You” page. They let a brand match to specific users who may be in their target audience. 

TikTok also offers sponsored hashtag challenges to encourage greater user-generated content, as well as options for creating 2D or 3D-branded lenses that users can apply to their own videos. 

Advertisers with Visual 'Heritage' Are Experimenting on TikTok

There are several broad types of advertisers exploring the platform. Many of them include streaming services and “mall staples.”

“The NFL, the NBA—they're taking their chances on it,” Datta says. “You need a visual platform that has an emotional quotient and all sports franchises have that. You have Chipotle and even Burger King which has a history of heritage of TV advertising that is able to repurpose some of that onto TikTok. Netflix—they're on there. We're starting to see some retailers come out—Gucci is there. Lush started advertising. They're experimental. So you've got these advertisers—but they are ones with very strong, visual storytelling palettes, meaning fast-paced, full-screen, immersive, mobile formats work very well for them."

Because these campaigns are so experimental, advertisers aren’t expecting a lot of return yet. Part of the goal is to determine whether or not an audience with disposable income is truly ready to spend on the platform.

Challenge and Growth Ahead for TikTok

Datta notes some challenges that companies already face using TikTok. Perhaps the biggest issue is that most users aren’t coming to the platform specifically for shopping yet. 

“Many brands have found it difficult to get their target audience to leave TikTok and navigate to their websites or landing pages,” he says. “As a sticky platform, users on TikTok seem to want to stay there... Also, if you go by recent statistics you’ll see the median age on TikTok is 17 or 18, just out of high school. They’re not the ones with the money, making the buying decisions, so it’s not super appealing from an advertising perspective as things stand right now.”

However, Datta says remember that TikTok is one of the fastest-growing destinations on the web these days. As the user base becomes more demographically mainstream, the ad dollars will probably follow.

There are some additional concerns with the platform that have companies hesitating to jump on the bandwagon, too. With the company's ties to China, many point to potential data privacy and user protection issues. 

With all this in mind, marketing executives may want to think about TikTok as a place to invest some of their ad budget as an experiment. Perhaps they can create something memorable that may carry over to any brand interactions on other channels that could lead users to a website or landing page for a purchase.

Of course, the key to success on any social channel is great content. For best practices—plus inspiring examples from top brands—read our ebook on creating brand content that will delight and engage your audience.