Will TikTok Rise to the Top?

by Neeti Butala

As of last quarter, TikTok, an app for making and sharing videos, was the fourth most downloaded app in the world with over a billion downloads, with WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook taking the top three spots. Coming in hot with 24 percent year-over-year growth, many people are claiming TikTok is the next big player in the social media arena. I mean, we all love rooting for the underdog, right? 

According to TikTok, users spend an average of 46 minutes daily in the app, surpassing other social media titans such as Facebook and Instagram. This comes as no surprise as the user experience is vastly different. TikTok’s main feed, the “For You” page, (think a vertical format of Instagram’s Explore tab), has an incredible algorithm that learns the type of TikToks you like from how you engage on the app, and feeds you an endless amount of content catered toward your taste. 

Compared to other emerging social channels, TikTok’s strategy was to target Gen-Z instead of the whole world. Their efforts paid off. 69 percent of TikTok’s user base is 13-24 years old, from middle schoolers to people out in the workforce. This is the first platform Gen-Z can claim as their own. So how did TikTok ultimately explode among the younger generations and become the next big thing? Authenticity. 

TikTok thrives off of users being unapologetically themselves. Many people (myself included) downloaded TikTok as a joke, just to see the hype and make fun of the content. Joke’s on us because it turned into one of our most-used apps. From bad dance moves to showcasing “reasons they are still single,” no one is trying to craft a certain lifestyle and that’s refreshing. Gen-Z is said to be all about authenticity and that’s exactly what TikTok offers.

After they merged with Musical.ly, content on TikTok was mostly centered around lip syncing and dancing. As users started to carve out their own niches on TikTok, the lens expanded and now you can find comedy, news, cooking and so much more. Captions are concise and mostly used to provide context and encourage discovery. Nothing on TikTok is filtered or witty. People are there to produce and watch engaging content, a goal a lot of other social platforms have strayed away from. 

Breaking through the noise on YouTube has become increasingly difficult with the numerous established YouTubers and their massive subscriber bases. For a generation who watched YouTube to learn how to apply makeup or what hair products to buy, TikTok is a fresh incubator with far less competition. But most importantly, TikTok presents a unique opportunity to launch some of the next big celebrities.

Now to answer the most controversial question: is TikTok Vine for Gen-Z? Yes and no. 

Yes, both have performative content, based in pure fun. Both have their fair share of online creeps and privacy issues. Both help create overnight celebrities. However, Vines were limited to six seconds whereas a TikTok is 15-second clips that can be strung together to total up to a minute, allowing for more storytelling. 

TikTok and Vine share one fatal flaw. Neither can support creators’ desires to transform their accounts into sustainable income. That’s the whitespace YouTube is still capitalizing on, ultimately allowing it to thrive and TikTok to trail behind (for now).

Where do marketers fit in?

More and more brands such as the NBA and The Washington Post are building their organic presence. NFL just signed a multi-year partnership with them including not only in-app advertising placements but also activation opportunities at games.

Clothing brands such as Hollister and Guess have tested TikTok’s advertising and said to have seen success, so if your target includes Gen-Z, it’s worth testing. Don’t forget by the end of 2019 the Gen-Z population will outnumber millennials. However, with Facebook accounting for nearly 87 percent of US social network video ad revenue in 2018, it’s a hard sell for media planners as it requires a different strategy. 

Chipotle has participated through TikTok’s branded hashtag challenge ad offering. A challenge is focused around a popular song like Old Town Road or a hashtag like #TexasCheck, which prompts users to follow the theme of the content while putting their own personal spin on it. These have typically been seen to be favored by TikTok’s algorithm. 

Chipotle’s #GuacDance challenge annihilated all of TikTok’s previous records. The ad campaign itself not only drove over 250,000 video submissions and 430 million video starts during a six-day run, but also led to their largest National Avocado Day in history. 

While these numbers look impressive on paper, take them with a grain of salt. The #GuacDance challenged users to post a TikTok dancing to Dr. Jean’s guacamole song but many users used the hashtag to increase their chances at making the “For You” page. Instead, they uploaded videos unrelated to the challenge and slapped the hashtag on it. 


Just like one of Ben & Jerry’s famous ice cream flavors, TikTok is half baked. It has immense potential to be an unrelenting cultural force, but if it wants to make it out of this arena alive and into advertisers’ regular media plans, it needs to: 

  • Improve safety: First and foremost, TikTok must protect its users and their information as many creators don’t have faith in TikTok’s ability to do so. The company received backlash for having a predator problem as the app fails to remove users who comment or send sexually explicit messages. In addition, 38 percent refrain from advertising on TikTok because of brand safety concerns
  • Refine and make the ad platform public: The only way to run an ad on TikTok is through an insertion order (IO) with the company. It is working on a biddable platform but it’s currently in beta and only available to select brands. The granular targeting will allow for TikTok to be a stronger contender against other social media giants.
  • Monetize to sustain its creator base: Vine’s founders resisted monetization for so long before jumping on board. If TikTok wants to keep its creators long term, it needs to figure out how to pay creators sooner rather than later. Otherwise, they will cultivate a following and take them to the next hot channel that will pay them, leaving TikTok to the same fate as Vine (rest in peace).
Neeti Butala

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