These days it seems that everyone and their mother wants to hop on the TikTok train and harness the power of this platform famous for punchy videos, hyper-personalized algorithm and viral trends. However, if you’re not quite sure TikTok marketing is going to work for your brand, don’t worry. This guide through all the ins and outs of this hugely popular app is designed to help you decide. So let's dive in. What works best on TikTok and what’s cringe?
TikTok has come a long way from a collection of lip-sync videos for your kids’ entertainment. It’s now one of the most influential social media platforms in existence. Each day, over one billion people open up their TikTok app to watch content that lifts their mood, educates them, and helps them decide what to buy. The latter one in particular is one of the main reasons why a growing number of businesses include TikTok marketing in their strategies. They are trying to figure out TikTok’s tricky algorithm, get on as many For You pages as possible, and create ads that don’t look like ads. It’s all worthwhile because TikTok is, after all, the “it” app in 2024.
From a business and marketing perspective, the platform is particularly interesting because it has opened up a whole new spectrum of different possibilities in terms of video production, content marketing, and advertising. You don’t need expensive equipment and a lot of followers to go viral on TikTok. But you will need to be creative and understand TikTok’s unique culture.
So let’s go back to square one. What is TikTok, how does it work and how can you use it for your marketing purposes?
What is TikTok?
In a nutshell, TikTok is a social media platform for creating, sharing, and discovering video content. Its famous “For You” page delivers a never-ending stream of hyper-personalized, curated video content and user-generated TikTok trends to each user. Oftentimes, TikTok trends spill onto other social media platforms and into mainstream culture as well.
A brief history of TikTok
TikTok started as Douyin, a mobile app launched by the Beijing-based company ByteDance in 2016. Buoyed up by Douyin’s immediate popularity in China, ByteDance began its global expansion soon after. In September 2017, it launched TikTok, a version of Douyin for the global market, while keeping Douyin as a separate app for the Chinese market. (Douyin is still one of the most popular social media platforms in China.)
Other Chinese apps, such as WeChat, have not been nearly as successful internationally as TikTok. Its huge push on the global scale came after ByteDance purchased Musical.ly in November 2017. Musical.ly, as a social media platform, has been around since 2014 and was known mostly for its fun and short lip-sync videos. In August 2018 ByteDance merged Musical.ly and TikTok and kept the name of the latter. And while Musical.ly virtually ceased to exist, its formula of fun, bite-sized videos (as well as its users) became an integral part of TikTok.
Today, TikTok is considered one of the fastest-growing apps in the world. As of the end of 2023, the platform had 1.218 billion active monthly users. Almost every competing social media platform has tried to copy its formula in one way or another.
However, TikTok has faced and is still facing great challenges, from a complete ban in India to the latest attempts to ban it in the U.S. This remains a current issue for the app.
How does TikTok work?
When you open up a TikTok account, the first thing you’ll see by default is your designated For You feed. It’s the app’s main page, TikTok’s ‘it factor’, and a reason why TikTokers spend hours on the platform.
The famous algorithm
A For You feed reflects how TikTok’s algorithm works. It is a highly personalized content recommendation system. It collects various signals from each user when they interact with content on TikTok. Based on a particular user’s interactions, the algorithm can quickly predict what other content the user might be interested in.
There are many factors or signals that will determine what kind of content you will see on your For You page. The most important ones are:
- your interactions with the content, for example, what videos you liked, commented on, shared, and especially how much time you spent watching certain types of videos, aka your video completion rate (did you complete the video, watched it more than once, etc.)
- negative interactions with the content, for example, if TikTok asked you for your feedback about the video and you checked “not interested”, or if you immediately skipped the video, clicked on the “hide” option, etc.
- information about the video itself, for example, what was the main topic of the video (TikTok’s algorithm looks for keywords in the caption, title, hashtags, and subtitles to categorize videos by topics)
- your location, language preferences as well as accounts that you follow
- trending audio, music, effects, or template you used in your video
All that being said, don’t expect once you sign up to immediately have a super-personalized and perfectly curated For You page. When you first join TikTok, the app will begin by showing you the most popular videos in your region or a random collection of the most recent viral videos or trending topics.
However, the more you watch and interact with this recommended content, the system will record your activity and “take the hint”. Based on your interactions/signals, the algorithm will learn more about your current interests. You’ll gradually begin to notice your For You page is starting to show you content that is much more relevant to you. It will also start recommending creators who are more to your liking.
That thing that makes all the difference
With its concept of a For You page, TikTok made a significant departure from classic social media platforms that connect people based on who you know and follow. Unlike the other social-based platforms, TikTok is personal interest-based: it connects people not with people per se, but people with content that interests them.
So, in other words, TikTok users don’t open up the app to check up on their friends, colleagues, family, or favorite influencers. All that is secondary. The primary reason is watching content that is highly relevant to them. It’s not (so much) about who posts the content, as much as it is about what is posted.
That’s why the For You page is the default page on the app. In addition, TikTok users have two more (secondary) sections at their disposal. The first one is the Following page (or Friends), on which they can see the videos posted by their friends and creators they follow. The second one is Explore, a page on which they can discover new creators, topics, and ideas.
The road to virality
Compared to other social media platforms, on TikTok you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of followers to organically reach a large audience. Going viral doesn’t even depend on the success of your previous videos.
TikTok is primarily an outreach platform and that means it will test each one of your videos again and again, regardless of whether you have 10 or 10,000 followers. That’s why every video you post is an opportunity to go viral. Provided, of course, that you create content that resonates with your TikTok audience.
If your audience does like your TikToks, they will give you more than just a like. Users on this app are reportedly more engaged, and more willing to comment on videos and share them with their friends (not only on the app, but across other social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp too). What’s more, these activities further increase the chances of your content going viral.
The power of trends
It is impossible to talk about TikTok without mentioning TikTok trends. The platform is synonymous with trends that quickly spread to other platforms and find their way into the wider cultural context.
A TikTok trend is any specific, fun, or interesting element that can be (easily) recreated or interpreted in your way (from dance moves to song clips, movie quotes, funny phrases, questions, hashtags, etc.).
In short, a TikTok trend is a common denominator across a number of TikTok videos. For users, a trend can also serve as an information shortcut. As soon as they see a video that recreates a trend, they immediately recognize its context and know exactly what to expect.
Trends are an integral part of the TikTok experience and (re)creating them increases your chances of organically showing up on a lot of For You pages. It is also an opportunity for users (and brands) to show their personality and embrace the fun side of the app (and themselves for that matter).
As TikTok began as a music and dancing app it is still largely defined by audio. Audio (e.g. popular music and audio soundbites for example) is therefore extremely important. It’s a TikTok trademark in a sense. Due to its large focus on the audio experience, the platform impacts the music industry tremendously and it is now synonymous with an app where users discover (new) music and musicians (by making them go viral).
New users and brands that are just starting on the app often find TikTok’s communication style challenging because it tends to be very specific and dominated by slang.
TikTok is a space in which qualities such as personality, accessibility, authenticity, banter, and humor are sought after. Simpler and more natural communication styles are rather appreciated and expected from everyone, including brands and businesses. Brands that leverage these ‘rules of the game’ and manage to humanize their brand by becoming more like “just one of us” are likely to gain the trust of their audience on TikTok.
This is how to do it: Duolingo
Standard ads, tried-and-true marketing tactics, and taking yourself too seriously won’t get you far on TikTok. Overly retouched photos or videos of your latest products are more likely to result in smirks rather than delightful smiles. And Duolingo knows this all too well. It’s one of the best examples of brands that have truly mastered TikTok, its lingo, and its culture.
Duolingo is a popular app for learning languages but their TikTok account is full of videos that incorporate TikTok slang, recreate trends, popular memes, and unapologetic humor that spares no one including the brand itself and its audience. The entire TikTok account of Duolingo is based around the adventures of the brand’s mascot, the green owl Duo, currently followed by 8.3 million people.
But isn’t TikTok an app for only kids and teenagers?
- from 35 to 44 (15.7%)
- from 45 to 54 (8.3%)
- and 55+ (5.8%)
In the US too, TikTok has been banned from government-issued phones in 34 states. Montana tried to ban the app on all personal devices, but the U.S. judge granted a preliminary injunction to stop the TikTok ban in December 2023, saying it violates the free speech rights of users.
In March 2023, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve a bill that could grant President Biden the authority to ban the platform nationwide. TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew was questioned before a U.S. House committee about China’s government’s potential influence on the platform. The efforts to ban TikTok in the US have since then come to a halt.
What about content creators on TikTok?
Like any social media platform, TikTok wouldn’t make much sense without content creators. The people who are actually creating and sharing their content on the app. From celebrities and influencers, businesses and organizations, to individuals with the most diverse talents, skills, and ideas, there are so many people who make content for TikTok’s For You pages day after day.
The most popular TikTok content creators
Followed by 161.8 million, the most popular TikTok creator is 23-year-old Khabane Lame. His TikToks that parody different tips and tricks videos, won over TikTokers.
Charli D’Amelio (151.6 million followers on TikTok) ranks second, Bella Poarch (93.6 million) as third, MrBeast (91.4 million) is the fourth and Addison Rae (88.7 million followers) is the fifth most followed TikTok creator.
Currently only available in select countries (US, UK, Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, Korea) and on personal accounts only (Business Accounts are not eligible), the Creativity Program will reward high-quality, original videos that are over 1 minute long. This is a clear departure from the short, 15-second clips that TikTok was famous for, and a big indication of which direction the platform plans to go in the future.
To be included in the Creativity Program, upon applying, the content creator should have at least 10,000 followers and at least 100,000 video views within the last 30 days.
TikTok marketing: What type of content you should be posting?
As stated in TikTok’s Creativity Program, the platform is looking to reward “high-quality” content.
What does high-quality content on TikTok mean?
On TikTok posting a lot of videos that don’t follow some sort of storyline simply means wasted time and resources. By the TikTok standards, the video itself doesn’t have to be of high quality. In fact, the more polished it looks, the less authentic it comes across in the eyes of the TikTok audience.
High-quality content on TikTok means content that integrates TikTok’s specific culture and communication style and is based on the interests, expectations, and habits of your target audience. High-quality TikToks need to be either very relevant, fun, or useful to audiences with specific interests, able to satisfy their curiosity and hold their attention.
The most successful TikToks, and by successful we mean viral, regularly have high engagement rates and high video completion rates. When analyzed, whether it’s a useful piece of information, an unusual anecdote, a satire, a relatable story, or the one that recreates the latest TikTok trend, all of the successful videos have one thing in common: dynamic storytelling.
Finding the best way to tell a short, but impactful enough story through a video format is the daily challenge for content creators on TikTok. And even more difficult is how to make the viewers stop scrolling on your video when there’s so much content to compete with on the For You page.
So how do you grab someone’s attention? Most of the time, the answer is: You come up with a really good hook.
When we talk of hooks on TikTok, we usually mean placing these immediately noticeable short descriptive texts or audios that appear in the first three seconds of the video and give the viewers a hint of what’s in it for them, what can they expect and why it is worth watching the video until the very end. A hook is simply a great way to draw the viewer into the story, but to keep them watching you are going to need to continue with some dynamic storytelling until the end.
Bold and creative win the game
“Breaking through on TikTok means shifting from occasional displays of Creative Bravery to infusing it into (…) daily behavior and strategies. Brands that will see the most success will regularly pique global curiosities, flip traditional story arcs, and deepen trust with their audiences”, says the Report adding that “in an era where storytelling has become predictable, TikTok showcases creativity without a typical beginning, middle or end. In 2024 we’re going to see the TikTok community build on this in ways we’ve never seen before.”
Formats and themes on TikTok
In its beginnings, only short videos of up to 15 seconds (vertical, across the entire mobile screen) could be posted on TikTok. Over time, however, the platform not only extended the duration of the videos but introduced new formats as well.
As of now, videos of up to 10 minutes can be posted on the app and TikTok actively encourages creators to make videos that are longer than a minute.
In addition, photo posts are now available, both a single photo and photo galleries (carousels) types of posts. Then there are also Story posts that disappear after 24 hours.
However, video posts are still the most dominant format on the platform, and TikTok offers a whole range of advanced and user-friendly video editing tools. Some of them are, for example, Duets and Stitches, which are perfect for collaborating with other creators. There is also a plethora of effects, audio, and tools that make adding voice-overs, subtitles, and text very easy.
Gen Z’s favorite search engine
TikTok is becoming increasingly popular as a search engine among young people. Almost 40% of Gen Z say they prefer it over Google. By the way, Google already ranks TikToks high in its search results. Due to their short format, TikToks usually give quick and succinct answers to numerous queries.
For brands that want to increase their organic reach on TikTok, focusing on SEO (post optimization for better ranking on search engines) is crucial for this app. Captions on TikTok are now up to 2,200 characters long so there’s a lot of room to add all those relevant keywords for your business.
Thematically, the content on TikTok covers the entire range of human interests: music, film, books, design and art, science, technology, finance, politics, health, comedy, pop culture, showbiz, cooking, make-up and fashion are just some of them. On TikTok, you can also find the most diverse communities – from BookTok, FashionTok, TechTock, or FoodTok to very narrow niches and specific subcultures, such as WitchTok or MiniatureWorld.
In addition to entertainment, popular content categories on TikTok are educational and informative content. This is not surprising considering that TikTok is designed to be an ideal tool for learning, research, and discovery. At the palm of their hand, each user gets to see daily fresh content tailored to their specific interests.
TikTok marketing: What about advertising?
Ads and fun in the same sentence? It is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss. That is why more and more brands are including TikTok advertising in their marketing strategies. Advertising on the platform increases their brand visibility, strengthens brand trust, and piques their engagement. The most successful brands on TikTok create ads that seamlessly fit into the user experience on the platform by showing a more creative and more authentic side of their business.
How to get started with TikTok marketing?
That is why you must understand as much as you can about the TikTok culture and come up with a well-thought-through content and advertising strategy. Some of the questions your strategies will need to answer are:
- What do you know about your target audience on TikTok? What are their habits and expectations, questions, problems, and interests?
- Having in mind TikTok’s unique culture and communication style, what solutions can you offer to your audience and how will you present them?
- What is your brand voice and how would you like to be perceived on the app?
- Do you want to collaborate with influencers? How much are you willing to spend on influencer marketing?