Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The little app from China with global aspirations

Published in Jan-Feb 2020

What lies behind TikTok’s success?

With hostility between the US and China almost reaching the levels of a new Cold War, there is a risk of what industry experts term as the rise of the ‘splinternet’ – abandonment of a unified world wide web in favour of silos of the internet controlled by national governments, and adhering to their standards of acceptable content. Although this may have broader implications on the freedom of information and speech, from the perspectives of marketing and technology the more pressing issue is that such a model will mean abandoning the universal standards of development that led to such rapid adoption of the internet globally and its ability to reach consumers around the world.

Nothing personifies the rise of this splinternet model better than China, where most foreign players no longer operate due to censorship requirements and the existence of alternate ecosystem of apps, software and tools like WeChat, Baidu and Alibaba. More recently however, there have been indications that local apps are transcending China’s national borders and making a play for a larger share of the global market. Nothing personifies this trend of a new sino-sphere of social media apps than the rise of TikTok, a video sharing app that in 2018 became the most popular downloaded app in the US and the first Chinese one to steal that coveted title from the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

Although purists may argue, correctly, that TikTok (where people can make three to 60-second looping videos based on a wide range of genres) is not based in China, it is nonetheless Chinese owned and developed. The app was launched by the Beijing based company, Byte Dance, as a globalised clone of their popular app Douyin. Hamstrung by their inability to grow globally by Chinese censors, Byte Dance moved some operations out of China and placed servers in other countries. For their very profitable Chinese market, the company retained Douyin and together, both apps have a critical mass of over a billion downloads worldwide.

For marketers, the charm of TikTok is multifaceted. While many initially didn’t see the potential of the app as a marketing medium, as it picked up a reputation of a goofball app that people mostly use to lip-sync to popular songs of the day, Byte Dance invested heavily in carving out a niche for their new app and made strides in improving functionality and content delivery options for both consumers and advertisers. Added to this, the company made a one billion dollar acquisition of, their dominant competitor in the western hemisphere, and instantly added nearly a 100 million users to the app. The acquisition not only brought with it users but several established social media influencers with a developed follower base, thereby considerably improving TikTok’s promise as a marketing platform. The company also launched a comprehensive series of ad management tools called TikTok campaigns. All this hard work seems to have paid off and TikTok has caught on, with brands jumping on the platform for a variety of reasons, including the following five:

1. Reach

TikTok is the seventh most popular app based on web. It has a presence in over 150 markets and supports 75 languages. Brands quickly realised that Millennials are a tougher sell and with the rise of digital distribution and consumption of media, creating advertising that strikes a chord with them is harder than ever before.

TikTok with over 500 million active users disproportionately from Millennials and Gen Z, offers a huge opportunity to reach this coveted segment and brands ranging from Chipotle to The Washington Post seem to have noticed. On the analytics side, the numbers are equally impressive. TikTok users, on average, spend 52 minutes on the app every day. The gender split is fairly balanced (over 55% men and 45% women), with an average session time of just under five minutes. The largest age segment is 16 to 24-year-olds, with over half of the new users coming from emerging markets like India, Turkey and Central Europe.

2. Seek credibility

A key challenge brands face is that advertising is increasingly viewed as lacking credibility. With the rise of social media, influencers are key to brand success and TikTok, particularly with its large body of influencers, offers brands new avenues to capitalise on user generated content. Brands on TikTok can move beyond just having their own channels (a functionality still offered) but tend to rely on content created by influencers, consumers and related segments in short timeframes that do not make too many demands on attention and still get the message across.

3. The right opportunity (and content)

Credibility, reach or functionality will not work without the right content and while this may seem like conventional wisdom (before you commit that obvious eye roll), the real surprise with TikTok is the number of diverse brands (many of which would not be considered as natural advertisers for the medium) to have found opportunities to connect with new audiences. Chipotle used TikTok to create their ‘Dancing with the Avocados’ promotion for National Guac Day. The promotion spawned a #GuacDance challenge that went viral and became the highest performing branded challenge on TikTok. Another example is the NBA, which has signed a $15 million brand partnership with TikTok. The NBA used the video sharing platform’s reputation for goofball content to their advantage and featured videos with popular music that NBA stars lip-synced to, or to short videos of bloopers from NBA games or famous moments overlaid to popular songs. This made the TikTok channel of the NBA one of the most popular in North America, with over five million followers, and is a good example of the differentiation of content between social media channels. Brands like The Washington Post and the San Diego Zoo have found TikTok a viable means of connecting with new audiences beyond their established niches by creating suitable content for the medium. For example, the TikTok stream of The Washington Post is immensely popular for videos of behind the scenes action in the newsroom where staffers vehemently argue on what should be considered for publication at what positions of importance in the paper as well as staffers discussing celebrity gossip that the paper otherwise would not publish due to editorial standards. Experiential marketing is another area where TikTok stood out as a medium that delivers solid engagement opportunities. Much like the un-boxing videos on YouTube, short videos with customers interacting with their brands have been great sellers on TikTok. Clothing giant Guess launched a highly popular hashtag challenge #inmydenim that netted the brand over 35,000 new followers with just three posts.

4. Be brave, be brief, be gone

With their short videos and the ability they give users to interact, collaborate and create new content, TikTok is great medium for brands to experiment. The reputation of the app to be a bit of a goofball that doesn’t take itself too seriously should encourage brands to capitalise on that positioning. Compared to other social media streams, TikTok has a younger audience and a more fluid brand positioning that is open to brands that want to try something new. Brands can engage with audiences using a variety of collaboration tools like duets, comments and video shares and take more risks. As the example of The Washington Post suggests, brands can use TikTok as a way of coming out of their more defined shells to gain new relevance with new audience segments.

5. Value beyond marketing

TikTok is proving a worthy medium for messaging for the ‘after-party’ of marketing. Many companies with complex products or multi-staged sales cycles are using TikTok to create content like product un-boxing, operating instructions and warranty explanations. Other organisations such as the United Nations can use the app to mobilise resources or share success stories with videos from parts of the world which are not easily accessible to the decision makers and people who fund their programmes. They can use TikTok to create informational or even humorous videos to showcase success stories. TikTok is also creating a name in the oft-forgotten internal communications realm, where the app is used by employees to create motivational videos, training content and other key messaging, such as recruitment ads (albeit in its own signature off-beat style).

So is TikTok right for your brand? Although the answer may be no in the context of your brand, its history, its consumers and its content, you may still wish to give this little app from China that aspires to a global footprint, a hard second look.

Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.