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What is Tik Tok: Beyond a Fad?

Written by Callum McCahon - Apr 04 2019
If you haven’t heard about Tik Tok yet, where have you been? It’s the new social platform that everyone is talking about, and it’s seen explosive growth over the last few months - gaining 75 million new users in December. 

You’ve probably had some kind of interaction with TikTok without even realising. You might have seen content surfacing on the meme accounts of Instagram and Twitter. More likely, you’ve been served one of their ads on YouTube. (Every. single. time.)

I always take a skeptical view on new social platforms - we haven’t seen a really successful one since the launch of Snapchat in 2011. Many have tried (and failed) - YikYak, Ello, Vero. But the impressive growth that TikTok is seeing means it is hard to ignore much longer... so let’s take a look at how the platform works, how it’s different to the incumbents, and what it could mean for brands.

The Platform

Disclaimer number one: if you are reading this blog, you are almost certainly going to feel too old for TikTok. It’s going to feel weird, and you’re not going to understand everything. That’s sort of the point - learn to love it. 

Disclaimer number two: it’s very hard to explain what TikTok is to someone who hasn’t used it. So before reading any further - if you haven’t already - open up the App Store and download TikTok. Have a little swipe around, then head on back. Most likely with a puzzled expression on your face.  

So - what is TikTok? Well, it’s… reassuringly simple. It’s a short-form video platform, where users create 15 second videos that are set to music. Beyond this, the possibilities are practically endless, though you’re likely to see a combination of lip-syncing, dancing, challenges and short comedy skits.  

There are also some significant departures from the incumbent social apps. You won’t need to open an account and hand over your details in order to explore. You won’t get served any ads (yet). You won’t get shown any news (or fake news) (yet).


Whatever it is, it feels different to the social platforms we’re so used to. Two things in particular stood out to me: the ease of discovery, and the way it encourages participation. 

Ease of Discovery

The criticism often levelled at other social platforms (Twitter, in particular) is that it’s very hard to get started after you open an account. The utility of the platform almost entirely depends on the quality of the people you follow - and it’s hard to know who’s-who in the early stages. It takes a serious amount of effort to get going. 

With TikTok, it’s different. You don’t need to follow anyone to get hooked - open the app and you’re thrust straight into the action - full screen, vertical, immersive video. Following accounts isn’t really a big part of the experience - there is a feed of people that you follow, but it’s secondary to the main feed. 

Spend a bit of time on TikTok, and you’ll quickly realise that the real spirit of the platform lies in the recurring formats that keep popping up. Iterations-on-iterations of the same concept. This Twitter thread gives a great whistle stop tour. 

Memes are remixed and reproduced by the users, over and over again. And it’s this sense of mimicry that makes the platform so unique. On TikTok, memes seem to get better with each successive incarnation. 

Encouraging Participation

Interestingly, this doesn’t just make browsing a more enjoyable experience - it removes a big barrier to joining in yourself. On TikTok, there isn’t an expectation to come up with completely original content - it’s much more about iteration. Take an existing meme and injecting some of your creativity onto it. This has a democratising effect on the platform, meaning that it’s not all about influencers creating content and everyone else consuming it, in a way that other platforms seem to have evolved. 

Sure, most of these memes and challenges will begin with a power user, but after that, it’s in the hands of the masses to evolve and iterate. 

This strikes a nice contrast to Instagram. There, the expectation is that the content you post is original - in concept and execution. This can be quite inhibiting, especially for someone new to the platform - what exactly should I post?

With TikTok, there’s none of that friction. You see a format you like, and you mimic it, adding your own twist. Much less intimidating.

Three Opportunities for Brands

All sounds intriguing. How should my business get involved, I hear you ask? Final disclaimer: you should tread carefully, and make sure you truly understand the nuances of platform before diving in as a brand.  

That said, I see three clear opportunities for brands:

1. Listening: The first (and easiest) opportunity is to use TikTok as a listening platform - not many activities can give you a better insight into youth culture than spending half an hour swiping through TikTok. 

2. Creator Partnerships: Many brands will probably jump in and create an account and start posting their own memes - whilst this might be a good fit for some, remember that as a general rule, brands kill memes. A much smarter approach is to work with TikTok creators with big audiences to create a branded piece of content - as Sony have done to promote Escape Room. Even better, you could get them to try and start a challenge that relates to your brand.  

3. Advertising: whilst (as of February 2019) TikTok’s advertising platform isn’t yet live, the agency pitch deck is doing the rounds which means it’s imminent. Advertising on TikTok is will take various forms - but if your target audience is in that core teenager audience, it’s definitely worth a test. There’s likely to be an early movers advantage, with lower costs. 

Whether it’s the right play for your brand or not, TikTok is definitely one to keep an eye on over the coming months. If it continues on its current growth trajectory, it really could make a dent in the big three platforms’ share of attention amongst young audiences - which can only be a good thing.