Feature

TikTok: social media in the fast lane

It has up to 625 million active users, but you're probably not one of them. So, what is it about social-media platform TikTok that makes it so popular among a younger demographic, and does it present brands with a viable alternative to the more established channels of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat?

TikTok: social media in the fast lane

If you’re reading this, you’re too old for TikTok. Or at least that’s what most people think.

Take Gaby Khalastchy, an account director at influencer marketing agency Wildfire Social, who, at the ripe-old age of 28, sighs plaintively when looking back on her recent foray on to the platform: "I think it’s the nature of what you have to do to keep up with it: dancing to pop songs, or keeping up with other people’s videos… yeah, I do feel old."

TikTok, owned by Chinese company Bytedance, is a video-sharing platform on which people create off-the-wall content – usually set to music and lasting 15 seconds. Its growth has been strong: it has surpassed a billion downloads and has 500 million active users, according to GlobalWebIndex, while app analytics site AppAnnie estimates TikTok has more than 625 million monthly active users worldwide (up 85% year on year). The majority of these users are thought to be in China, where it is known as Douyin, with India and the US its biggest overseas markets. Bytedance, however, does not disclose its user numbers.

Bytedance created TikTok after buying tween-focused social app Musical.ly in 2017 and has been steadily building an international ad sales operation in the US and Europe, with the headquarters for the latter based in a WeWork office in London’s Holborn. This office has grown from housing just six people when it launched last August to about 150 today.

The app itself feels different from other social media. When you open it, there is no friends feed, but a page called "For you", which pushes content based on videos you have previously interacted with or watched. TikTok’s algorithm learns about you and makes this central to the experience and, instead of creating content for a growing network of friends, the emphasis is on jumping from trend to trend. Users looking for something to post are encouraged to take part in group challenges, or "Hashtag challenges", or shown popular songs. 

Comedy also sets TikTok apart; it contains a lot of content, ranging from the kind of familiar reality slapstick reminiscent of You’ve Been Framed, to bizarre meme fodder, usually in the form of lip-syncing videos.

Two unconnected 15-year-olds (whom we’re not going to name for privacy reasons), gave Campaign strikingly similar answers to why they use TikTok.Both say it’s harder to use than Instagram or Snapchat, and each is inspired to create content specifically "for jokes" (one wants to be a comedy influencer, or as she puts it, "get famous for jokes"). When asked where they get their inspiration, they reveal an acute desire to tap into "meme culture" – "watching other people’s videos; a song or sound relating to a current situation you’re in".

Regardless of age, a further barrier to entry for all newcomers comes in the shape of feeling you’re not "in on the joke" when using TikTok for the first time. Everything seems to be in reference to something else. This is symptomatic of the short video length, which by necessity requires prior knowledge of what it refers to on the part of the viewer.

Even using it professionally can be daunting. Khalastchy managed to get 55,000 views for a fairly standard video of her and a colleague lip-syncing to Wasabi by Little Mix. She reckons it became popular because she used a trending filter, but other than that it felt like a "random" success.

"There are a lot of filters built in and a lot of it is dancing and lip-syncing. It’s like how there’s a lot of ‘meme culture’ on Instagram – you need to see the first one to understand the tenth one. If you haven’t already been scrolling through TikTok, you wouldn’t understand half of what’s going on."

Once she got used to the platform, Khalastchy was impressed with the creativity she saw there. "There is a lot of interesting stuff in there in terms of artists, people doing [comedy] sketches; there is a lot of creativity, it isn’t just people having a laugh and dancing," she says.

Instead of trying to create the perfect video, Khalastchy found you are better off trying to shoot something rough and quick that is relevant to a trending topic or meme that might become stale within the space of a few hours. Much like fast food and fast fashion, TikTok is bringing fast culture to social media.

TikTok is giving the ad industry similar advice. In a sign of its rapid maturity, it has spent this year forging relationships with London agencies at the major holding companies, and last month hosted its first IAB Digital Upfronts event (to which the press was not invited). Many agency executives that have dealt with TikTok in the past few months tell Campaign a similar story: its progress for a new social-media player has been extraordinary, the platform’s offer is really exciting, but it has a long way to go to assure major brands it is a viable alternative to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. 

What’s striking is that they all describe TikTok as being in the position Snapchat was when it entered the UK market three years ago: no rate card, no concrete assurances about using third parties to verify user numbers, but lots of potential. In short, while TikTok may not have yet secured the universal embrace of major brands and their media plans, the flirting has quietly been happening for over a year. 

TikTok’s Upfronts was low key in many respects: between 30 and 40 people from agencies attended, the whole thing lasted little more than an hour, and the presenters had no name tags. Those who attended the presentation noted the common refrain throughout was that TikTok is the place for people to indulge in self-expression. They communicated no qualms about the platform having a lack of "polish", while strongly positioning it as the destination for short-form videos that allows everyone to be a creative and share their passion for video without striving for perfection.

"We don’t want someone to take five cuts of the video," one observer heard a TikTok rep say. "We want them to show their true selves." For the 15 seconds of video content that people post on the platform, people are, on average, spending 43 minutes shooting and editing it. While, this is a lot of time investment compared with Twitter, in which messages are fired off within seconds, YouTube creators similarly spend a whole day creating videos lasting an average of 10 minutes. 

TikTok also claims the vast majority of its users (84%) have posted a video within the past month. It’s a "really leaned-in platform", it said, which means few people are using it passively just to see what other people post. 

It also spoke about how the platform is grabbing attention in a highly fragmented social-media market. Statistics show high engagement rates – it has 11.5 million monthly video views and people are spending 53 minutes a day on the platform, opening the app 11 times a day on average. 

There was also much talk about values: it’s about being "authentic", "creative", "a place for self-expression", "to celebrate diversity and inclusivity" – as opposed to the more cookie-cutter approach people take to Instagram, where familiar pictures of food and holidays, as well as selfies, are the norm.

There are two things advertisers need to grasp about TikTok, according to R/GA London’s associate strategist, Amelia Westerberg. "TikTok is truly unique in the way people use it – as an outlet of expressing their real selves, rather than the contrived version of the person society wants them to be," she says. "It’s one of the very few platforms that celebrates the art of authenticity in its purest form, instead of playing up to who people want to be. TikTok speaks its own language and users are very quick to spot inauthenticity."

TikTok’s pitch avoided any mention of the negative press that has plagued it (more on that later), with one attendee who spoke to Campaign claiming it was a "missed opportunity". Nor was there a discussion about the company’s future roadmap: how is it going to keep growing and remain profitable when Facebook is on manoeuvres to take it down? Facebook quietly launched a similar platform, Lasso, in November 2018, and has plans to roll it out globally after a test phase in Mexico. Snapchat, meanwhile, appeared to ape TikTok’s Hashtag Challenge by launching its "Lens challenge" a month later.

Those that attended TikTok’s Upfronts were surprised to have been given no concrete information about what ad formats are available to buy now on the platform, or other inventory that TikTok has in development. 

"Given that the audience was predominantly people in advertising and marketing, it’s surprising this wasn’t more of a focus," one attendee says. "The session was a very glossy, inspirational approach; it’s clear they want to educate the industry about what the platform is. But it didn’t really speak to us as what experts in our field could do with it." 

However, one media agency executive expresses surprise at how quickly TikTok is progressing from zero to having a full suite of ad formats. He says: "With Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest, they actually took two or three years to get all of the tech needed to run a successful campaign. For example, tracking pixels and all the different kinds of targeting. TikTok has linked up what Facebook and Instagram have got; it’s basically copied all of their functionality. So that will definitely help and it makes it more appealing to media agencies for clients to get on there, because they can measure their activity, target who they want, they can upload CRM, and so on." 

Nor was there a discussion at the Upfronts about measures to introduce third-party verification to reassure brands that user numbers are legitimate. Sources tell Campaign they were told that TikTok is undergoing beta tests with Integral Ad Science and Moat. TikTok would not confirm this but says: "It is too early to discuss specifics but we are currently testing and exploring a number of options so we can offer the best tools to agencies and brands."

Industry observers report the cost of advertising as relatively expensive compared with other social media, but "not sky high". Starting rates for CPM in the UK are £6 on TikTok’s biddable ad platform (currently in beta mode), compared with £3.50 for Snapchat and £3 for Instagram. One digital agency says Snapchat and Instagram’s starting rates were closer to £15 when they each first entered the UK, so TikTok is already on a more competitive footing. CPM rates are expected to come down as more advertisers come on board and the range of ad formats on the platform increases. Media agencies expect TikTok to introduce a programmatic ad-buying and measuring dashboard for self-serve formats, which should bring the price of ads down. 

Paul Kasamias, managing partner at Starcom, describes the pricing of advertising on TikTok as "not very consistent", in part because of the lack of transparency. "The brand takeover is exclusive but expensive and seems a big risk to take when there is no third-party verification of audience," he says.

"TikTok seems open to native video-buying and that’s the opportunity where brands are feeling more comfortable. It has its version of lenses – branded lenses – and I can see it taking share from Snapchat."

However, he adds: "It’s a problem when it doesn’t have a standard rate card. Some of the buying models are cost per click and it has open tools to go in and buy certain audiences. But the ability to forecast your performance is quite limited. It doesn’t yet have the infrastructure open to agencies… it is  opening up its inventory to advertisers and agencies but the buying methods are not very sophisticated."

Agencies also report widespread concern among brands about the high proportion of under-18s using TikTok. Many marketers first heard of TikTok after it received a world-record $5.7m fine in the US in February for collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. Then, in June, the UK’s Information Commission launched an investigation into TikTok’s data collection practices. There have also been concerns raised over how children have been using TikTok to send their favourite stars "digital gifts", which can cost up to £48.99. Benjamin Braun, chief marketing officer at Samsung Europe, describes TikTok and its social media rivals as having a "Sisyphus challenge" in keeping its channels safe for users and brands.

"TikTok is gaining traction with a younger audience," Braun adds. "Whether it can convert this traction into a platform on which brands can safely engage with consumers remains to be seen."

Samsung, as a major global brand, is looking at TikTok very cautiously because the reputational damage from a major brand-safety incident would affect it dramatically. According to Kasamias, for whom Samsung is a client, the company loves the innovative video formats and approach to using audio in social media, but wants greater assurances that tighter brand safety measures are into place.

Meanwhile, Group M labels TikTok as "high risk" because of ongoing brand safety concerns and the lack of third-party audience verification. Amie Lever, MediaCom UK’s head of paid social, says TikTok’s "unclear monetisation criteria and lack of advertisers’ control" are also risk factors. 

Lever explains: "Because TikTok’s audience is so incredibly young, there’s a zero tolerance when it comes to any questions around children-related content, and so, in general, there’s an area that TikTok has not been an adult at the social playing field. It has failed to grasp the seriousness of the audience it has exposure to and the responsibility it has in protecting them."

She adds: "No brand wants to be the first to get its fingers burned. The benefit of being seen as innovative is low compared with the cost to brand reputation. TikTok is not yet sophisticated enough to tie engagement and followers to ROI, compared with Facebook, which has partnerships with third-parties like Nielsen."

Like its young and growing audience, TikTok is doing things differently, but quickly, having to adapt to the rules of the game when it comes to attracting more advertisers and monetising the platform. Perhaps it will continue to remain a risky, mysterious alternative compared with the establishment brands of Facebook and Snapchat. 

Or, maybe, given how quickly the older companies have reacted to its challenge by creating similar TikTok services, we might just be witnessing the first big revolution in social media.

TikTok influencers

Leticia Gomes

A super-creative Brazilian influencer with 1.9 million followers on TikTok, who tune in to see her surprising make-up transformations into famous people and fictional characters, such as Albert Einstein and Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family

Zac King

King, one of the world’s original YouTubers who created a viral video of cats using lightsabers in 2011, has attracted 22.9 million fans on TikTok, having previously become an influencer on Vine, Twitter’s now defunct video platform. Most of the American’s videos showcase digital magic tricks and comedy skits.

Amelia Gething

The English model has 7.3 million fans on TikTok, where she regularly creates lip-syncing and dancing videos. She has also amassed more than 500,000 subscribers on YouTube (TikTok videos pictured top).

TikTok vs the rest

It’s difficult to compare like-for-like popularity of the world’s biggest social-media platforms because they choose to report user numbers in different ways. Industry estimates show Bytedance has twice as many monthly users as Twitter and Snapchat, although the majority of its audience are thought to be in China (where the app is called Douyin; TikTok is the international brand).

625 million

The number of Bytedance (TikTok plus Douyin) monthly active users in August, according to an estimate by App Annie, with 16 million in the US. No official figures are available.

2.41 billion

The number of Facebook monthly active users as of 30 June, according to its quarterly report. This is the total for Facebook, Instagram (which announced more than one billion monthly active users in June 2018) and WhatsApp combined. Facebook doesn’t break down the figures by platform.

330 million

The number of monthly active users on Twitter in the first quarter of 2019, according to Zephoria. As of July 2019, it  had an average of 139 million "monetizable" daily active users. 

311 million

The number of monthly active users on Snapchat, according to Omnicore. It had 203 million daily active users, as of July 2019, according to company figures. 

Key players

TikTok is recruiting for a general manager to lead the UK business, which is seen as a key growth market in Europe. It is also on the lookout for a head of EMEA policy, a crucial role as the platform manages brand-safety issues and data protection. It is part of a hiring spree that could boost its UK operation to 200 within the next six months.

Inam Mahmood

Director of revenue and partnerships 

Joined in 2018 from Peg.co, where he was commercial director

Anastasia Nicholl

Brand partnerships lead EMEA

Joined in October 2018
Previous client-facing roles at Facebook and Sizmek

Richard Waterworth

EMEA marketing

Joined TikTok after eight years at YouTube, where he worked in a similar role
Formerly ITV’s director of platform marketing

Ryan Martin

Brand strategist

Joined in November 2018 after six years at MEC/Wavemaker

Biggest brand campaigns
to date

Walmart 

In late September, Asda owner Walmart launched its "#SavingsShuffle" hashtag challenge and promoted the campaign using TikTok influencers. The brand used the hashtag challenge Explore tab, which appears when a user taps on a hashtag, to advertise products and ask users to guess Walmart’s best-selling item (which is loo roll).

Ralph Lauren

As the "official outfitter" of the US Open Tennis tournament, the fashion brand used the hashtag challenge to show off its collection by asking users to post a video of themselves wearing Ralph Lauren products, using the hashtag #WinningRL. The top three videos with the highest engagement were awarded free US Open clothing.

Adidas

TBWA Shanghai won the first Cannes Lion to be awarded to a Douyin campaign this year, taking bronze in the Social & Influencer category. To promote a hoodie called ZNE, Adidas China fans were invited to mimic an action where athletes instantly change clothes. Sporting influencers, including David Beckham, helped persuade more than 267,000 users to take up the video challenge.

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