Why TikTok is Likely to Stick Around


Seasoned communicators often dismiss a new app as a flash in the pan. Just because a new platform gets the spotlight at SXSW doesn’t mean that it will become a useful tool in a communicator’s digital arsenal. (Nor should it, if it doesn’t connect to your brand’s overarching goals.)

While Snapchat initially was heralded as the best thing since sliced bread for communicators targeting youthful audiences, many initial brand adopters—B2B and B2C companies, nonprofits and even influencers—have abandoned it as a result of its difficult-to-measure ROI, usability issues and high advertising costs.

But TikTok, a short video app from China's Bytedance in September 2016 may be worth a second look.  Teens (and younger) around the globe love it.  A March 10 New York Times report titled “How TikTok is Rewriting the World” explored some of the ways the app stands out, notably its calls-to-action for digital denizens to become content creators and its addictive entertainment value for extremely young audiences.

Bytedance merged TikTok with its music video creation app Musical.ly in August 2018, migrating over Musical.ly’s young audience in the process. A South China Morning Post article puts TikTok’s audience at 500 million users. Not exactly small potatoes, if the numbers are accurate.

So, what content is TikTok’s burgeoning young audience interested in most? In a word: fun. Hashtag challenges and lip synch contests are the platform’s vernacular. Bytedance has placed a heavy focus on artificial intelligence, meaning the algorithm learns quickly and is custom-tailored to each user’s tastes. TikTok dishes out an endless stream of interactive content every time one logs in.

By nature, the platform is extremely interactive. TikTok invites content consumers to join in the fun and create their own videos rather than taking a backseat (although sitting back to watch is perfectly acceptable). There also isn't much pressure for users to build a large following—at least not in the same way that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have quantified influence.

As the app grows in popularity, the question for communicators becomes whether brands can join the fun. While companies like NBCUniversal, Viacom and Hearst initially signed deals with Musical.ly, it might not be appropriate for brands to insert themselves into a conversation that feels like an exclusive space for young users. TikTok’s base “gets” the ins and outs of the app’s interface. They also are wary of advertisers and seem less enthusiastic about Instagram (likely because their parents have accounts by now, and advertising saturation is high).

At this early stage, the most likely route for brands is influencer marketing. TikTok already has a cadre of “hugely popular ‘stars,’ many cultivated by the company itself,” according to the Times.

If you’re already thinking about how to recruit influencers for the platform, make sure they know how to entertain and bring audiences in on the action. Interactivity and a creative bent should be the first items to consider, rather than star power, engagement or follower count on other platforms. Who knows? Maybe the coworker who does stand-up comedy or draws comics on the side will be your very first TikTok influencer.

Follow Sophie: @SophieMaerowitz