For those who consider the realm of social media marketing as being limited to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, there is another platform whose potential is quickly being appreciated: TikTok, a Chinese-developed app that has become a phenomenon across 150 countries. And while TikTok has become the next important channel for many B2C campaigns, marketing experts are watching its ongoing evolution to determine whether B2B promotions will soon find a place in its digital orbit.
TikTok began its life in China in September 2016 as Douyin, an app that enabled users to create music and lip-sync videos running between three and 15 seconds and looping videos running between three and 60 seconds. The app was developed by ByteDance, a Beijing-headquartered company, and provided exclusively within China. Douyin was wildly popular and racked up more than 100 million users within its first year.
However, Douyin was subject to Chinese censorship restrictions on content, so ByteDance created TikTok as an international edition of the app and made it available beginning September 2017. Two months later, ByteDance acquired the Chinese app Music.ly for $1 billion, merging its user base with TikTok.
“To understand TikTok’s unprecedented growth, the app had around 500 million users in May 2019,” said Emad AbouElgheit, associate professor of marketing at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU). “That is nearly one fifth of users on the giant Facebook, but only in three years compared to Facebook’s 15 years of growth.”
TikTok has become particularly popular with younger audiences. The market research agency GlobalWebIndex reported that 41% of TikTok users belonged to Generation Z, the next demographic youth wave following the Millennials. For those who recall their youth rather than flaunt it, viewing TikTok content can be a little disconcerting.
“One look at the platform and you’ll immediately feel old,” joked Jaime Urteaga, founder and CEO at Digital Chair Inc. in White Plains. “I’ve spent a few hours on it over the years and each time it’s been the same experience. It has very Vine-like video clips – many are funny, cute, entertaining, or sexual, and probably 95% and more are by creators who are about age 15 to 18 years old.”
Not unlike other social media platforms, TikTok has generated its share of online stars, including a Pomeranian dog named Jiffpom who has 19.5 million followers. Prominent entertainers including Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars and Gwen Stefani are connecting with their fans on TikTok and “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon incorporated TikTok into his program by tapping into the platform’s popular “challenge” feature with his #tumbleweedchallenge, which resulted in the creation of more 8,000 videos of TikTok users rolling across the ground like a tumbleweed. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly has a TikTok account, although he has not created content on the platform.
“According to Hootsuite, the app was valued at $75 billion in 2019,” observed WCSU’s AbouElgheit. “Their revenue model is in-app purchases where users buy virtual money (coins) to give back to influencers and creators of videos. In return, creators send digital gifts to users.”
From a marketing perspective, the ultra-short video format of TikTok does not enable longer-form advertising that is prevalent on YouTube and Facebook. As a result, much of the marketing efforts on the platform either relies on influencers to hype up a brand or quickie humor that lends itself to meme-level comedy.
“TikTok is less of a conversion platform and more of a general branding platform,” noted Christine Gritmon, a Nyack-based social media strategist.
Despite these parameters, major consumer brands including Apple Music, Chipolte, Fenty Beauty and Nike have adapted to TikTok’s format with videos that eschew the hard-sell for a light and airy approach. The U.S. Army tapped into TikTok for its recruiting efforts, although that was put on indefinite hold after several politicians, including New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer, questioned whether the app’s Chinese origins posed a security concern.
Joshua Shuart, a professor at Sacred Heart University’s Jack Welch College of Business, noted how the sports world has embraced TikTok with gusto.
“All of the teams and the professional leagues have it,” he said. “The international soccer leagues are cultivating their next generation of fans.”
Shuart also pointed out that e-commerce has gotten into the TikTok act, too.
“Memes that are popularized on TikTok go to Amazon and are turned into merchandise,” he said.
Chase Hutchison, senior vice president at Brookfield-based Mack Media Group, observed that TikTok’s freshness in the social media universe is a marketing plus.
“It is relatively new, and therefore is not nearly as saturated as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” he said.
Eddie Martinez, owner of the TOP Station podcasting operation in Bridgeport, is using TikTok to stay connected with the youth audiences he reaches in his work as an inspirational speaker.
“A lot of people are following and liking,” he said of his TikTok account. “Sometimes I get asked questions.”
Martinez added that marketers can ill afford to pass by TikTok for their social media outreach to younger audiences.
“You have to be on top of everything,” he continued. “You might think this platform is just for kids, but kids today play a huge role in what parents do. Parents take into consideration what kids want when they are spending hundreds of dollars.”
But for many local marketing agencies with more of a B2B focus, TikTok’s is not in their social media strategy plan.
“Most of the businesses that I work with have an older target audience – business owners, home owners, etc. – and I don’t believe that TikTok would be effective in reaching that audience at the moment,” said Nicholas Mastrogiorgio, owner of MastroTek, a website design and internet marketing agency in Mount Vernon.
Digital Chair’s Urteaga pointed out that the platform is not actively seeking B2B agency participation.
“Their sign-up says they’re currently only taking direct clients, which means the client would have to sign up themselves and delegate us access,” he explained. “So, they don’t have an agency portal yet, as their ad platform is still in its infancy. And, the sign-up form has it so their team will contact you if you fit their criteria for advertising with them within five days.”
Nonetheless, TikTok has attracted entities that many people might not associate with Gen Z appeal. These include the Washington Post, which produces short skits that poke fun at how it covers the news, and the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development, which offers videos of farm work in developing countries.
Some digital experts believe the B2B potential of TikTok is on the horizon. Jonathan Soares, founder and CEO of the Bethel-based website and app development firm Agency Labs, believed companies could use TikTok for self-promotion to potential clients and employees.
“Depending on who you are targeting, it could be phenomenal,” Soares said. “We are spending a lot of time looking at content on TikTok and we’re seeing more and more older demographics getting involved in it. We work with leading digital and creative agencies and a lot of them are starting to talk about how they have to be on the cutting edge on what’s new and emerging.”
And Scott Lipow, president of Six7 Marketing in Fairfield, believed TikTok will eventually widen its appeal in the manner that other youth-focused social media sites have.
“I think it’s totally possible that TikTok becomes a powerful strategy for more types of businesses, both large and small, over the longer term,” said Lipow. “Facebook and Instagram both started out with a mostly young demographic and then captured more adults with greater purchasing power and economic influence.”