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Should Your Marketing Team Care About TikTok?

My favorite TikTok meme is a bit called “I smell pennies.” Every video begins with someone holding a bunch of pennies. The person says, “Finally. Now I can keep these pennies to myself.” The camera tilts up to reveal some kind of disturbing monster in the doorway. Sometimes it’s a person stuffed into an Amazon box. Sometimes it’s a person in a penguin costume. Sometimes it’s just a dark shape. The monster says, “I smell pennies!” and runs at the camera while the person with the pennies screams. That’s it. That’s the joke.

For those unfamiliar with TikTok, it’s an app for publishing and watching short videos no more than a minute long. Think of it like Vine, but more popular.

The appeal of TikTok videos, thus far, is that everything begins with an unusual video clip uploaded by a non-celebrity. (Celebrities like Jimmy Fallon are now active on the platform, but the original memes almost always come from non-famous users). After the community discovers a video, they rip the audio, manipulate the joke from every angle, and publish all conceivable versions of the meme until it fades. You’d be surprised what TikTok creators can do with that simple scenario, one that remains funny and frightening no matter how many times I’ve watched it.

Now that TikTok’s popularity is climbing, the question becomes: When are brands going to join the party? The better question, though, is should they join in the first place?

The pulse of TikTok

Tiktok is the internationally branded version of Douyin, a Chinese app owned by ByteDance, which acquired Musical.ly in 2017. Since the acquisition, TikTok has continuously grown. By the end of 2018, TikTok claimed to have 500 million monthly active users, most of who live in China. As of early this year, U.S. users topped 100 million. Estimates say two-thirds of users are under 30 years old, and the youngest users are 13 (the platform requires this).

It’s no secret that brands love young people, whom they see as impressionable and interested in new trends. Most brands who invest in content marketing are searching for the kind of commitment TikTok users demonstrate when it comes to spending time. Daily sessions are up, and people spend an average of 52 minutes each time they pull up the app.

In November 2018, TikTok was the second most-downloaded app in the Apple App Store and Google Play. In 2019, the app started running video ads and in-app purchases, ignoring critics who called the ad-free experience a breath of fresh air. Months later, the number of brands and media companies with notable presences on the platform is still small, and users can exit out of the that initial video ad without waiting.However, compared to major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, TikTok doesn’t have the same level of daily engagement. People visit those apps just about every single day, per Apptopia’s Engagement Index, while the average TikTok user only logs on a few times per week. It’s clearly an app trying to find its place in a very competitive digital ecosystem.

TikTok’s many subcultures and audiences

We don’t necessarily have data on popular groups, memes, and influencers on TikTok and Douyin, but several reports have abstractly explored the platforms’ many subcultures. According to The Washington Post, TikTok has proven popular among adults in the military, firefighters, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. American police officers even rallied around a massively popular hashtag, #ThinBlueLine, on which they’d post videos of themselves trying out dance and lip syncing memes.

In addition to cops, teens, nurses, and soldiers, TikTok is very popular with cosplayers, furries, gamers, make-up artists, and far-right political influencers whose hate speech has gotten them kicked off other platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

The point is, the world of Tiktok is extremely diverse. Many engaged users really only share an affinity for musical memes, video editing, and an earnest sense of humor. An entire subgenre of content has been born out of the average TikTok user’s lack of irony. As New York Magazine pointed out, finding “cringe-y” content on the app and repurposing it for clout on ironic Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram accounts is getting popular.

The brand question

Marketers don’t have a great track record on new platforms. They get blamed for sullying a cool new place with annoying ads and self-promotion. As Gary Vaynerchuck once candidly said during an Inc. event, “Marketers ruin everything. It’s what we do.”

He went on to say that any content that isn’t truly adding value to a social media platform is not only a drag, but it’s damaging to a platform’s reputation. As lucrative as it might sound to reach a huge new audience for your brand on TikTok, failing in front of a growing Gen Z crowd could have negative consequences. Remember, these kids (and young adults) will become a real economic force in just a few years.

Choosing which new social media platforms to invest content into is never an exact science. Apps that end up extremely popular sometimes have rocky roads to the top. Others rise fast before fizzling. You could argue that users and brands alike have been hoping for a successor to Vine, which jumpstarted the careers of many influencers, musicians, writers, and comedians, and TikTok does seem like it’s a natural fit.

However, taking Vine’s crown as the short video platform du jour is precarious. As anyone who loved Vine will tell you, the platform’s unique, off-the-cuff culture slowly eroded as more paid content made its way into the feed. A couple of years into following our favorite amateur comedians, we had to watch them struggle to make corporate products and services feel irreverent, knowing that they were getting paid big sums of money for our attention.

Let’s keep it simple. If you’re interested in reaching an audience between the ages of 13 and 30 with video content, you might be a good fit. That’s doubly true if you’re currently steeped in Asian youth culture or pursuing customers in countries like China, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea.

Despite the platform’s content being largely brand-free right now, there are a few corporate presences making waves.

Since many TikTok memes and hashtags are related to pop culture beloved by young people, ESPN began splicing footage of athletes into trending memes. The result was an on-brand, funny presence that users don’t seem to perceive as a disruption to their UGC feeds.

Companies already in the business of video content have also made the jump easily. The Dodo, a social video publisher focusing on animals, began cross-posting its content to TikTok earlier this year.

Like Vine and Instagram before it, TikTok seems like an ideal place to practice influencer marketing as well. Universal Pictures worked with TikTok influencers to promote films aimed at children and teens, including Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in its Walls. Meanwhile, in September 2018, clothing retailer Guess launched a video challenge using the hashtag #InMyDenim, coaxing customers to film themselves wearing their products.

Each of the brands that have succeeded found a subset of content already popular on the app and started creating on-brand videos to meet that demand. They did their research. And they didn’t pander to teen stereotypes.

Because of its fun atmosphere, TikTok is beginning to look like a great place for brands to push their content, but there’s a catch-22. As soon as brands begin to arrive, any platform’s original luster begins to dull. If your brand’s editorial and video team thinks they have the bandwidth to create for a new platform, knowing that it could fall out of fashion in a few years, this could be a worthwhile challenge. Marketers may be known for ruining everything, but on a platform like TikTok, maybe they won’t have to.

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