TikTok may be the biggest social media winner of COVID-19 lockdowns. Even though its audience skews exceptionally young (e.g., 60 percent of users are between 16 and 24), it’s hard to have missed a viral video on the music-infused, short-form video platform formerly known as Musical.ly in the past few months.
Now with more than 800 million active users, the viral platform is moving beyond short dance videos reminiscent of the now-defunct Vine and into a broad category of influencers covering everything from cooking to digital learning.
TikTok may have a significant climb to reach the pantheon of Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube, which account for more than six billion active users between them. However, the platform relies on something that can’t be measured by conventional metrics —virality and popularity among young people.
It’s the cool new social media platform on the block — something that can no longer be ignored in the media world.
A distinct algorithm
One of the defining characteristics of TikTok is that it relies on a unique algorithm that presents content in a different way than most social media platforms. The algorithm subtly displays content based on user preferences with what Jesse Hirsh, an established social media researcher, calls an “incredible” signal to noise ratio.
The power is in the details, where TikTok’s algorithm has some oddly compelling byproducts that encourage users to post content. For example, content from people that a user follows is divested from the main feed of viral content. Influencers don’t necessarily have to cater to their audiences when posting a video for it to go viral — an area where it differentiates itself from apps like Instagram.
But what is most interesting is how common it is for new users to achieve impressive engagement numbers from the outset with a simple 10-second video.
Reasons for this have been described as the “slow burn” of the algorithm where videos with poor engagement numbers went on to garner thousands or millions of views days or weeks later rather than being shuttered to the content attic. Compounding views can also catapult a random video to users’ “For You” page that is based on user preferences, regardless of their follower list. Consequently, videos rely less on hashtags and can aggregate views over extended periods without an established follower base.
Since the videos are also only several seconds long, more content is churned throughout the platform at a higher clip. Compared to platforms like YouTube, which rely on longer engagement times, TikTok users can go viral much easier than other networks. And that’s precisely what ambitious teenagers are looking for. It’s also why 83 percent of users have posted a video — a telling metric.
Its popularity is exploding
Facebook’s moat of social media apps dominates the entire landscape. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger are four of the most actively downloaded non-gaming apps in the world. But guess who is poised to surpass them in downloads? That’s right: TikTok.
For context, TikTok ranked seventh in “The 10 Most Downloaded Apps of The 2010s” list from CNET. It finished ahead of both Twitter and YouTube, despite launching in 2016. Twitter launched in 2006 and YouTube in 2005.
When network effects are everything in social media, the notion that TikTok outpaced two social media behemoths in just under four years of going live is fairly amazing.
Leveraging digital marketing strategies often encompasses projecting a future landscape of media, influencers, and clever marketing tactics. There’s a compelling opportunity for media agencies to tap into TikTok’s snowballing growth right now.
Many people in older generations, even Millennials compared to their Gen Z counterparts, are entirely unaware of TikTok’s power or popularity. They blithely dismiss the platform as a venue for silly videos of teenagers and kids, but it’s much different now.
One of the most intriguing changes induced by COVID-19 was the transition of TikTok away from mostly dance videos and Vine-like content. It caters to social movements, professional engagement with audiences of people looking to learn something during the quarantine, and even subtle political critiques. And that’s where it has capitalized on a unique method of capturing people’s attention.
A unique market for capturing people’s attention
TikTok stands distinguished among its social media competitors. It may not be the digital forum for serious (and often toxic) debate like Twitter, which is now becoming a huge force in academia. And it may not be the ideal communication medium for real-time chats with friends like WhatsApp, which now comes included with a payment feature.
But it is addicting, just in its own way. Zoom calls with funny backgrounds became pretty dull during the doldrums of quarantine. Twitter is more fascinating than Zoom but is often mired in toxic political discourse. And Instagram isn’t nearly as entertaining when everyone is locked inside and not exploring the world. Enter TikTok.
Imagine a bartender out of a job, who decides to furnish drink-mixing tips to followers during quarantine, as many bartenders actually did. What’s the best platform to capture people’s attention: one where the algorithm displays short-form viral videos of newcomers persistently or YouTube? Or invite people to a Zoom call, which random people will likely not join?
What about someone who wants to mix music with fun cooking videos while everyone decides whether or not to order out or prepare the same meal again the next night? That’s what TikTok personalities like The Pasta Queen did. Exploding in popularity during quarantine, doubling her followers in the last three weeks alone, Nadia’s (The Pasta Queen) goofy Italian cooking videos have raked in views in recent months. Originally from Rome and now living in the US, The Pasta Queen is a microcosm for a class of new personalities emerging on TikTok that have smashed the viral, short-form style of TikTok with educational tips you’d find on some shelved YouTube video.
It’s an interesting dynamic, and also represents the global appeal of TikTok, which is widely popular not just in the US but also in India and China, which together, account for the bulk of its users. Expect creative professionals to gravitate towards TikTok in coming months, and away from more restrictive platforms like YouTube, which even saw the departure of podcast king Joe Rogan recently.
Creativity is where the clicks are
Piggybacking on the notion that TikTok is a black hole for young, ambitious personalities and professionals, its growing list of influencers may become the most dynamic in the social media space. More diverse influencers bring more diverse audiences and more advertising dollars. And It’s not just the users who gravitate to creative platforms (and the advertising dollars that follow them).
Content creators who want more flexibility to impress the up-and-coming Gen Z horde, which will soon be the largest consumer generation in the world, are pursuing TikTok aspirations. Social commerce is an unstoppable trend, and if you want to brand like Supreme, you need to appeal to Gen Z. With the promise of going viral for your first video, why would an aspiring influencer not at least give TikTok a try? After all, leading influencers on TikTok haul in some eye-popping revenue.
As a media professional, marketing aficionado, or advertising specialist, TikTok may currently fly under the radar of most conventional branding campaigns despite its surging popularity. Maybe due to a mix of its Tencent origins, pointed Congressional criticism, or young-skewed audience; it doesn’t matter anymore. TikTok has come out of the lockdowns as the dark horse platform to usurp the coveted circle of Facebook’s app hegemony. It’s now the king of creative social media content.
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