What is TikTok, and should I care?

You’ve heard of it, and people are talking about it. But what is it, and what do I need to know?

What is TikTok?

If you have any interest in online video, you will have heard of TikTok.

The micro video sharing platform has grown at a phenomenal rate, hitting 1.5 billion app downloads in November 2019.

According to figures released last month, TikTok was the 7th most downloaded app of the entire decade 2010 to 2019 and it was only released in September 2016.

Combine that degree of reach with its highly-engaged user base: TikTok claims to have around 500 million active users worldwide. 29% of those who use it at least monthly confess to being on it every day.

TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance is today the most valuable startup business in the world. Its valuation of over $75 billion puts it ahead of Uber and other rising household names in tech.

What does TikTok do?

TikTok allows users to create and share short, looping videos of up to 15 seconds length. By stitching multiple videos together, it is possible to extend the maximum run time to 60 seconds.

It has a lot of features relating to music, which reflects its previous incarnation as the app Musical.ly.

Users can like, share and comment on other users’ content, and follow both people and hashtags to tailor the constantly-updating stream of videos the app feeds them.

More so than any other comparable social platforms, TikTok is AI-driven. User behaviour and engagement teaches the app what each viewer wants to see, and they are served with more of that.

As soon as you open the app, the first thing you see is an algorithmically-picked, full-screen video  tailored to your interests.

Who uses TikTok?

TikTok has been consciously designed for and marketed at a “Generation Z”, teenage audience. Today, 41% of its users are aged 16 to 24.

Naturally, this makes it irresistible to marketers and advertisers, who are always desperate to capture this elusive youth audience.

Unsurprisingly, an ad platform was added to TikTok in 2019. However, compared to similar sites like Instagram, advertising on TikTok remains relatively underdeveloped.

But before you throw your entire ad budget at TikTok, it is important to be aware of the users’ global distribution. 44% of TikTok users are from India. China – where it is a separate but parallel app called Douyin – and other Asian nations make up another big chunk of the user base.

Figures for 2018 showed 119.3 million downloads in India compared to 6.7 million in the UK.

How should I use TikTok?

The massive youth audience is what has marketers and communications professionals excited about TikTok, but norms and expectations around how it can be used for messaging purposes have yet to really coalesce.

At present, the biggest advantages of TikTok are:

·         The algorithmically-driven feed gives high organic visibility to content tagged with popular hashtags

·         The relative immaturity of the platforms provides opportunities to build a large niche audience rapidly with far less competition than on other platforms

·         There is less advertising on other platforms, increasing potential impact – although costs are high compared to other platforms at the time of writing

However, the vast bulk of the content is entertainment-focused, with music, comedy and other viral qualities to the fore. That is understandable given the short content format and the quickfire, one-after-the-other nature of the feeds.

Users have been quick to jump on and ridicule ham-fisted attempts by marketers to insert themselves into conversations without understanding the unique TikTok culture that has evolved – although there are prominent success stories as well.

What are the risks?

Of course, TikTok is not free from controversy.

It was temporarily banned in India over social and moral concerns. US and other legislators have voiced concern about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese authorities.

The company has already been hit with record fines in the US over its use of children’s data. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) began investigating similar complaints in the UK last July.

So, do I need to be on TikTok?

Unless you are explicitly targeting a young audience and having difficulty reaching them through more established platforms, TikTok is probably not essential for you to be using right now.

But it is critical that you watch this space!

For the last 70 years, the trends, themes and methods of communication that have grown up organically among people of the age groups of those who are now on TikTok have defined what comes next.

The tastes, values and content we are seeing today on TikTok will almost certainly exert a powerful influence on how media communications works tomorrow.

So get ahead of the curve and keep your eye on what is happening at the cutting edge of social media… but maybe save your budget for something else for the time being.