What is TikTok and does it support ads?

Get up to speed on Tiktok (and its ad capabilities) in under 90 seconds with Rena.

Ahh, they grow up so fast, don’t they? TikTok, a new social video app from China, debuted in the US in late 2017 and is already gearing up to monetize their rapidly growing international fanbase.

Where do the years go, eh? It feels like only yesterday that Facebook was revolutionary, but now there are new platforms cropping up every other month, tearing chunks out of the market.

It can be overwhelming for marketers to keep up with the onslaught. Being agile is great, but so is getting to bed at a reasonable hour, so we’ll keep it short and sweet: what is TikTok and should you look into their paid advertising options?

What is TikTok?

TikTok is an app used primarily by under-30s that allows you to create short, 3 – 15-second looped videos set to music or audio. The point of difference is that TikTok is… fun. Truly. The format gives Gen Zedders an excuse to prance, dance, and lipsync in short, sharp bursts. The platform leans into it, creating discoverable challenges, vernacular, and audio that encourage viral sharing.

Although it’s only recently been released in the US, TikTok has been around for a while. It was successfully launched in China in 2016, under the moniker Douyin, so by the time it arrived in the US, the idea was validated. Chinese media reports Douyin has over 400 million users and 200 daily active users. In October of 2018, TikTok merged with Musical.ly, and daily users rocketed from 58 million to 70 million. It was downloaded 80 million times, too.

What’s the appeal? It’s hard to say, but TikTok defies expectations and conventions. The New York Times called TikTok the “only truly pleasant social network in existence”.

Wired wrote a befuddled piece about the user experience design, noting that it doesn’t follow the rules yet somehow still works. Online commentary follows the same train of thought — it’s just people lip-syncing and dancing but, for whatever reason, is wholesome and addictive.

The experience is similar to Vine (RIP Vine, we miss you) but the limitations on TikTok encourage more creativity and its unique features acknowledge the evolving landscape of video engagement. TikTok tips its hat to response culture, allowing users to split-screen duet with existing videos or repost reactions to existing videos.

There’s also an inbuilt system of attribution whereby everything is on the table to be reused but everything is natively attributed to the original source. Everything on a TikTok is interactive and transports you to the origin of that video, that song, that filter, that idea, or that campaign, so discoverability is through the roof. It’s simple, fun, and apparently very effective.

From left to right: An original video, a duet, and a reaction.

And while most social media platforms are stagnating, TikTok is experiencing staggering growth. Like an awkward teenager in a freshly-minted adult body, their next few moves may change the game.

Enter TikTok marketing campaigns

What does all that mean for marketers? TikTok is clearly doing something very well, but what is it and who’s it working for?

TikTok has had over 800 million lifetime downloads. Rena, one of the most respected social media scientists in the Biteable Lab, says it’s not the platform for every marketer, but if you’re targeting Gen-Z or millennials, it should be at the top of your emerging platforms list.

“Research indicates that around two-thirds of [TikTok users] are under 30 years old. We’d normally expect to find the under-30 demographic on Instagram or Snapchat.”

The TikTok audience is similar to Snapchat (with 71% under 34). So if your audience is young and uses Snapchat, they may soon be on TikTok too.

It’s undeniable that TikTok is a hit with markets across Asia: 400 million downloads in China isn’t anything to sniff at. The key to its international success may come from the physicality of the video content. Unlike Twitter, which naturally aggregates into language groups, TikTok content doesn’t rely on reams of text. You just need a funny video and a good tune.

Jumping onto a new social platform, no matter what the stats say, is a risk. In the days of early adoption, the brands who can afford to risk it are usually also young and flexible. If your brand touts innovation, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is (then overlay it with a Ke$ha song and a filter).

And if you’re also marketing on Snapchat or Instagram Stories, TikTok may be right up your alley, plus you’ll get more bang for your buck. Rena says:

“We’ve come to expect Facebook to be the world’s leading global social media marketing platform. But, as brands are becoming frustrated with the high prices and declining organic reach on mature platforms, TikTok’s addictive 15-second video format could give Facebook a run for its money.”

Brands with an under-30 audience, aspirations to move into the Asian market, familiarity with story advertising, and an innovative ethos should look at TikTok. Many of them already have.

Here’s what we’re expecting from TikTok ads

There’s lots of speculation about what TikTok ads will look like when they do roll out.

Users have reported seeing ads for Specialized Bikes which takes them off-app to the Specialized Bikes website. The Specialized Bikes TikTok page also appears now with a ‘Verified’ tick (and a promise that account verification is coming soon, potentially bundled in with the ads platform). But the ads were not without glitches.

Information is sparse but Lu Zhang at Moonshotio speculates that we can look to Douyin’s advertising roll-out as an example for TikTok. Douyin currently monetizes in several ways. They have options for news feed ads and splash ads (ads that play while the app is opening), and their ads allow users to click directly through to the e-commerce sites rather than embedding products in the app.

Then there are organic hashtag challenges. Michael Kors was one of the first luxury companies to attempt this with Douyin, creating a catwalk challenge campaign which reportedly clocked 30,000 postings and 5 million views.

And finally, on Douyin, the best advertising is free. Some people just strike it lucky and find themselves at the center of a viral meme challenge, such as a hot pot loving grandma who hit the big time with crazy organic traffic and 410 thousand followers who watch her drunken hot pot antics.

In the meantime, organic influencer marketing is working a treat. Guess ran a challenge campaign called #inmydenim which saw users transformed by their Guess denim threads.

They posted only four official videos to kick off the challenge but #inmydenim videos accrued 37.1 million views. If influencer marketing is your bag, baby, jump on the TikTok wagon before the paid advertising scares off the cool kids.